Rathbone Ends Long List Of Lincoln Party Tragedies

This was new to me: the night Abraham Lincoln was shot, there was actually another couple in the private box with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre, and it turns out that their story is even more gruesome than the Lincons’ story. In fact, it seems that anyone who was in that box that night met bizarre or early death. On the occasion of the death of Major Henry Rathbone, the last survivor from the box, the Sunday Magazine reviewed the events of that day, and the fates of all who were there.

On April 14, 1865, there were four people seated in the box at the theatre. “The President sat in the corner nearest the audience, Mrs. Lincoln next to him; Miss Clara Harris sat near Mrs. Lincoln, and behind her young Major Rathbone.” The latter two were step-siblings who had fallen in love. “The President and Mrs. Lincoln had a warm liking for the pair, and had invited them to share the box.”

After the play began, John Wilkes Booth entered from the ante-room adjoining the box and fired his shot into the President’s head. Rathbone lunged at him, but Booth slipped away, shouted “The South is avenged!” (according to this article, but “Sic semper tyrannus!” according to most sources) and jumped over the box. An actress on stage named Laura Keene urged everyone to remain calm. Clara Harris, “from the box, called to her to bring water. She ran and got some and flew up the stairs to the box.” And now there were five people in the box: the President, his wife, the young couple in love, and Laura Keene.

Here were five people shut up together with the crime. The curse was upon them all. Not one of them — and they all had fame, wealth, happiness, and love apparently within their grasp — failed to come to a tragic or untimely end.

All the world knows that Lincoln died early the next morning, without having regained consciousness. His wife was for a long time prostrated. For several weeks she was confined to her bed. Then she bestirred herself so far as to go over the personal effects of her husband, giving mementos to his closest friends. When this duty was done she returned to Illinois to spend the rest of her days in melancholy.

Not much has been told of Mrs Lincoln’s after life — there was not much, for that matter, to tell. No wife could ever have really recovered from the shock of such a tragedy, and Mrs. Lincoln rallied even more slowly than was hoped. She never came out altogether from the cloud, and as her years increased her melancholy grew. She had a horror of meeting people, yet in her disordered brain the idea remained that there were imperative social duties that must be attented to. She would order gowns and concern herself wearily with preparations for some phantom function. Then the gowns would be sent away, unworn, and she would brood until again she felt that she must attend to her duties, and the same dreary business would begin again. Thus she ended her days, blighted from the moment that Booth stood a few feet behind her chair and took his aim.

Mrs. Lincoln lived until she was 63, but towards the end of her life she was suicidal and delusional. After one suicide attempt, her son Robert had her institutionalized. See Wikipedia for more details. But first read on for the fates of the others in the box. It gets worse.

Miss Keene was a woman of stern stuff, “as fitted,” said one who knew her “to act a part in tragedy off the stage as on.” Self control was natural to her. Alone of all the people in the theatre she had known what to do and had done it. But strong natures do not fail to suffer from such repression.

Her daughter was at school near Washington, and the next day hastened to her mother. “As I spoke to her,” says the girl, “she trembled from head to foot. She could not speak. To hearten her I said, ‘Mother, where is your old-time courage?’ But it was no use.” Laura Keene had received her death blow, too. She lived, it is true, for several years and worked hard and successfully, as she always did, but the nerve had gone. She could no longer stand the strain that she had once borne bravely and, worn out, she died at the age of forty-four, at the height of her career, another victim of Wilkes Booth. [She died of tuberculosis.]

The two lovers, Miss Harris and Major Rathbone, left the theatre and made their way through the frenzied crowd on the streets broken with grief and shock. But they had each other, they had wealth and position and all the good things of life. They never thought as they turned from the place of crime and death that over them hung a fate more awful than they had seen befall him they held the best of men…

Major Rathbone was appointed Consul in Germany and the pair lived as happily as had been prophesied. But the husband added to his devotion to his wife a great and perfectly unreasonable jealousy. As time went on he developed fits of temper, enough to make their friends class him as “peculiar.” Perhaps they added: “And it seems to grow on him,” but none were prepared for the tragedy that followed. One day the news came from Germany that Mr. Rathbone had killed his wife and committed suicide. Nobody believed it. It was some other person or name; everybody knew the devotion of the Rathbones. Then official documents came, and there was no longer any doubt. Henry Rathbone had indeed murdered his wife, but thought he was thought to be dying from his own wound he was not yet dead. The letter added that Mrs. Rathbone’s sister and the children had “escaped.”

