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The feeling of guilt, whether justified or not, can eat away at a man’s mind. Such is the case of Henry Rathbone.
Rathbone, a native of Loudonville and son to former Albany Mayor Jared Rathbone, was a decorated soldier in the Union Army. He was educated at Churchill’s Military School in Ossining, then later graduated from Union College and Albany Law School. He was a captain in Company C, 12th U.S. Infantry during the Civil War He fought Confederate forces at Yorktown, Fredericksburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna River, Totopotomoy and Petersburg. He also commanded his company at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Through his service, Rathbone received three brevets for gallant and meritorious service and was promoted to major.
Rathbone, however, is remembered most as being among those present in President Abraham Lincoln’s press box on the night he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Henry Rathbone was born among Albany’s social elite on July 1, 1837. His father, Jared, was a provision merchant, director of the State Bank of Albany and of the Albany Insurance Company. He was also a trustee, and later, president of Albany Medical College. Jared holds the unique distinction of being the last Albany mayor to be chosen by the city’s common council, and the first to be elected by popular vote.
Mayor Rathbone was a member of the Whig party. The political party was popular under an anti-rent platform that combated against the patroon manor system commonly in place in the Hudson Valley since New York’s colonial days. His political allies included U.S. Representative John I. Slingerland, and prominent Albany judge and U.S. Senator Ira Harris.
The Anti-Rent movement was thrust into motion after the death of “The Last Patroon” Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839. In life, he was forgiving to his tenants, he accepted partial payment when times were tough and sometimes allowed rent to accumulate. When he died, however, his will called for the collection of all rent to offset the debts of his estate. When attempts were made to collect, tenants revolted resulting in a squirmish near Berne that pushed back a militia of 500 men led by the Albany County Sheriff. Renters soon relented, but the tension remained high, sparking future incidents between tenants and collectors. Harris was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1846. From that convention, tenants’ rights — including the abolition of feudal tenures and leases lasting longer than 12 years — was written into state law.
Ira Harris was a good friend of former state Governor and U.S. Senator William Seward. When Seward accepted his appointment as Lincoln’s Secretary of State in 1861, Harris took his seat on the Senate. He quickly developed a reputation for speaking his opinion, even if it was against popular view. He exhibited this trait before the president and the two later became close friends.
The United States was soon marred by a bitter civil war. Arguments over choosing which matters should be decided by state or federal law boiled over into a war between the remaining Union and the newly formed Confederacy. The war would last from 1861 to 1865. The end of which is widely remembered as being once General Robert E. Lee signed his formal surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Five days later, President Lincoln and his wife Mary were scheduled to attend a play at Ford’s Theatre.
In 1845, the Rathbone and Harris family ties intertwined. Henry Rathbone’s father died, as did
Harris’ wife and mother to his children, William and Clara. Harris subsequently married Henry’s mother, Pauline. The marriage was something like “The Brady Bunch,” said Mark Bodnar, past Historical Society president of the Town of Colonie.
“Clara developed feelings for Henry at a young age,” Bodnar said. “In time, Henry became attracted to Clara. Although they were not related by blood, as both step-brother and –sister, their soon-to-be courtship was frowned upon in many circles.”
It was years before any courtship took place. Rathbone briefly pursued a law career before taking off to tour Europe. He was called back to the United States with the prospect of earning an officer’s rank in the Union Army once war broke out. The romance between Rathbone and Harris did not blossom until after the two were in Washington. From there, it is said the First Lady took to the young couple. Clara described an exciting night with the Lincolns the night before their visit to the theatre in a letter to a friend.
People in Washington were excited about news suggesting an end to the Civil War. Lee had signed his surrender just a few days before, and Lincoln was expected to learn of details from other armies spread throughout the country. The war had taken a toll on Lincoln, but current events had livened his spirits.
Lincoln addressed a crowd gathered outside the executive mansion the night before. From the second floor window, he aroused cheers from the crowd. Clara witnessed it as she stood with Mrs. Lincoln from the window of an adjoining room. She wrote how she listened to him speak of “the events of the past fortnight, of his visit to Richmond, of the enthusiasm everywhere felt through the country.” Mary told her “the past few days” had been the happiest of her life.
The attempt on Lincoln’s life was one part of a larger scheme by Confederate sympathisers, with Booth as the ringleader. As Booth attended to Lincoln, co-conspirators targeted Seward and Vice President Andrew Jackson. Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the Union Army, was reportedly to attend Ford’s Theatre with Lincoln. However, Grant and his wife declined the invitation. Booth reportedly planned to have all four men killed to throw the North’s leadership is disarray and provide the South an opportunity to regroup.
Seward was attacked while nursing injuries from being thrown from his carriage a week before. He was gashed in the face with a knife before his attacker escaped. The attempt on Jackson’s life never happened. Rathbone and Harris accepted the Lincoln’s invitation to attend the show with them. Harris picked out a white satin dress for the night.
Booth could not keep quiet about his sympathy towards the Confederacy. He was in Albany when war broke out between the North and South. The actor reportedly angered the audience when he called the South’s cession “heroic.” His fame as an actor grew as he continued to perform to high acclaim throughout the country. His mouth landed him in trouble in Chicago, after wishing the country and the president would “burn in hell.” To escape the charge of treason, he pledged his allegiance to the Union along with paying a hefty fine. His anger towards the Union grew to rage as the Confederacy unraveled in 1865. He had initially attempted to kidnap Lincoln that March. He, along with his conspirators, were to ambush his carriage but the president’s plans changed. His plans to merely kidnap the president changed after Lee’s surrender. And, once Lincoln declared he would seek to have freed slaves obtain the right to vote, he planned on murder.
