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The Haunted Major

Henry Reed Rathbone was born in Albany, NY,  on July 1, 1837,  the son of Jared Lewis Rathbone and Pauline Noyes Penney Rathbone.  His father was a successful merchant who was the last mayor of Albany chosen by the Albany Common Council, as well as the first mayor of Albany elected by popular vote in 1839.  Jared died in 1845 when Henry was just eight years old.  At the time of his father’s death Henry inherited the considerable sum of two hundred thousand dollars from his family’s estate.  In 1848, his widowed mother remarried Ira Harris, a widower and prominent judge in Albany, thus uniting two of the most illustrious families of Albany at that time.  Judge Harris’ family included a son William, and three daughters, Clara, Amanda, and Louise. The former Pauline Rathone had two sons, Henry and Jared.  The children virtually grew up together.  Henry and Clara became best friends and although in their youth, Henry had been essentially Clara’s little brother, as they grew up, they became attracted to one another, fell in love, and eventually planned to be married.

Henry studied law at Union College in Schenectady, NY where he joined the Sigma Phi Society and his step-father, a Union alumnus, served on the Board of Trustees.  After Henry’s graduation in 1857, he briefly worked in a law partnership with his step-uncle William H. Seward who had become Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

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Old Union College Building Corner of Union & College Streets


At the start of the American Civil War, Henry was commissioned as Captain and was responsible for raising the 12th infantry regiment from New York which he later joined during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862.  His regiment fought battles at Antietam under General Ambrose E. Burside, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg.  Records don’t indicate that Henry was ever in the thick of combat, but they do show the toil the war took on him.  His physical health, never robust, suffered from fever and repeated attacks of some sort of wasting and debilitating disease.  For the rest of the war, Henry served in Washington in the Disbursing branch under the Provost Marshal.  By the war’s end in 1865, having gained respect as a brilliant and brave young officer, he had attained the rank of Major.

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Henry & Clara


Major Henry Rathbone and Miss Clara Harris were newly engaged in 1865.  Henry, an intense-looking young man with receding, wavy auburn hair, held a desk job in the army.  Clara, now a cultured, self-assured woman, traveled in the highest Washingon social circles and attended various gatherings hosted by Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House.

On April 14, 1865 at 8:00 PM, President and Mrs. Lincoln planned to see the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre with General and Mrs Ulysses S. Grant.  That day General Grant and his wife Julia expressed their regrets at being unable to join the Lincoln party as they had to catch the 6 o’clock train to Burlington, New Jersey that evening.  Speaker of the House of Representative, Schyler Colfax, had earlier been invited, but he was leaving on a trip to the West Coast.  Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, and telegraphy chief, Major Thomas Eckert, both declined their theater invitations.  The Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd, just back from service as a staff officer with General Grant, told his parents he preferred to relax at home.  Just when it seemed like everyone in Washington was leary of attending the theater with the Lincolns, Mary Lincoln sought out as guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée (and stepsister) Clara Harris.  The Major had the sort of physical presence Lincoln might need in a bodyguard, should such services be required and the First Lady was fond of Clara with whom she enjoyed an almost mother-daughter relationship.  Henry and Clara graciously accepted Mrs. Lincoln’s last minute invitation.

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Lincoln’s Carriage


At 8:20 on the damp, chilly night of April 14, 1865, Abraham and Mary Lincoln pulled up in their carriage outside the Senator Harris’ home to pick up Henry and Clara, their theater guests for the evening.

The play had started when the foursome arrived, but the performance stopped when the president entered.  The audience stood and cheered, and the orchestra played Hail to the Chief.  The entrourage made its way to the presidential box where the president took a seat in a red horsehair-upholstered rocking chair reserved for his personal use and located next to the door.  His wife sat in chair to his right.  Clara was perched prettily on a chair next to Mrs. Lincoln and Henry was seated on an ornate,  red velvet, walnuit sofa just behind Clara.  (this sofa is the only piece of furniture from that night still on display at Ford’s Theatre.)

