The “Curse” Of Ford’s Theater:
The Murder of Abraham Lincoln Changed America Forever.
Beyond the obvious personal tragedy–the murder of a husband, father, uncle, step-son, and husband so loved by his family and the overwhelming grief of a bewildered nation, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater altered history in ways still being felt today. In addition, the lives of the others who were with Lincoln at the moment of his murder were changed sadly and irreparably.
Effect On The Nation
I am only going to touch on this for a moment. I will dedicate a future blog post to this important subject. One of the issues most central to Lincoln in the days before his death was how to bring about a true reconciliation of a nation torn apart by civil war. Lincoln knew that the country needed not just a military victory and a political settlement. He was striving to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” That meant finding a way to allow white Southerners to reclaim their citizenship and their pride in being American. It also meant beginning the process of empowering the freed slaves into likewise becoming full citizens of the Republic.
Lincoln had worked diligently on numerous fronts to make all of that happen. Whether he would’ve succeeded is a question left to history. (Feel free to leave your comments below.) However, it is historically accurate to say that his successor, Andrew Johnson, lacked Lincoln’s immense political skill, vision, personal force, commitment, and leadership. His constant battles with Congress ended up hurting the South, the North, and the interests of the freedmen. Jim Crow became the law of the land over the next few decades, and African-Americans in the South suffered grievously as a result. The eventual success of the civil rights movement is a testament to Lincoln’s vision, albeit one delayed by many decades. I would argue that had Lincoln survived for his 2nd term, race relations in this country would not have deteriorated so badly, the South would have begun to prosper economically more quickly, and perhaps in a speculative future, the civil rights movement might never have occurred.
The Others With Lincoln At Ford’s Theater
The other people who entered the box that night were changed forever.
Mary Lincoln, who was already in the grips of a deteriorating mind, never fully recovered. This is not a criticism – anyone sitting next to their spouse as he was murdered would certainly experience what we today call PTSD. Mary Lincoln had already seen two sons die, suffered from crippling migraines, and exhibited the symptoms of several significant mental illnesses. After her beloved Tad died, Mary Lincoln’s mental health declined even more rapidly. In addition, she had been prescribed addictive narcotics by physicians attempting to heal her pain from various physical ailments. The combination of the drugs and an unstable personality led Mary Lincoln to make some very odd and disturbed decisions. Eventually her surviving son, Robert, would have her placed in a mental hospital. Weaned off the drugs, Mary Lincoln regained the ability to function safely, but her depression never lifted. From the day of her husband’s murder until the day she died, she wore only black mourning clothes except for one day. At Tad’s pleading, she changed out of her “widows weeds” and put on a black dress.
Accompanying the president and Mrs. Lincoln to the theater that night were too young sweethearts, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée/stepsister, Clara Harris. Both of them would suffer mightily as a result of the trauma they experienced that night. It would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Clara Harris was a bright, polished young woman of 3o on the night of the assassination. She was the charming daughter of a prominent US Senator and a close friend of Mary Lincoln. The first lady, 46, enjoyed the company of the younger woman, particularly their shared love of theater. Miss Harris said, “We have been constantly in the habit of driving and going to the opera and theater together.” She had grown up in luxury. After her father was widowed, he married a widow and took her children into his house. One of the children was Henry Rathbone. He grew up as Miss Harris’s little brother, and just a few weeks before the assassination, Rathbone and his stepsister became engaged to marry.
Henry Rathbone was a bright, ambitious man whose father had died young and left his son a huge fortune. He served honorably during the Civil War, but his health was poor. At 5’11, but just 140 pounds, he was prone to fevers and illness. In 1862, 1863 and 1864 he was laid up for months at a time due to ill health. Despite valiant efforts to return to the field, he eventually succumbed to doctors orders and took a desk job in Washington.
The Curse of Ford’s Theater
Mary Lincoln, as previously noted, lived out a very sad and haunted existence after the murder. She sought out spiritualists, traveled incessantly, battled depression and lived as an itinerant ghost, despised by the American public and constantly in fear of poverty. Her eyesight was nearly gone due to severe cataracts, leading to numerous falls, including one that damaged her spinal cord. Three out of her four sons had died, her husband had been murdered beside her, her fourth son had been profoundly estranged from her. She lived the last two years of her life confined to her sister’s home. Although she was near her sister, in a very profound way, Mary Lincoln died alone.
Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris married two years later. His mental and physical health declined rapidly. He suffered great psychological torment over his perceived inability to save Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, who had been stabbed and very seriously wounded by John Wilkes Booth, could not shake his belief that he failed his beloved president. Clara had to try and hold the family together while her wealthy husband suffered from neuralgia of the head and face, palpitation of the heart, depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and a violent temper. He became obsessed with the idea, completely unfounded, that Clara was planning to leave him and take the children. Their marriage was unhappy, volatile and frightening as his mental health continued to deteriorate.
A Tragic End
In 1883, Rathbone was appointed consul to Hanover, Germany. He, Clara and their three children, ages 13, 12, and 10, tried to build a new life in Germany. It was not to be. The hallucinations, disordered thinking, and paranoia overwhelmed Rathbone. On Christmas Eve, slightly before dawn, he attempted to enter the children’s room with a gun. Fearing for their safety, Clara finagled him back into their bedroom. There he shot her several times and then stabbed her in the chest, killing the woman who had stood beside him through everything. He then turned the knife on himself, re-creating the stabbing he had received from John Wilkes Booth. He barely survived. Clara was buried in Germany on December 28; her children were raised by her brother. Deemed to be hopelessly insane, Rathbone was confined to a lovely suite in a mental hospital where he lived until 1911. He died at the age of 73. He had never recovered from the hallucinations or paranoia. Rathbone was buried next to Clara. In 1952, the cemetery, deciding it needed more room, dug up the graves of those who had been unvisited for many years. Rathbone and Clara were disinterred, their bodies cremated, and their ashes scattered in an unknown location.
After the assassination, the federal authorities purchased Ford’s Theater. The building was used as government office space and as a warehouse. In 1893, part of the floor collapsed. Twenty-two people were killed and another 68 were injured. Across the country, people thought the building was “cursed.” Ford’s Theater languished until 1955 when renovation efforts began that would eventually turn it into the lovely working theater, museum, and visitor center it is today.
A Bit of Trivia
The Rathbone’s oldest son was born on Lincoln’s birthday. He later became a Congressman from Illinois and lectured about the assassination.
Henry Rathbone was a distant cousin of Basil Rathbone, the famous actor who portrayed Sherlock Holmes.