New-York Historical Society

Attending Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns: the tragic lives of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone

Shooting

Henry Rathbone, with Clara Harris, attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth. (PR 052, Currier and Ives Print)

Most Americans are familiar with the events of the Lincoln assassination. On the evening of April 14th, 1865 Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. During the play the actor John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box and shot President Lincoln. However the details of the other couple in the Presidential Box that night, Clara Harris and her fiancée Henry Rathbone, have largely been forgotten. Unfortunately their tragic future was also determined by the horrors of that night.

Clara Harris was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. After Harris’s mother died, her father married Pauline Rathbone. Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris were step-brother and sister but still fell in love and eventually became engaged to be married. Henry joined the US Army after the outbreak of the Civil War and saw many bloody battles.  He had hoped to come home from the war, marry his fiancée, and move on with his life. Clara Harris had become friends with the First Lady through the Washington social scene. Others had been invited to Ford’s theater that night, including Julia and Ulysses S. Grant, but all had turned down the invitation.

Lincoln was reportedly enjoying the play until Act III when John Wilkes Booth came into the Presidential Box and suddenly shot the President in the back of the head. Startled, Henry stood up and wrestled with Booth, who stabbed him severely in the arm hurting him from shoulder to elbow. As Booth began his escape, Henry screamed “Stop that man!” while Clara yelled, “The President is shot!” Seriously injured, Lincoln was moved to a house across the street from the theater and died the next morning with many in attendance, including Clara.

Lincoln's Death

Mourners at the death of President Lincoln. Clara Harris is depicted in a lavendar dress at the far right. (PR 052, Currier & Ives Print)

The library at the New-York Historical Society has a letter that Clara Harris wrote to her friend Mary describing that frightful night. She describes Mrs. Lincoln seeing blood on Clara’s dress and screaming, “oh! my husbands blood.” Only later would they learn that it was mostly Henry’s blood on Clara’s dress from his severe stab wound.

Harris letter

Letter dated April 25, 1865 from Clara Harris to her friend Mary describing the night of the assassination. She describes how Mrs. Lincoln saw Clara and exclaimed, “oh! my husband’s blood, – my dear husband’s blood- which it was not, though I did not know it at the time. The President’s wound did not bleed externally..” (AHMC Harris, Clara)

After the terrible night at Ford’s Theater, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone married and had three children. However, Henry was never able to get over what happened at Ford’s Theater. He felt guilty for surviving the assassination and believed, as many had gossiped, that he should have done more to prevent the tragedy from happening. He felt he could never escape attention for being there that night and began to suffer from hallucinations and eventually declined into mental illness. On Christmas Eve in 1883 while living in Germany, he attacked his own family and himself.  Almost imitating the assassination of years before, he shot Clara and stabbed himself several times with a knife.  Clara died from the attack, and Henry was declared insane.  He was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany and his children were sent to live with their uncle in the United States. Henry died in 1911 and was buried with Clara in a cemetery in Germany.

For many years, Clara kept her bloody dress from the night at Ford’s Theater in a closet in their family summer home in Albany. According to family lore, she had the closet walled up with bricks after believing that she saw Lincoln’s ghost.  In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the dress burned stating that it had been nothing but a curse on his family.

The story of the couple’s life is mostly remembered through historic fiction.  Clara Harris’s stained dress was the subject Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews’s 1930 book The White Satin Dress The story of the ill fated couple is also told in Thomas Mallon’s 1995 book Henry and Clara.

 

4 Comments to Attending Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns: the tragic lives of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone

  1. Laura Handlin's Gravatar Laura Handlin
    July 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    The name of the play is “Our American Cousin,” not “My American Cousin.” (I would italicize the titles, but have no way to do it here.) In the title of the blog post, it should read “Attending Ford’s Theater With the Lincolns. . .” There’s no apostrophe when a surname is made plural.

  2. Susan Harris's Gravatar Susan Harris
    December 26, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Can you please share with me the source that said Clara yelled “The President’s been shot” or where her letters are currently on file? I am her great great grandniece – descended from Ira Harris brother and I am trying to gather more information than I have in our published family genealogy from the 1930s. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

*

About

This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.

Subscribe

Support n-yhs

Help us present groundbreaking exhibitions and develop educational programs about our nation's history for more than 200,000 schoolchildren annually.