At 10:13 PM, during Act 3, Scene 2, John Wilkes Booth surreptitiously entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln with a Derrigner pistol.  As bluish smoke from the weapon that had sent a nickel-sized ball into the President’s head swirled about the box, Henry stood up and grappled with the assassin who wrested himself from his grasp.  In addition to the derringer, Booth also carried a kind of Bowie knife which he plunged toward Henry.  “I parried the blow by striking it up,” Henry remarked later.  But the blade cut into the inside of his left arm near his armpit.  It pierced his biceps and grazed the bone a fraction of an inch from two major blood vessels. Henry staggered back, and then bravely lunged forward, knocking Booth off balance as he leapt from the box onto the stage to flee out a back alley exit, reputedly crying out, “Sic semper tyrannis,” then “The South is avenged.”

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The box was now in chaos.  Lincoln sat slumped in his chair, eyes closed.  Clara screamed, “The president is shot!” blood was everywhere…most of it from Henry’s six stab wounds.  It soaked Clara’s dress, and streaked her hands and face.  Henry struggled to open a door to the box that Booth had wedged closed with a piece of music stand.  In rushed doctors and soldiers.  Mary Lincoln was hysterical as the physicians laid the president on the floor.

The doctors decided that Lincoln was too badly wounded to be transported to the White House so they had the dying president taken across the street to a boarding house  owned by William Petersen.   There Clara remained in the front parlor with Mrs. Lincoln during a somber nine hour death vigil.  The first lady was over whelmed.  She would shriek every time she noticed Clara’s dress, “Oh my husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood.”

Meanwhile, weak from loss of blood, Henry crumpled up on the floor before them.  Clara called a physician to his side and arranged to have him rushed by carriage back to the Harris residence to recover.  Had she not intervened at that moment, Henry probably would have died during the night before the President did.

The following summer Clara Harris went to her family’s country-home in Loudonville just outside Albany.  With she brought the blood-stained dress she had worn at Ford’s Theatre.  It was inconceivable for her to have it cleaned for use again; yet she could not bring herself to burn it or throw it away.  She put it in a closet where it was hanging one year to the day from the assassination when, at Loudonville, she awoke in the night to the sound of low laughter and a creaking rocking chair.  She told her family it had been Lincoln enjoying the play he was watching when Booth’s bullet struck.  Only a dream, people told her, but a year later, it was said, a guest sleeping in the room came to breakfast with the same story.

Henry physically recovered from his wounds, but he became emotionally troubled with self recrimination for failing to save Lincoln’s life.  Despite the turmoil the tragedy had caused, he went on to serve two additional years in the Army.

On July 11, 1867, Henry and Clara were married at the Pearl Street Baptist Church in Albany.  However their union was not the storybook romance that Clara had imagined for so many years.  After an extended honeymoon in Europe, the couple returned  to Washington, D.C. where they took up residence in an elegant 22 room house on the west side of Lafayette Square and eventually had three children:  Henry Riggs, Gerald, and Clara Pauline.

But Henry was not well.  He was plagued by mysterious medical problems and continued to reproach himself for not saving Lincoln, a charge no one else leveled against him.  His mental balance degenerated alarmingly and increasingly he suffered from assorted physical ailments, panic attacks, constant fears, and terrible delusions.  By the end of 1870, his condition forced him to resign from the Army as a full Colonel.  He traveled to Europe with his wife and children for endless tours of doctor’s offices and health spas.

Despite his ailments, Henry still had connections and money. Although he did not need to work, in 1877 his friends and relatives peppered the new administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes with pleas that Henry be given the State Department post of charge d’affaires in Denmark.  In spite of their effort, Henry did not get the job.  There is no report of Henry’s reaction but his friends would later say that over the next few years he turned increasingly volatile.  He became obsessed with the notion that Clara was going to leave him and take the children.  Clara became apprehensive but her fear of scandal and the subsequent effects on her children made divorce seem impossible for her.

According to most accounts, before dawn on Christmas Eve morning of 1883, Henry either entered or tried to enter the room where the children were sleeping.  Clara, alarmed that he might harm them, maneuvered him back to the master bedroom and closed the door.  Henry’s and Clara’s voices awakened Louise and a maid who came into the bedroom only to discover the hideous duplication of what had happened eighteen years earlier in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre.  Henry had produced a revolver and shot his wife, as Booth had shot Lincoln, and then with a knife stabbed himself six times, as Booth had stabbed him.  As with Lincoln, she died, and as with his earlier knifing, he lived.  Many believe Henry had never recoved from the Ford’s Theatre experience and suffered from a kind of Civil War post-traumatic stress syndrome.  “The scene alw