February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
It was a legend of myth and fear, this bloodied gown visited by ghosts. It had formed the subject of a short book. It had witnessed supreme tragedy and brought new tragedy—madness, murder, they said; and finally the bricked-in closet where it had hung unworn for decades was broken into, and it was taken off its clothes hanger and burned to ashes. The son of its long-dead owner said he destroyed it to end a bloody curse. Such was the disposition of the dress Clara Harris wore on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Not until late on the afternoon of April 14, 1865, was it determined that Clara Harris and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone, would accompany President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre to see Our American Cousin . Speaker of the House of Representatives Schuyler Colfax had earlier been invited, but he was leaving on a trip to the West Coast. The reporter Noah Brooks was asked—he begged off by explaining he was turning in early to fight off a heavy cold. The Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd, j,ust back from service as a staff officer with General Grant, told his parents he wanted to luxuriate in a good bed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The French Marquis de Chambrun wrote his wife that he had declined to go along “with some hesitation,” not wishing “even at the risk of offending White House etiquette, to attend a theatrical performance on Good Friday.”
So Miss Harris and Major Rathbone were applied to. Besides being future husband and wife, they were stepbrother and stepsister. The twentyeight-year-old Rathbone’s father, a merchant and banker and mayor of Albany, New York, had died when his son was seventeen, leaving the young man a fortune of two hundred thousand dollars. Henry’s widowed mother then married Judge Ira Harris of Albany, who upon William Henry Seward’s acceptance of the post of Secretary of State was named to replace him as a United States senator. His daughter Clara was twenty in 1865.
When Secretary Seward’s daughter met the new Mrs. Harris, together with the wife of Sen. John Crittenden, she called the pair “two very fat bundles of hair, feathers, lace and jewelry.” But Mrs. Lincoln was fond of the woman. The President had gotten up during his March inaugural ball to give Mrs. Harris his seat, and she sat with Mrs. Lincoln. Clara had been to the White House to be with her mother’s friend on Tuesday, April 11, two days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, as the President delivered a speech from an opened window. In the listening crowd outside, glowering and cursing, stood John Wilkes Booth.
The theater visit came three days later. “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on you so?” Mary Todd Lincoln whispered to her husband. “She won’t think anything about it,” he answered. A moment later as bluish smoke from the weapon that sent a. nickel-sized ball into Lincoln’s head swirled about the box, Rathbone stood up. Booth slashed him with a knife, opening his arm from elbow to shoulder. He staggered back and then bravely lunged forward, knocking Booth off balance as he leaped down onto the stage to flee. “Stop that man!” Rathbone shouted. “Won’t somebody stop that man?” Clara Harris echoed.
There followed the long wait for Lincoln to die, Miss Harris sitting with Mrs. Lincoln in the front parlor of a little house across the street whose rear bedroom was occupied by the President. Weak from loss of blood, Rathbone crumpled up on the floor before them. His fiancé stuffed her handkerchief into his wound and he was seen to and taken home. Her dress was covered with blood, and her hands and face, she wrote a friend a few days later, were “saturated literally with blood.” It was Rathbone’s, but Mrs. Lincoln, looking at her young companion, screamed, “Oh, my husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood!”
In the summer Clara Harris went to her family’s little summer house just outside Albany, taking her dress along. It was inconceivable for her to have it cleaned up for use, yet she could not bring herself to burn it or throw it away. She put it in a closet. It was hanging there one year to the day from the assassination when she awoke in the night, she told her family, to the sound of low laughter. She said it had been Lincoln, enjoying the play he was watching when Booth’s bullet struck. Only a dream, people told her. But a year later, it was said, a guest sleeping in the room came to breakfast with the same story.
In 1867 she and Major Rathbone married, and in time they would have three children. But he was not well. He blamed himself for not saving Lincoln, a charge no one else leveled against him, and his mental balance alarmingly degenerated. Increasingly he suffered from physical ailments, constant fears, and terrible delusions. On the last day of 1870 he resigned from the Army as full colonel and then set off with his wife and family for endless fruitless tours of European doctors’ offices and spas. It seems simplistic to say that Lincoln’s assassination made of this rich and promising Union College graduate and ex-officer a madman, but that was what the couple’s friends and family believed. He became obsessed with the idea that his wife would leave him, taking the children, and in fact she told her family that she would do so were it not for the disgrace of divorce or separation.
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.