Henry Rathbone

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Henry Rathbone
Rathbone, Henry Reed.jpg
Birth nameHenry Reed Rathbone
Born(1837-07-01)July 1, 1837
Albany, New York, U.S.
DiedAugust 14, 1911(1911-08-14) (aged 74)
Hildesheim, Prussia, Germany
Stadtfriedhof Engesohde (disinterred in 1952)
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service1861–1870
RankUnion Army colonel rank insignia.png Brevet Colonel
Unit12th U.S. Infantry
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War
(m. 1867; died 1883)
RelationsIra Harris (stepfather)
Henry Riggs Rathbone (son)
Other workAttorney, U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany

Henry Reed Rathbone (July 1, 1837 – August 14, 1911) was a United States military officer and diplomat who was present at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone was sitting with his fiancée, Clara Harris, next to the President and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, when John Wilkes Booth entered the president's box at Ford's Theatre and fatally shot Lincoln in the head. When Rathbone attempted to prevent Booth from fleeing the scene, Booth stabbed and seriously wounded him.

Early life and military career[edit]

Henry Rathbone was born in Albany, New York, one of four children of Jared L. Rathbone, a merchant and wealthy businessman, who later became Albany's mayor, and Pauline Rathbone (née Penney).[1] Upon his father's death in 1845, Rathbone inherited the very considerable sum of US$200,000 (equivalent to $5,500,000 in 2019). His widowed mother, Pauline Rathbone, married Ira Harris in 1848. Ira Harris was appointed U.S. Senator from New York after William H. Seward became President Lincoln's Secretary of State. Harris was a widower with four children whose wife Louisa had also died in 1845.[2][3] As a result of this marriage, Ira Harris became Rathbone's stepfather, and his daughter, Clara, became Rathbone's stepsister. Although this unusual series of events made them stepbrother and stepsister, they were not related by blood.[4] Rathbone and Harris formed a close friendship and later fell in love. The two became engaged shortly before the American Civil War.[5]

Rathbone studied law at Union College and briefly worked in a law partnership in Albany before entering the Union Army at the start of Civil War.[6] During the war, Rathbone served as Captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment and was at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg.[7] By the war's end, he had attained the rank of major.

Lincoln assassination[edit]

On April 14, 1865, Rathbone and Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford's Theatre from President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. The couple, who had been friends with the President and his wife for some time, were invited after Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia, Thomas Eckert, and several others had declined Mrs. Lincoln's invitation.[8]

Dagger used by Booth to attack Rathbone.

During the play, at about 10:14 pm, noted stage actor John Wilkes Booth entered the Presidential box and fatally shot Lincoln in the head with a pistol. As Rathbone attempted to apprehend Booth, Booth slashed Rathbone's left arm with a dagger from the elbow to his shoulder. Rathbone later recalled that he was horrified at the anger on Booth's face.[9][10][11] Rathbone again grabbed at Booth as Booth prepared to jump from the sill of the box. He grabbed onto Booth's coat, causing Booth to fall awkwardly to the stage, perhaps breaking his leg, though some conspiracy theorists said that the injury did not occur until later. Booth nonetheless escaped, and remained at large for twelve days.[12][13]

Despite his serious wound, Rathbone escorted Mary Lincoln to the Petersen House across the street, where the president had been taken.[14] Shortly thereafter he passed out due to blood loss.[15] Harris arrived soon after and held his head in her lap while he lay semiconscious. When surgeon Charles Leale who had been attending Lincoln finally examined him, it was realized that his wound was more serious than initially thought. Booth had cut him nearly to the bone and severed an artery. Rathbone was taken home while Harris remained with Mary Todd Lincoln as the President lay dying over the next eight hours.[16] This death vigil lasted through the night until morning, when Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.[17]

Diplomatic career and mental decline[edit]

Although Rathbone's physical wounds healed, his mental state deteriorated in the years following Lincoln's death as he anguished over his perceived inability to thwart the assassination attempt.[18] He married Harris on July 11, 1867, and the couple had three children: Henry Riggs (born February 12, 1870, who later became a U.S. Congressman), Gerald Lawrence (born August 26, 1871), and Clara Pauline (born September 15, 1872).[19]

Rathbone resigned from the Army in 1870, having risen to the rank of brevet colonel.[20] After his resignation, he struggled to find and keep a job due to his mental instability. He became convinced that Harris was unfaithful. He also resented the attention Harris paid their children and reportedly threatened his wife on several occasions after suspecting that she was going to divorce him and take the children.[11] Nonetheless, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Rathbone as U.S. Consul to the Province of Hanover in 1882. The family relocated to Germany, where Rathbone's mental health continued to decline.[21]

