A Tragedy's Second Act

By Michael E. Ruane
Sunday, April 5, 2009

On Aug. 7, 1891, the royal Prussian physician in the town of Hildesheim, Germany, went to a mental asylum in a former Benedictine monastery to examine a wealthy American who had been an inmate there for the past eight years.

The patient's name was Henry R. Rathbone. He was a former U.S. Army officer who had once moved in the elite circles of Washington society and now had exclusive quarters in the 800-year-old complex, where he had been confined by the German courts.

The physician, one A. Rosenbach, found Mr. Rathbone thin and graying. He was 53, stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 140 pounds. The doctor took his pulse -- 68 beats per minute -- and temperature -- 99.6. Both about normal.

The doctor noted that the patient was polite, carefully dressed, and "earnest." He appeared healthy, although the pupil in his right eye was larger than the left. The patient refused to discuss his mental condition, but the asylum records spelled it out.

Henry suffered from hallucinations. He believed he was being persecuted and tortured. He thought there was an apparatus in the wall pouring "injurious vapors" into his head, causing headaches. He believed he could hear people gliding suspiciously in the corridor outside his suite.

The doctor noted two more things: Mr. Rathbone declined to discuss his late wife, Clara, whom he had murdered in 1883 in the German apartment in which they were living during a European tour. And he would not talk about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

These two events, many years and an ocean apart, seemed unrelated. The doctor was unsure that they were connected. But Henry R. Rathbone's friends and relatives had long been convinced that they were most certainly and fatefully linked.

In 1865, then-Army Maj. Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara H. Harris, were in the presidential box in Ford's Theatre when John Wilkes Booth crept in and shot Lincoln. The major grappled briefly with Booth, who stabbed him with a knife and escaped.

It was a scene quickly memorialized in heroic prints and lore around the country: The assassin leaping from the balcony. Rathbone reaching for him, eternally in vain, crying, "Stop that man!" Clara's scream: "The president is shot!"

The couple married two years later and had three children. But Rathbone, by most accounts, was never the same. On Christmas Eve, 1883, following a long deterioration, he attacked his wife with a pistol and dagger and then slashed himself, just as Booth had done to Lincoln and Rathbone. Rathbone barely survived and afterward contended that the attack had been conducted by someone else. He said he was injured trying to intervene.

The story made headlines in Washington, where the couple and their children lived on Lafayette Square, and in New York, where their families were among Albany's finest.

But it soon faded from the papers and now is but a haunting footnote to the Lincoln assassination, whose 144th anniversary this month comes during the bicentennial year of the 16th president's birth.

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