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A Tragedy's Second Act

The first lady was overwhelmed. She would shriek every time she noticed Clara's dress, "Oh! My husband's blood," although the blood was more likely Henry's.

Shortly after they arrived at the boardinghouse, Henry passed out and was taken to the senator's house. It's not clear how long Clara stayed with the first lady, but G.W. Pope later remembered that Clara was at home when he was called to the Harris house that night to tend to Henry.

Henry lay stripped of his clothes and as pale as a corpse, Pope recalled. He had lost a lot of blood and was delirious. He raved that the president had been shot: "God in heaven, save him!" Clara was calm, bringing water, towels and bandages as an Army surgeon, who had also been called, stitched up Henry's wound.

"Clara Harris was a young lady of remarkable courage," Pope remembered, with a "presence of mind in many emergencies, as I had known."

A few weeks later, Clara posed for photographer Mathew B.Brady, reportedly in the dress she wore the night of the assassination. She told a friend she was trying not to think about the assassination. "But I really cannot fix my mind on anything else," she wrote.

***

Seventeen years later, on a day in November, Henry Rathbone walked into the Albany office of his wife's uncle, Hamilton Harris, with whom he had studied law as a young man. He was now the picture of prosperity, with his top hats, pinkie ring and ornamental walking canes. He was about to embark on another of his regular trips to Europe with his family -- traveling on one of the most modern steamships afloat.

But Henry was ill. Harris asked him what was wrong. Henry claimed that he was suffering from dyspepsia, a chronic stomach ailment that historians say was then linked to so-called "nervous" disorders. "He described to me in a vivid way," Harris would remember, "all the horrors of that disease."

It was late fall of 1882. Henry was 45. He had recovered from his stab wound, stayed in the Army, and, in 1867, he and Clara were finally married. They moved into an elegant 22-room home on the west side of Lafayette Square. They had three children -- the eldest born on Lincoln's birthday in 1870.

Yet Henry was plagued by mysterious medical problems. During 1869 and again in 1870 he was treated for what a doctor described as "attacks of neuralgia of the head and face and in the region of the heart attended by palpitations and at times difficulty breathing." In December 1870, Henry abruptly retired from the Army.

Despite his ailments, he still had connections and money. And 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 get the State Department post of charge d' affaires in Denmark.

Two dozen letters came in from a host of backers. Civil War hero Gen. William T. Sherman, then commander of the U.S. Army, wrote. So did the famous admiral, David D. Porter, on behalf of "my esteemed friend." Rathbone's old Civil War commander, Burnside, praised his gallantry and intelligence, adding, "I have a great interest in his welfare and advancement."

Yet most of the correspondence is curious for what it does not say about Henry -- the one thing he might have been most known for. Of all the letters, only two mention his role at Ford's Theatre. Had people forgotten? Was it inappropriate to mention? Was it unwise?

Despite the effort, he didn't get the job.

There's no account of Henry's reaction, but his friends would tell the newspapers 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.

She was 48, and had wealth of her own. She was charming and elegant, and in photographs from around that time, she has a delicate face and a look of serenity. But her life with Henry must have been anguished, as he grew more estranged and hostile.

Shortly after his Albany visit, Henry, Clara, her sister Louise and the children, Harry, 13, Gerald, 12, and Pauline, 10, sailed from New York aboard the steamship Werra, bound for Germany. One story had it that Clara agreed to go only after Louise said she would go, too.

By December of 1883, according to a local German newspaper of the time, the five of them, along with a governess, had been living in an apartment on Heinrichstrasse in Hanover for about seven months.

Henry had become even more depressed and erratic, people would recall later. He was pale and thin, and said he was afraid of himself. He had hallucinations. His relationship with Clara had grown even more tense. He was said to be so fearful that she would leave him that he would not allow her to sit by the window or be alone. He begged her to stay with him, and around this same time, he bought a revolver.

According to most accounts, before dawn on Christmas Eve, 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. There, Henry shot her several times with the gun and stabbed her in the chest with a knife, which he then turned on himself.

***

Hon A.A. Sargent,

US Envoy Extraordinary etc. etc.

Sir:

The Vice Consul of this district . . . informs me . . . that a terrible tragedy had occurred in the American colony in Hanover. Col. H.C. Rathbone of Washington D.C. in a fit of insanity killed his wife and wounded himself, it is thought mortally. I am at present in possession of no further particulars . . .

I am sir your obt servt

Williams C. Fox

US Consul

The note was dated Dec. 25, 1883, and was sent from the U.S. consul in Brunswick, Germany, to the chief American minister in Berlin. Word quickly spread to the United States, where it was sensational, front-page news. "COLONEL RATHBONE'S MANIA," the New York Tribune blared. Reporters tracked down Henry's Washington lawyer, doctor G.W. Pope, Hamilton Harris and others. Many believed Henry had never recovered from Ford's Theatre and had a kind of Civil War post-traumatic stress syndrome. "The scene always haunted his mind," his lawyer told the Washington Star.

Pope said: "He never was thoroughly himself after that night . . . 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."

Louise took charge of the children and moved them into a hotel. Her brother, William, who had served with Henry during the war, arrived from his home in Cleveland. Clara was buried Dec. 28 in a plot in the city's ornate Engesohde cemetery. Louise, William and the children returned to the United States on Feb. 4.

Consul Fox, meanwhile, visited Henry in the hospital. "He is hopelessly insane," Fox reported. "He is suffering from the worst form of Melancholia and imagines that everyone is conspiring against him. He realizes fully what he has done and says that it is the result of a conspiracy."

The German authorities realized Henry was mentally ill and could not be prosecuted. After he recovered from his wounds, he was sent in April to the Provincial Insane Asylum at the former monastery. There he would live for the rest of his life.

In January of 1911, a reporter working for The Washington Post visited Rathbone at the monastery and related that his suite was like a hotel's, with its own dining room and library. Rathbone was then 73 and still looked like a man of refinement. But his doctor said that he remained very sick. He scarcely ate, was chronically paranoid and still was tormented by hallucinations. He did not have many visitors.

Henry Rathbone died at 2:15 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1911. It's not clear what finally killed him, or what illness he'd had all that time. Was it post-traumatic stress, linked to the assassination? Or something else? Today, psychiatrists and historians say his symptoms suggest that he might have been suffering from schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder. Brief obituaries ran in the papers. One headline said: "Old Soldier Had Become Mentally Deranged."

On Nov. 20, he was buried with his wife. There was likely no fanfare. And their epitaph, if any, has been lost. Many years later, the cemetery declared the graves abandoned and made the plot available for reuse. No one knows what happened to their remains.

Among Henry's survivors was his eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, the Lincoln birthday baby. He was a 41-year-old lawyer in Chicago and would shortly become a member of the U.S. Congress.

The younger Rathbone soon became known for his devotion to the memory of Lincoln and often was a keynote speaker at Lincoln birthday events. According to the newspapers, he also spoke at Civil War commemorations, lauding the deeds of his parents' generation, reciting the Gettysburg Address, even delivering a talk he titled "Lincoln's Last Day."

He often told of his parents' presence at Ford's Theatre, and no doubt, of the invitation, the carriage ride and the innocent witnesses to the greatest tragedy of their time. Records do not show that he ever mentioned what befell them later.

Michael E. Ruane is a reporter on The Post's Metro staff. He can be reached at ruanem@washpost.com.


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