On December 23, 1883, Rathbone attacked his children in a fit of madness. Rathbone fatally shot and stabbed his wife, who was attempting to protect the children. He then stabbed himself five times in the chest in an attempted suicide.[22] He was charged with murder but was declared insane by doctors after blaming the murder on an intruder. He was convicted and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany. The couple's children were sent to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States.[11]

Final years, death and exhumation[edit]

Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum. He died on August 14, 1911, and was buried next to his wife in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde.[11] As time passed, the cemetery management, looking over records concerning plots without recent activity or family interest, decided in 1952 that both sets of remains could be exhumed and disposed of.[23]


On film and television Rathbone has been portrayed by:

The biography of Henry Rathbone, his experience at the Lincoln Assassination and the murder of Clara Harris is covered in the non-fiction book Worst Seat in the House: Henry Rathbone's Front Row View of the Lincoln Assassination by Caleb Stephens.[24]

Rathbone and Harris are also the subjects of Henry and Clara (1994, published by Ticknor & Fields), a historical fiction novel by Thomas Mallon.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Essex Institute Historical Collections. Essex Institute Press. 1891. p. 165.
  2. ^ Seward, Frances Adeline (1963). Johnson, Patricia Carley (ed.). Sensitivity and Civil War, the Selected Diaries and Papers, 1858–1866, of Frances Adeline (Fanny) Seward. 2. University of Rochester. p. 719.
  3. ^ Ham, Mrs. Thomas H. (1904). A Genealogy Of the Descendants Of Nicholas Harris, M.D. C.I.F. Ham. p. 18.
  4. ^ Pappas, Theodore (August 21, 1994). "Henry And Clara's Cruel Fate". chicagotribune.com. p. 1. Retrieved January 3, 2014.
  5. ^ Pappas, Theodore (August 21, 1994). "Henry And Clara's Cruel Fate". chicagotribune.com. p. 1. Retrieved May 1, 2013.
  6. ^ Wright, John D. (2012). The Routledge Encyclopedia of Civil War Era Biographies. Routledge. p. 491. ISBN 978-1-136-33150-3.
  7. ^ Ruane, Michael E. (April 5, 2009). "A Tragedy's Second Act". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 19, 2011.
  8. ^ Steers, Edward (2005). Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-813-19151-3.
  9. ^ "What Booth Said After He Killed Lincoln".
  10. ^ Lachman, Charles (2008). The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family. Sterling Publishing Company. p. 288. ISBN 978-1-402-75890-4.
  11. ^ a b c d Hatch, Frederick (2011). Protecting President Lincoln: The Security Effort, the Thwarted Plots, and the Disaster at Ford's Theatre. McFarland. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-786-46362-6.
  12. ^ Jones, Mark; Johnstone, Peter (2011). History of Criminal Justice. Elsevier. pp. 274–275. ISBN 978-1-437-73497-3.
  13. ^ Kauffman, Michael W. (2007). American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. Random House LLC. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-307-43061-8.
  14. ^ Reck, Waldo Emerson (1987). A. Lincoln, His Last 24 Hours. McFarland. p. 126. ISBN 0-899-50216-4.
  15. ^ Bain, Robert T. (2005). Lincoln's Last Battleground: A Tragic Night Recalled. AuthorHouse. p. 19. ISBN 1-467-02991-2.
  16. ^ Kauffman (2007) p.37
  17. ^ Richard A. R. Fraser, MD (February–March 1995). "How Did Lincoln Die?". American Heritage. 46 (1).
  18. ^ "The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln", National Geographic Channel. Retrieved March 18, 2012
  19. ^ Talcott, Sebastian V. (2001). Genealogical Notes of New York and New England Families. Heritage Books. p. 637. ISBN 0-788-41956-0.
  20. ^ Jampoler, Andrew C. A. (2008). The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt's Flight from the Gallows. Naval Institute Press. p. 182. ISBN 978-1-591-14407-6.
  21. ^ Steers, Edward (2010). The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia. HarperCollins. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-061-98705-2.
  22. ^ Swanson, James L. (2009). Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase to Catch Lincoln's Killer. HarperCollins. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-061-80397-0.
  23. ^ Smith, Gene (February–March 1994). "The Haunted Major". American Heritage. 45 (1): 2.
  24. ^ "Worst Seat in the House". Archived from the original on August 19, 2014. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
  25. ^ De Haven, Tom (August 19, 1994). "Thomas Mallon". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved January 3, 2014.

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