- Historic Sites
The Haunted Major
Henry Rathbone shared Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre; it destroyed his life as surely as it had the President’s
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
The dress hung in its closet—a reminder of the event that had taken away Lincoln’s life, made Mary Todd Lincoln insane (her son Robert had her committed to an institution), and seemingly destroyed the chances for happiness of Henry and Clara Rathbone. She had the closet closed off and bricked in, it is said, a silent, secret tomblike resting place for the garment. The Rathbones spent the summer of 1882 in Albany, and when cold weather came they made for a rented place in Hanover, Germany, another stop on their endless trek to seek aid for his sad illness. There their tragedy found its climactic moment.
Before dawn on Christmas Eve morning of 1883, thin, pale, the victim of constant headaches, Henry Rathbone came into his wife’s bedroom. He was fully dressed. He said he wanted to be with the children. She pointed out the extreme earliness of the hour. Awakened by their voices, a maid and a sister of the lady of the house came into the bedroom to discover the hideous duplication of what had happened eighteen years earlier in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre. Rathbone produced a revolver and shot his wife, as once Booth had shot Lincoln, and then with a knife stabbed himself six times, as once Booth had stabbed him. As with Lincoln, she died, and as with his earlier knifing, he lived.
She was buried in Germany. He was committed to an asylum there, hopelessly insane, to live in constant fear and physical suffering, declaring that the other inmates were conspiring against him, that the walls were hollow and contained spray apparatus that blew out dust and gas. Back in Albany people in the house with the bricked-up closet heard, they said, a shot on the anniversary of the assassination, saw Lincoln, and saw also a sobbing young woman in blood-soaked attire. In 1929 Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews wrote a book about it— The White Satin Dress .
Henry Rathbone died in the asylum in 1911. He was buried near his twentyeight-years-dead wife in Germany. Their son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, age thirteen when his mother died, was taken in and raised with his younger brother and sister by a brother of his mother. He grew up to be a United States congressman, and before his death in 1928 proposed that the government set up a museum in the building that had seen Lincoln shot and his parents’ tragedy inaugurated. Today Ford’s Theatre looks precisely as it did on April 14, 1865, with the same furnishings and lighting. The sofa Representative Rathbone’s father leaped up from is just as it was that night.
In 1910, a year before his mad father’s death, Representative Rathbone, so Albany papers said, broke down the bricks walling in his mother’s dress last worn forty-five years earlier and burned it, saying it had cursed his family. In 1952, in accordance with the German cemetery’s policy regarding graves long unvisited, the remains of the couple who had accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre were dug up and disposed of.