Henry Reed Rathbone: an Albany Native and His Intimate Connection with Lincoln’s Assassination
Albany’s Henry Reed Rathbone and the Lincoln Assassination
Albany’s Connection to a Tragic Part of History
Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the details of Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination. Whether from paying attention during American history class or watching Steven Spielberg’s vastly popular 2012 film Lincoln, people are generally aware that Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth during a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. Lincoln died of the gunshot wound inflicted by Booth, making him the first American president to be assassinated.
What many people might not know is that Albany native Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris attended the performance with the Lincolns on that fateful night, and were sitting in the presidential box with the president and his wife when the assassination took place. And while the assassination famously ended Lincoln’s life, it dramatically and disturbingly altered Rathbone’s as well.
Henry Reed Rathbone was born in 1837 and raised in Albany. His father, Jared Rathbone, was a successful merchant and businessman and served as the mayor of Albany from 1838 to 1841. He died when Rathbone was just 17 years old, leaving him a substantial amount of money. Pauline Rathbone, Henry Reed Rathbone’s mother, later remarried Ira Harris, a U.S. Senator from New York. Harris’s daughter, Clara, became Rathbone’s stepsister and, eventually, his love interest. (Henry was also a very distant cousin of legendary actor Basil Rathbone, known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1930s and 1940s).
After attending Union College and practicing law in Albany for a few years, Rathbone joined the U.S. Army and fought in the Civil War. He rose in rank from Captain to Major over the course of the war. Following the war, much to the dismay of their parents since the two were raised almost as brother and sister, Rathbone and Harris became engaged.
Rathbone’s mother (who was also Harris’s stepmother) was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Harris’s father was a U.S. Senator, so Harris was often invited to prestigious social functions and get-togethers at the White House. On April 14, 1865, Harris and her new fiancé were invited to attend a performance of the play Our American Cousin with the Lincolns. The Lincolns had invited various people to attend the performance with them, including Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, but all had declined. Ultimately, Rathbone and Harris accepted and were seated with the president and his wife in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater.
It was during this performance that John Wilkes Booth snuck into the presidential box and shot President Lincoln in the back of the head. Determined to capture Booth, Rathbone struggled with him and was severely injured when Booth stabbed him multiple times with a dagger. Out of the injured Rathbone’s grasp, Booth leapt from the balcony onto the stage and fled. He evaded authorities for almost two weeks before he was caught.
Lincoln died of his wound early the next morning. Rathbone recovered from his physical injuries sustained in the incident but was haunted by the assassination and tortured by the notion that he had failed the president because he was unable to protect him and prevent the assassination. His mental health deteriorated over time, though he tried to maintain a normal life. He married Clara Harris in 1867 and they had three children together. Still, Rathbone could not get past the guilt and trauma of Lincoln’s assassination and suffered from delusions and panic attacks throughout his life.
In 1882, Rathbone relocated with his family to Hanover, Germany, after he had been appointed U.S. Consul. Rathbone’s mental struggle culminated on December 25, 1883. After threatening to kill their children, Rathbone turned the gun on his wife and shot her. He then attempted suicide, stabbing himself six times. Rathbone’s attack on his wife and himself was eerily similar to Booth’s attack on Lincoln and Rathbone 18 years earlier. Harris died of her injuries but Rathbone survived and was later tried for the murder of his wife. He was found guilty and was admitted to an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany, where he lived for the rest of his life. His children were sent to live with their uncle, William Harris. Rathbone never regained his sanity and died in 1911.
Though Rathbone and Harris were intimately tied to the event, their sad, shocking and disturbing story unraveled on the periphery of the President’s death. Their lives were irreparably altered by Lincoln’s assassination, and the tragic story of these two one-time Albany residents—unbeknownst to most—is intertwined with the piece of Lincoln’s history we know so well.
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