Moments before Lincoln was shot, a theatre usher witnessed Booth near Lincoln’s presidential box at Ford’s Theatre. Now a famous actor, his sight at the theatre was not surprising. He had performed on its stage before. His family was also friends with the theatre’s owner, John T. Ford. When the usher called his name, Booth reportedly produced a card and signed his name. He then disappeared behind the door leading to Lincoln’s box. John Frederick Parker, the policeman assigned to guard the door, had left his post at intermission to visit a local tavern.
Inside the president’s box was Lincoln, Mary, Harris and Rathbone. This was not the first time the young couple had attended a show with the Lincolns. According to Harris, it had developed into a regular occurrence since the two families both arrived to Washington D.C. at the same time. Nonetheless, in the same letter to her friend, Harris described another exciting scene as the four took their seats at the theatre. “The president was received with the greatest enthusiasm,” she stated, as he took his sit in a rocking chair from Ford’s home furniture. The joyous evening is said to have continued, with Mary continuously holding on to her husband as the two enjoyed the show. Conscious of her outward affections, she asked him, “What will Miss Harris think of me hanging on to you?” He smiled and said, “She won’t think anything about it.”
Shortly after 10 p.m., Booth slipped himself into the president’s box and barricaded the first of two doors leading inside. Familiar with the production on stage, “Our American Cousin,” it is said Booth timed his shot to occur at its funniest moment. As Lincoln joined the rest of the theatre in laughter, Booth struck with a loaded derringer.
“I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the president,” Rathbone said.Rathbone lunged towards Booth and initially seized him. Booth wrestled out of Rathbone’s grip, produced a knife and thrusted the blade towards his opponent’s chest. Rathbone said he “parried the blow by striking it up.” The move slashed the inside of his left arm, from his elbow to his shoulder, down to the bone. Despite the injury, Rathbone attempted to grab Booth a second time as the assailant jumped from the balcony and on to the stage before escaping.
“As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, ‘Stop that man,’” said Rathbone. “I then turned to the president; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed.”
Despite his injury, Rathbone helped assist transferring Lincoln out of the theatre. He crumpled to a heap, and only then was the seriousness of his injury known. Harris tended to her fiancé. Blood splashed onto her face, her dress, as she attempted to stop the bleeding with nothing but a handkerchief.
“My dress [was] saturated with blood, my hands and face were covered,” wrote Harris. “You may imagine what a scene, and so, all through that dreadful night when we stood by that dying bed. Poor Mrs. Lincoln was and is almost crazy.”
To the Ages
Lincoln died the next morning, his assassin’s bullet lodged in his head. Mary retreated back to life with her sons in Illinois, and was institutionalized 10 years later after her plans to commit suicide were thwarted by an astute pharmacist. She died on July 15, 1882, eleven years to the day after their youngest son, Tad, had died.
After a 12-day manhunt, Booth was found stowing away at a Virginia farm. Refusing to emerge from the tobacco barn in which he found refuge, he was shot and killed by Boston Corbett, a Union sargeant and one-time hatter in Troy.
Rathbone and Harris returned to Albany to heal. Harris was said to have kept her dress in a closet at their family’s cottage in Loudonville. Accordingly, she could not find herself to wash or discard it.
“It was also said that one year to the day after Lincoln’s assassination, a rocking chair in the same room where the dress was hanging in the closet began to rock all by itself and the ‘low laughter’ of President Lincoln was heard,” said Colonie Town Historian Kevin Franklin. “After this event the closet door was removed and the opening bricked up.”
The couple married a few years later and had three kids. Rathbone’s temperament grew volatile over time as he combated against several ailments. He was reportedly abusive towards Clara. He was jealous as men paid attention to her, and as she paid attention to their own children. He suspected Clara would leave him and take the children. And, through all this, he long felt guilt over not stopping Booth.
Rathbone was appointed as the U.S. Consul to the Province of Hanover by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. The following year, Rathbone shot and stabbed Clara to death and attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the chest five times. He survived only to be found guilty of murder, deemed insane and spent the next 27 years of his life in an asylum.
Nearly half a century after Lincoln’s murder, Henry Riggs Rathbone had the brick wall in his family’s Loudonville cottage broken down. His mother’s dress, still hanging inside the concealed closet, was dragged outside and burned. It had been nothing but a curse on the family.
Jack Geary Jr. said he was recently drawn into reading up on the history surrounding Lincoln. As security manager of both the Times Union and Albany Capital centers, he was intrigued by how freely the president and his wife traveled.
“We’re in a completely different time now,” said Geary.
In the years Geary has held his post, he has observed and devised security for high profile entertainers and dignitaries. Details of which he did not share, but he explained that where his responsibility lies within the venue, and those attending, there is another level of security implemented by those the crowds come to see. Looking back at the details surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 is a case of “hindsight” being “20/20.”
Many close confidants, including his wife, said Rathbone blamed himself for not stopping Booth. Despite his attempts to wrangle him down, and the near fatal wound he suffered as a result, he remained critical of himself in the years that followed. The court of public opinion, held by those who thought the war veteran should have done more, was just as critical. Geary said, “I don’t think it was fair.”
The security measures of today contrast the plans administered during Lincoln’s lifetime. Since Lincoln, the United States has suffered through two slain presidents and several more attempts. With the murder of John Lennon and other celebrities as well, high profile people are more likely to take precautions against the unthinkable. While the public could walk up to the front door of Lincoln’s White House a century ago, said Geary, a member of your favorite rock band is “all well-protected now.”
“The carefree goings-on in D.C. and how the president and Mary could go to a restaurant or a play without security,” said Geary. “It’s nowhere near as it is today.”
With Rathbone and Harris as guests of the president, the responsibility of security was never his. In today’s world, there would be “someone with [Lincoln] all the time,” said Geary. “Each dignitary has his own security.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.