By Roger Barlow,
We are all well acquainted with the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. However, to say a curse had befallen those present in the president’s box that evening is akin to saying a tornado is “just a little breeze.” Four souls were present in the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre that evening. Eventually, two would end up murdered and two institutionalized.
Act I — Assassination
Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the assassination of a sitting president was an event the United States had not dealt with before. Many of us know the published story; With the Civil War winding down, Kentucky’s native-born power-couple Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln decided to take in the three-act play “Our American Cousin.”
Famous actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth and his band of accomplices had switched course. What began as a kidnapping plot had changed to murder. A lengthy story regarding the indignities the presidents’ corpse endured is perhaps the subject of a future column.
Originally, many friends had been invited to join the Lincoln’s on that fateful evening. Even General and Mrs. Grant turned down the invitation to instead embark on a well-deserved visit with their children. So, Mary invited her friend Clara Harris, and Ms. Harris’ fiancée, Major Henry Rathbone for a night of light-hearted amusement. Little did they know that the course of all their lives would be forever altered.
Act II — Asylum
Mary Todd Lincoln, the genteel Lexington socialite, was sitting beside her husband that fateful evening. History has not been kind to Mary. For years called insane, I dare to disagree. Depressed? Yes. Erratic? Definitely. Did she have a reason for such behavior? Absolutely!
Mary was familiar with personal loss and tragedy. Losing her mother when she was 6, her father remarried and eventually sired a total of 18 children. She had a strained relationship with her step-mother. After the embarrassment of a broken engagement to the tall attorney beneath her social status, she eventually became Mrs. Lincoln.
The loss of one child is a traumatic event for any parent, Mary lost 3 during her lifetime. The White House years brought incessant questions regarding her spending and her familial connections to the Confederacy. In 1875, surviving son Robert forced an insanity trial, forever tarnishing their relationship. A second trial 4 months later gave her freedom from Bellevue Place, a private hospital. Expert opinions run the gamut as to Mary’s true medical condition.
Was it bipolar depression? Pernicious anemia (then a gradual death sentence but now known as a B-12 deficiency)? We will likely never know. Without question, Mary was still in mourning when she took her last breath in 1882 at the age of 63. For all the wealth and privilege afforded Mary, life dealt her sorrow and tragedy.
Act III — Insanity
By obsessing over his misplaced inability to stop the Lincoln assassination, Major Rathbone began a steady decline into insanity. A quick scuffle with Booth left Rathbone with a severed artery from a deep stab wound. Adrenaline kicked in long enough for him to escort Mary across the street to the Peterson House, where he then collapsed from blood loss. He made a physical recovery, but the mental damage was done.
Rathbone and Harris were step-siblings as such connections were not uncommon in that era. However, in this case, Clara should have looked elsewhere for a suitor. Ignoring his mental decline, the couple married in 1867 and 3 children followed. Any happiness for the couple was fleeting — as alcohol, gambling and increased paranoia took over his life.
Clara was unable to speak to a man without Henry accusing her of infidelity. Despite his increasingly bizarre behavior, President Chester Arthur named him the US Consul in Hanover, Germany.
Act IV — Murder
The change of scenery proved unhelpful. While in Germany on December 23, 1883, Rathbone shot Clara dead. He attempted to kill the children but thankfully, they were unscathed, at least physically. Rathbone then stabbed himself 5 times in the chest.
He was found criminally insane, institutionalized until his death in 1911, then buried in Germany next to the wife he had murdered. As if death was not final enough for the couple; according to some accounts, their bones were exhumed and disposed of in 1952 due to lack of family concern or interest.
The Civil War is a testament to what happens when our citizens turn on themselves. Many say we are in control of our own destiny. Sometimes, even the best plans may be forever altered — by a trip to the theatre.