The Sad Story Of Clara Harris, The Lady Seated in Presidential Box At Ford’s Theater With President Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln was shot while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater with his wife and two guests. The last words ever spoken by Lincoln were in conversation with his wife.

Mrs. Lincoln whispered to her husband, who was holding her hand, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” The president replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

Well, what about Miss Clara Harris?  This is most interesting. 

On April 14, 1865, Major Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford’s Theater from President Abraham Lincoln and his wife.  

While watching the play Our American Cousin in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater that evening, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln in the back of the head. When Rathbone attempted to apprehend Booth after the shooting, Booth slashed Rathbone with a Bowie knife from left elbow to shoulder. Rathbone lost a considerable amount of blood which stained Harris’ white dress, face and hands when she attempted to aid him.

Despite being seriously wounded, Rathbone escorted First Lady Mary Lincoln to the Petersen House where doctors had decided to take the mortally wounded President. Shortly after arriving at the Petersen House, Rathbone passed out due to loss of blood. Harris arrived at the house soon after and held Rathbone’s head in her lap while he drifted in and out of consciousness. A surgeon who had been attending the President finally examined Rathbone and realized his wound was more serious than initially thought. Booth had severed an artery located just above Rathbone’s elbow and had cut him nearly to the bone. Rathbone was taken home while Harris decided to stay with Mrs. Lincoln. Harris later stated:

Poor Mrs. Lincoln, all through that dreadful night would look at me with horror & scream, ‘oh! my husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood’…It was Henry’s blood, not the president’s, but explanations were pointless.

While Rathbone eventually recovered from the attack, President Lincoln died of his wound the following morning. After the assassination, Rathbone blamed himself for not preventing Lincoln’s death. He spent the remainder of his life battling delusions and seeking treatments for other physical problems including constant headaches.

Harris and Rathbone were married on July 11, 1867. The couple had three children.  Rathbone, who had risen to the rank of colonel, resigned from the Army in December 1870.  The family settled in Washington D.C. where Rathbone’s mental health deteriorated. Rathbone’s behavior became increasingly erratic and he began drinking heavily, gambling and having affairs. Due to his behavior, Rathbone found it difficult to hold a job for an extended period of time.

Every year on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, journalists would contact the couple with questions about Lincoln’s death furthering Rathbone’s feelings of guilt. Harris later wrote to a friend:

I understand his distress…in every hotel we’re in, as soon as people get wind of our presence, we feel ourselves become objects of morbid scrutiny…. Whenever we were in the dining room, we began to feel like zoo animals. Henry…imagines that the whispering is more pointed and malicious than it can possibly be.

As time went on, Rathbone’s mental instability worsened and he often became jealous of other men who paid attention to Harris and resented the attention Harris paid their children. He also reportedly threatened his wife on several occasions, convinced that Harris was going to divorce him and take the children. Despite his behavior, Rathbone was appointed U.S. Consul to the Province of Hanover by President Chester Alan Arthur in 1882. The family relocated to Germany where Rathbone’s mental health continued to decline.

On December 23, 1883, Henry Rathbone attacked his family in a fit of madness. He fatally shot his wife in the head and then attempted to kill the children, but a groundskeeper prevented him from doing so. Rathbone then stabbed himself five times in the chest in an attempted suicide. Rathbone was charged with murder but was declared insane by doctors after blaming the murder on an intruder. He was convicted and committed to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane in Hildesheim, Germany, where he died on August 14, 1911. The couple’s children were sent to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States.

Harris was buried in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde. Her husband was buried next to her upon his death in 1911. In 1952, the Rathbones’ remains were disinterred and disposed of after cemetery management determined that their graves had not been visited or were no longer of interest to the family.

  • Clara Harris kept the bloodied white dress she wore on the night of assassination. Unable to bring herself to wash or destroy it, she eventually stored it in a closet in the family’s summer home near Albany. After experiencing what she claimed was a visit from Lincoln’s ghost, Harris had the closet in which the dress was stored covered with bricks. In 1910, Henry Riggs Rathbone, Harris and Rathbone’s eldest son, removed the bricks and had the dress destroyed reportedly claiming that it had cursed the family. The dress was later the subject of the 1929 book The White Satin Dress, by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews.
  • In 1994, Thomas Mallon released the novel Henry and Clara, a fictional account of the lives of Harris and her husband.

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