36: The Other Victims of Lincoln’s Booth

The President's fate wasn't the worst of those who were there

This story begins with a man invited to join President Lincoln in his private booth for a play at Ford’s Theater. It ends with that same man murdering his wife, attacking his children, and attempting to kill himself. These are the tragic fates of the other people who were in Lincoln’s booth on the night of his assassination.

Imagine this. You’re young and in love. Okay, you’re in love with your step-sister, which is a little weird, but it’s not like you’re related related. You’re in the military, and you come from a wealthy political family, so you hobnob with government bigwigs. In fact, you count the President and First Lady among your friends. So it’s not a huge surprise when they invite you and your fiancée to join them in their private booth to see a show playing at Ford’s Theater. Naturally, you accept, which is great news because the first two couples they invited declined.

That’s the situation that Henry Rathbone found himself in when he and his fiancée Clara Harris were invited to join Abraham and Mary Lincoln to a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865. Of course, you know how the night ended for Abe. He was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth and died the next morning.

But imagine that you’re Harry or Clara. There you are, happy and in love, enjoying a night at the theater with the President and First Lady when all of a sudden he is shot right next to you. What do you do after that? How does that affect your life?

It turns out that Harry and Clara’s story ends up even more disturbing and gruesome than Lincoln’s. And they’re not the only ones whose lives took a terrible turn after that night.

Setting the stage

First, let’s look at who was in the booth. The New York Times described the seating arrangement this way:

The President sat in the corner nearest the audience, Mrs. Lincoln next to him; Miss Clara Harris sat near Mrs. Lincoln, and behind her young Major Rathbone.

John Wilkes Booth was a Southern sympathizer and an actor who had performed at this theater before. He knew his way around and was familiar with that night’s play. He made his way to the anteroom adjacent to Lincoln’s booth and barricaded the door to the hallway. Then at approximately 10:15 PM, timed to coincide with a laugh line from the play, Booth snuck up behind Lincoln and shot him in the head.

Clara was splattered with the President’s blood. Henry jumped up and attacked Booth, who dropped his gun and pulled out a knife, stabbing Henry in the arm. Booth then jumped from the box, falling twelve feet onto the stage below. He ran out the back of the theater and rode away on horseback.

Doctors attending the performance ran to Lincoln’s booth but couldn’t get in. Henry removed the barricade to the anteroom so they could enter. Another doctor was hoisted up to the booth from the orchestra level. As they examined the President, an actress in the play named Laura Keene ran up to the booth. She cradled the President’s head in her lap.

There were now eight people in the booth: the President, his wife, the young couple in love, the actress Laura Keene, and three doctors.

The three wartime doctors may have been more experienced with traumatic situations like this than the rest, and seem to have escaped the type of tragic fates that befell the rest of them. One doctor, Albert King, would go on to be one of the first people to propose a link between mosquitos and malaria. Doctor Charles Leale lived until 1932, dying at 90 years old as one of the last surviving witnesses to Lincoln’s death.

But for the five others in the booth, things didn’t turn out quite so well.

Victim #1: Abraham Lincoln

The doctors attending to Lincoln determined that he needed to be moved, but taking him all the way back to the White House would be dangerous. So he was taken across to the street to the house of a tailor named William Peterson.

More doctors arrived and they tended to his wound, but it was clearly fatal. They did what they could. Abe died at 7:22 AM the following morning.

Victim #2: Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary accompanied Abe to the Peterson House, but was so unhinged with grief that she was not allowed in the room when Abe died.

After his death, Mary returned to Illinois. In addition to losing her husband, she had also lost two of her three sons. Her remaining son, Robert, noticed his mother was beginning to act strangely. She was paranoid that Robert was dying from some imaginary illness. She believed someone was trying to poison her. She thought someone had pickpocketed her. She bought expensive gowns for lavish events that existed only in her imagination. She visited a medium to make contact with her departed husband and children.

Robert had his mother committed to an asylum. She attempted suicide to avoid it. She planned an escape once she was there. Neither worked. After ten years in the institution, she was declared competent enough to be released to her sister’s custody.

Her health declined, and she died of a stroke in 1882 at 63 years old.

Victim #3: Laura Keene

Laura Keene, you’ll recall, was the actress who ran up to the booth and cradled Lincoln’s head in her lap. The next day, her daughter came home from school to visit her mother. The New York Times reported that her daughter found her understandably distraught:

“As I spoke to her,” says the girl, “she trembled from head to foot. She could not speak. To hearten her I said, ‘Mother, where is your old-time courage?’ But it was no use.”

Laura Keene did continue to work as an actress and eventually became a theater manager, but she died young of tuberculosis at just 47 years old.

Victims #4 and #5: Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris

After Lincoln was carried across the street to the Peterson House, Henry went home to recover from his wounds, and Clara stayed to keep Mary company.

Two years later, they got married and seemed to be a happy couple. They had three kids: two boys and a girl. The family moved to Germany.

Henry became mentally unstable. He accused his wife of being unfaithful. He was jealous of the attention she paid to their kids. He worried that she would take the kids and leave him.

On December 23, 1883, he attacked his children. Clara jumped in to protect them, and he shot and stabbed her, killing her. Then he stabbed himself in the chest repeatedly, but he survived his self-inflicted wounds.

At trial, Henry blamed the attack on an intruder. But he was convicted of the murder, found to be insane and was committed to an asylum. He remained there until his death on August 14, 1911.

One More Victim: Boston Corbett

When John Wilkes Booth left the theater after shooting Lincoln, he made his way to a farm in Virginia where he was eventually hunted down by the Army and shot on site. The soldier who killed him was named Boston Corbett. He was never in Lincoln’s booth, but his story, too, had a tragic twist.

Boston was always a bit odd. He was deeply religious, and as a young man had castrated himself with scissors in order to avoid lustful temptation. He eventually joined the Army where he annoyed everyone with his devotion to God before Country.

When Boston’s regiment was sent to hunt down Booth, orders were to bring him in alive. He had been injured in his escape from the theater and couldn’t run for long. But Boston said he pulled the trigger anyway because God instructed him to.

At first, he was hailed as a hero. “Lincoln’s Avenger,” they called him. He capitalized on his fame, giving lectures about killing Booth, and weaved his story into his preaching.

But eventually the fame wore off. He needed a job, and found himself one as assistant doorkeeper (assistant to the doorkeeper?) at the Kansas House of Representatives in 1887. He didn’t get along with people there, and after just a few weeks there was an incident where he pulled his gun on innocent people inside the building. He was fired, and eventually committed to an asylum for the criminally insane.

About a year later, he escaped. Nobody knows for sure where he went or what happened to him, but it’s suspected that he died in a fire in Minnesota a few years later.

Crazy, right? Everyone knows that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, but until I learned about Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, it didn’t even occur to me to wonder who else might have been with him. And then to find out what ultimately happened to everyone? It’s insane.

When Henry Rathbone died in 1911, the New York Times wrote a retrospective looking at the fates of the people in Lincoln’s both, which is where I first read the story. But my further research found inconsistent details between the Times reporting and other historical documents. So for my research in this piece I also referenced original testimony from the conspiracy trial for the assassination, the website for Ford's Theater, an article about Boston Corbett, and of course, Wikipedia. Some reports had conflicting details, but I did my best to reconcile them. I may still have gotten some things wrong.

Update to My Publishing Schedule

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Thanks for reading. See you next time!

David