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Henry Reed Rathbone - Stabbed by John Wilkes Booth

Henry Reed Rathbone - Stabbed by John Wilkes Booth American History American Presidents Biographies Nineteenth Century Life Ethics

Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancé, Clara Harris, were friends of President and Mrs. Lincoln.  They were attending the play with the first couple, at Ford’s Theatre, when John Wilkes Booth shot the President.

When Rathbone tried to apprehend Booth, the assassin used his Bowie knife to slash Rathbone’s left arm from his elbow to his shoulder.  Booth also slashed at Rathbone’s head.

Bleeding profusely from his own wounds, Rathbone escorted Mary Todd Lincoln to the Petersen Boarding House (across the street from the theater) where the President was fighting for his life.

With all eyes on the President, no one initially realized that Booth had slashed Rathbone’s artery just above the elbow.  He soon passed-out himself, due to loss of blood.  

Recovering from his physical wounds, Rathbone was not as fortunate with the emotional impact the assassination had on him.  He continued to believe that perhaps he could have done something to stop Booth from murdering Lincoln.

Resigning from the U.S. Army, in 1870, Rathbone continued to struggle with his mental well-being.  He had in mind that his wife, Clara, was cheating on him.  Despite these issues, President Chester Arthur gave Rathbone an assignment to Germany where he served as U.S. Consul to the Province of Hanover, beginning in 1882.

The change of scenery, and country, did nothing to help Rathbone recover his emotional and mental stability.  On the 23rd of December, 1883—some accounts give the date as the anniversary of Lincoln’s shooting, April 14, 1883— Rathbone attacked his wife—some accounts say he also attacked his children—during a fit of madness.  

Clara Harris Rathbone had no chance on that day.  Her husband stabbed, then shot her, to death.  He tried to kill himself, too, but his five self-inflicted stab wounds were non-fatal.  

Although he was initially charged with the murder of his wife, Rathbone was found to be insane.  Doctors had recommended a different course of action against him when Rathbone blamed the death of his wife on an intruder.  

He spent the rest of his life in an Asylum for the Criminal Insane in Hildesheim, Germany.  He died there, reportedly on the 14th of August, 1911. He was buried next to Clara in a German cemetery.

Years later, when no one visited the Rathbone graves, the cemetery's employees followed their normal regulations.  In 1952, the unvisited graves were opened and the remains of both Clara and Henry Rathbone were exumed, then cremated.


Media Credits

Photo of Henry Reed Rathbone, maintained at the Lincoln Museum (in Fort Wayne, Indiana); online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



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