Henry Rathbone

The Lincoln assassination is a scary and tragic part of history. But one part that tends to get left out of the story is the life of Major Henry Rathbone, one of the individuals attending the play with Lincoln when the assassination occurred. The true history of Rathbone,_Henry_Reed (1)Henry Rathbone is chilling and seems like a tale out of a horror novel.

On April 14, 1865, Major Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford’s Theatre from President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

During the play, 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. 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. Booth nonetheless escaped, and remained at large for twelve days.

Despite his serious wound, Rathbone escorted Mary Lincoln to the Petersen House across the street, where the president had been taken. Shortly thereafter he passed out due to blood loss. Harris arrived soon after and held his head in her lap while he lay semiconscious. When a surgeon 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 Lincoln as Abraham lay dying over the next nine hours. This death vigil lasted through the night, until morning, when President Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Rathbone eventually healed back up to full physical health but the events of the night would leave him mentally haunted until his dark end. As time passed by, seventeen years to be exact, Rathbone traveled to Albany, New York, to the office of his wife’s uncle. Hamilton Harris was the man a younger Henry Rathbone studied law with and on this day, Rathbone was on his way back to Europe with his family. This time was different though, as Harris thought, Rathbone was ill and when asked what was wrong, Rathbone simply said it was dyspepsia which is a chronic ailment of the stomach.

By the fall of 1882, Rathbone was 45 years old and was constantly plagued by mysterious medical problems. One doctor that treated him described the attacks as “neuralgia of the head and face” and heart palpitations and difficulty breathing were also symptoms Rathbone suffered from. These are symptoms that we now might recognize at PTSD. Rathbone had changed the night of Lincoln’s assassination, his youth and hopes of a happy family life we’re taken from him. His wife often attested that he was just different, moodier and at times abusive.

In 1870, Rathbone retired from the Army due to his sickness. After Rathbone’s visit to Hamilton Harris’s office, Rathbone and his family set sail to Germany. After their arrival Rathbone’s health continued to fail. He became depressed and some people called him erratic. His marriage also suffered more and was tense much of the time.  As Rathbone’s depression got worse he was convinced that his wife was leaving him and taking the kids. He couldn’t bare to lose any semblance of the life he wished he could’ve lived.

Just before dawn, on Christmas Eve of 1883, Rathbone grabbed his revolver and knife and walked to his children’s bedroom. His wife was able to distract him and had him follow her into their bedroom and closed the door. It was there that Rathbone shot and stabbed Clara until she died. Rathbone then turned the knife on himself, a failed suicide attempt. When the police arrived at the murder scene, the bloody and dazed Rathbone reportedly claimed there had been people hiding behind the pictures on the wall.

News spread fast about the tragic events that took place in Germany. Dr. Pope said, “He never was thoroughly himself after that night [the assassination]…I have no hesitation in affirming that the dreaded tragedy, which preyed upon his nervous and impressionable temperament for many years, laid the seeds of that homicidal mania.” Henry Rathbone was declared insane and was never allowed to be prosecuted for the crime of murder. Rathbone, after recovering from his wounds was sent to live out his days in the Provincial Insane Asylum where he died on August 14, 1911.

Sometimes the saddest and scariest stories are the true ones.


This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween