William R. Rathvon

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William R. Rathvon was the only eyewitness who heard Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to leave an audio recollection

William Roedel Rathvon, CSB, (December 31, 1854 – March 2, 1939), sometimes incorrectly referred to as William V. Rathvon or William V. Rathbone, is the only known eyewitness to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, of the over 10,000 witnesses, to have left an audio recording describing that experience. He made the recording in 1938, a year before his death. A graduate of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a successful businessman, he became a practitioner of Christian Science healing, served as a public lecturer, Church treasurer and director of The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts. He was treasurer from 1911 until he was elected to the Church's Board of Directors, on which he served from 1918 until his death in 1939. From 1908 to 1910 he was correspondence secretary for Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.[1] He also authored "The Devil's Auction"[2] often republished without attribution as "The Devil's Garage Sale".

Early years[edit]

Rathvon was born in 1854 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,[3] where he attended grammar school and college. His mother had met his father while attending the Lutheran College in Gettysburg and her entire family, the Forneys, resided in and around Gettysburg.

Rathvon hears Lincoln at Gettysburg[edit]

On November 19, 1863, four months after the historic Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the dedication of the National Cemetery to the soldiers who had fallen in what is widely acknowledged as the greatest battle of the Civil War (in terms of the total number of troops engaged and casualties on both sides, the intensity of the fighting, and the strategic and emotional significance of the outcome) as well as the point at which the war turned in favor of the Union and permanently against the Confederacy. Among those thousands was nine-year-old William Rathvon, who with his family had traveled from nearby Lancaster to hear President Lincoln speak.

In a 30-minute recording, Rathvon describes searching the battlefield for souvenirs with his friends and finding Confederate muskets thrown into the bottom of a creek. He also describes the experiences of his relatives during the battle, including his uncle’s farm being used as the headquarters for Confederate General Richard Ewell and his grandmother hiding Union soldiers from capture by Southern troops.

Like most people who came to Gettysburg, the Rathvon family was aware that the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was going to make some remarks. The family went to the town square where the procession was to form to go out to the cemetery that had not been completed yet. At the head of the procession rode Abraham Lincoln on a gray horse preceded by a military band that was the first the young boy had ever seen. Rathvon describes Lincoln as so tall and with such long legs that they went almost to the ground; he also mentions the long eloquent speech given by Edward Everett of Massachusetts whom Rathvon accurately described as the "most finished orator of the day." Rathvon then goes on to describe how Lincoln stepped forward and "with a manner serious almost to sadness, gave his brief address."[4] During the delivery, along with some other boys, young Rathvon wiggled his way forward through the crowd until he stood within 15 feet of Mr. Lincoln and looked up into what he described as Lincoln's "serious face." Rathvon recalls candidly that, although he listened "intently to every word the president uttered and heard it clearly," he explains, "boylike, I could not recall any of it afterwards." But he explains that if anyone said anything disparaging about "honest Abe," there would have been a "junior battle of Gettysburg." In the recording Rathvon speaks of Lincoln's speech allegorically "echoing through the hills."

Education and career[edit]

Rathvon attended Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania[3] from 1870 to 1873. By the early 1890s he was in Colorado working as a successful businessman until he was wiped out financially in the Panic of 1893.[3] Visiting Chicago soon after with his wife, they became acquainted with Christian Science, and his wife turned to it for healing. He attended the Massachusetts Metaphysical College's primary class in 1903 and returned for the normal (teachers) class in 1907.[3] From 1908 to 1910 he was a corresponding secretary to Mary Baker Eddy.[1] He remained active in the Christian Science church from that time on until his death, holding a number of positions: member of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship (1911–18); editor, director, and treasurer of The Mother Church (1918); and trustee of the Christian Science Benevolent Association and the Christian Science Pleasant View Home Association. He wrote for the Christian Science Journal and Christian Science Sentinel, two of the church's periodicals. He also lectured on Christian Science, travelling extensively and he taught classes on the subject until his death in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1939. He wrote "The Devil's Auction" in 1911,[2] an allegory that has been widely copied, often with modifications, and used in sermons as "The Devil's Garage Sale", its origin assumed to be author unknown.[5][6][7][8]

Marriage and family[edit]

Rathvon was married three times. In 1877 he married Lillie K. Stauffer and they had one son. Lillie Rathvon died in 1880 and in 1883 he married Ella J. Stauffer. She died in 1923 and two years later he married Lora C. Woodbury.[3] William Rathvon died on March 2, 1939 age 84.

Rathvon's recorded reminiscences of Lincoln's Address[edit]

As a senior official of the Christian Science church, Rathvon had access to the best quality recording devices of his time. Mr. Rathvon's reminiscences were recorded at the Boston studios of radio station WRUL[1][3] on February 12, 1938; hence the quality of the 78rpm record.

The Rathvon audio recollections were known by an extremely small circle of individuals from the time of their recording in 1938. To Rathvon, they were incidental to what he felt were his more important church-work responsibilities. He made the recording for historical posterity. He, himself, never promoted them, or even promoted the idea that he had made them nor sold them. He seems to have wanted to preserve them for posterity and he died the following year, 1939. As tens of thousands of people heard the Gettysburg address and even as late as 1900, significant people in Lincoln's life, the Civil War Federal Army and even Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay, were still very active in government as Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, for most of Rathvon's life, there were literally thousands of witnesses to the event. Consequently, in the years leading up to the 1930s, it probably didn't occur to him to attempt to preserve his recollections for posterity. But with improvements in and access to the recording technology by the late 30s, and his advancing age, it was no surprise, that making a recording happened only a year before his death. Clearly, his position as one of five managers of his church kept him fully occupied right up to his death.

Preserving the recording[edit]

As a teacher of Christian Science, Rathvon was required to organize an association of his students for whose training and support his was a lifelong commitment and for whom he was required hold an annual reunion at which time he was also required to give an annual address. Typically, a Christian Science teacher's association survives them and continues to meet annually for many years. Surviving for many years after Rathvon died in 1939, his association of students continued to distribute copies of this recording for many years. Some recordings invariably ended up in the estates of deceased students whose families had no information on the original source of the recording. The recording that was sent to National Public Radio was just such a recording and the family had lost track of the story behind it. All the family knew was that they had in their possession a recording by a man named Rathvon who claimed to have heard Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. Because a number of copies of the recording exist, it continues to surface from time to time and be "rediscovered."

Rathvon's recording resurfaces[edit]

In the late 1990s, a copy of Rathvon's recording was sent to National Public Radio, "NPR," during their "Quest for Sound" project. NPR aired it after doing some background research and continues to air it around Lincoln's birthday.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Longyear Museum, Description of CD". Retrieved January 13, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Longyear Museum, Description of Booklet". Retrieved July 17, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f We Knew Mary Baker Eddy. Vol. II, expanded, pp. 510-511. Christian Science Publishing Society (2013)
  4. ^ "Lost and Found Sound: An American Record Transcript", National Endowment for the Humanities.
  5. ^ Introduction "Yates II, John - Overcoming Discouragement", Preaching Today's Sermons. Retrieved January 13, 2011
  6. ^ "The Devil's Garage Sale" Franklin Road Baptist Church, Indianapolis, Indiana (September 18, 1995) Retrieved January 13, 2011
  7. ^ "Devil's garage sale" Beyond the Sunday School blog. (February 4, 2010) Retrieved January 13, 2011
  8. ^ "The Devil's Garage Sale" Orfa's Virtual Journey blog. (October 17, 2010) Retrieved January 13, 2011

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