Escaped what, asked everybody, horrified and puzzled. It was only after many delays that the full truth came to this country. Specialists had examined Rathbone, and declared that he had long been insane. It was not mere temper, but a disordered mind that his friends had noted for so many years. How long had he been insane? The experts could not say. But probably the murderer who stole into Lincoln’s box that night had brought madness to the young man, and a death unspeakably awful to the girl he loved…

Thus four persons who were bespattered by the blood Booth shed that night have found a tragic end, four persons who were not only innocent of all wrong-doing, but who had every gift a fortunate fate could bring. There remains the murderer, man gifted as few have been with beauty and charm and genius. Everybody loved Wilkes Booth. His friends could never believe that he acted on his own initiative in the matter of the conspiracy…

Booth fled the theater and made his way to a farm in Virginia, where he was eventually hunted down by the Union Army and shot on site. The soldier who killed him was named Boston Corbett. His story, too, took a tragic twist:

Not quite yet is the story of horror ended. The man who shot Booth, Boston Corbett, was popular with his fellow soldiers, deeply religious, but not, they said, without plenty of humor. He had kept up their spirits on many a hard march. He went to Kansas, was [afflicted] with homicidal mania, and died raving mad in an asylum, the last victim of the curse.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

RATHBONE ENDS LONG LIST OF LINCOLN PARTY TRAGEDIES: All Who Were With the President When He Was Assassinated Met Death in Some Unusual or Tragic Manner (PDF)

From September 4, 1910

9 responses to “Rathbone Ends Long List Of Lincoln Party Tragedies”

  1. My goodness, that IS a curse! I’d never heard this sotry before. Thanks for posting it! πŸ™‚


  2. Wow, I never knew about this. That is why I love your blog!!


  3. I resolve never to go to theatre with anyone who started a war.


  4. Tremendously moving. Magnificent blog.


  5. Wow is that Larry King asking the question at the end?


  6. I knew about Mrs L of course, and Boston Corbett, but I had never heard about the fates of Rathbone and Miss Harris.
    General Grant had turned down an invitation to attend with the Lincolns that evening due to an earlier commitment. General Burnside was in the audience that night.
    Lincoln loved the theater and had attended many times…he had actually seen a performance by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s about two years earlier.


  7. Actually it’s thought that Mrs L had said something very insulting or hurtful to Mrs Grant earlier that day (Julia Grant couldn’t stand Mary Lincoln anyway), so the Grants decided to decline and take the train to visit their son in NJ instead.
    The President had invited a dozen other people to go with him that night, all had declined, many because they didn’t want to spend the evening with Mrs L. The Lincoln’s son Robert also declined, having just returned from the front lines and wanting to rest.
    Booth had thought General Grant would be in the box with the Lincolns as well, until that afternoon…while he was on his way to the theater, he saw the Grants in their carriage heading down Pennsylvania Ave to the RR station.


  8. The Magazine article says at the end that Booth’s body was thrown overboard at night, location unknown. That’s not true. He was taken back to DC where a careful identification and autopsy were performed, several of his vertebrae were removed, and can be seen to this day in Washington.
    In 1869, after IDing the remains again, the govt released his body to the Booth family, and he was buried in the family plot in Baltimore.


  9. Couple of things. First, Booth had cut a block of wood, which he used to wedge the last door he had to enter to the presidents’ box. This wedge made it nearly impossible to open that door. Miss Keene certainly did not stroll into the box with a glass of water, as this writer claims (the first people to enter the box, physicians, had to be lifted up on men’s shoulders and crawl over the front of the box.
    The second thing is just an FYI about Boston Corbett: seems he was such a religious zealot that, on one occasion being disgusted by his sexual arousal to a woman, he castrated himself! Also, he was institutionalized for mental illness but escaped and his fate has never been known.


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