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A Tragedy's Second Act

With all that has been written about Lincoln -- an estimated 16,000 books -- little has been said about the Rathbone tragedy, as it was known in its day. Aside from a novel about the couple published 15 years ago, the case is mentioned only in passing. Indeed, for three decades an erroneously identified photograph of Clara Harris hung unchallenged at Ford's Theatre, until it was finally pointed out by a Gaithersburg antiquarian, William Hallam Webber, and was taken down in 1999.

It may be that the story of Henry and Clara lacks the heroic romance of Lincoln and the Civil War. There is no martyrdom. No glorious farewell. No monuments to their memory. There is, instead, the specter of mental illness, and even the possibility that the trauma of the assassination might have had nothing to do with Clara's slaying.

On its face, it is a tale of two survivors, as the novelist Thomas Mallon, put it: the man who failed to stop Booth and the devoted woman who had to live with him. But it is also the story of a couple's struggle with insanity. There's no detailed account of how Henry and Clara coped with his illness, or what Clara felt as she watched his frightening descent. Their story must be pieced together.

In the summer of 1891, after Rosenbach finished his examination, which was part of Henry's application for a military pension, he wrote a report. A translation resides in the National Archives. Rathbone was suffering with "delusions of persecution," the doctor believed. His condition was incurable, and Rosenbach concluded: "The cause of his disease is not known."

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At 8:20 on the damp, chilly night of April 14, 1865, Abraham and Mary Lincoln pulled up in their big black carriage outside the home of New York Sen. Ira Harris, just off Lafayette Square. They were headed to a performance at Ford's Theatre and had stopped to pick up their guests.

Official Washington was then a small community. The president lived across the street from the square. Secretary of State William H. Seward lived on the east side of the square. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles lived on the north side. And Sen. Harris lived at 15th and H streets, a block away.

Harris, a former judge, had come to Washington in 1861, when he gained the New York Senate seat vacated by Seward. He brought with him an unusual family. His first wife had died, and he had married a widow, Pauline Rathbone. Both were members of Albany's most illustrious families.

The senator's family included a son, William, and three daughters, Clara, Amanda and Louise. Pauline had two sons, Henry and Jared. The couple had married around 1848, and their children had virtually grown up together.

Clara was now 30, a cultured, self-assured woman who moved in the highest Washington social groups. She had become an intimate friend of the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, with whom she often attended the theater, and was a familiar guest at the White House. Henry was 27, an intense-looking young man with receding, wavy auburn hair, mutton chops and a desk job in the Army.

And although in their youth he had essentially been her little brother, they planned to be married.

Going to war had been a difficult change for Henry. He had been to college and had studied law, and he spoke French. His late father had been the mayor of Albany and left behind a fortune when he died.


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