Most Americans are familiar with the events of the Lincoln assassination. On the evening of April 14, 1865, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. During the play the actor John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box and shot President Lincoln. However the details of the other couple in the Presidential Box that night, Clara Harris and her fiancée Henry Rathbone, have largely been forgotten. Unfortunately their tragic future was also determined by the horrors of that night.
Clara Harris was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. After Harris’s mother died, her father married Pauline Rathbone. Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris were step-brother and sister but still fell in love and eventually became engaged to be married. Henry joined the US Army after the outbreak of the Civil War and saw many bloody battles. He had hoped to come home from the war, marry his fiancée, and move on with his life. Clara Harris had become friends with the First Lady through the Washington social scene. Others had been invited to Ford’s theater that night, including Julia and Ulysses S. Grant, but all had turned down the invitation.
Lincoln was reportedly enjoying the play until Act III when John Wilkes Booth came into the Presidential Box and suddenly shot the President in the back of the head. Startled, Henry stood up and wrestled with Booth, who stabbed him severely in the arm hurting him from shoulder to elbow. As Booth began his escape, Henry screamed “Stop that man!” while Clara yelled, “The President is shot!” Seriously injured, Lincoln was moved to a house across the street from the theater and died the next morning with many in attendance, including Clara.
The Library at the New-York Historical Society has a letter that Clara Harris wrote to her friend Mary describing that frightful night. She describes Mrs. Lincoln seeing blood on Clara’s dress and screaming, “oh! my husbands blood.” Only later would they learn that it was mostly Henry’s blood on Clara’s dress from his severe stab wound.
After the terrible night at Ford’s Theater, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone married and had three children. However, Henry was never able to get over what happened at Ford’s Theater. He felt guilty for surviving the assassination and believed, as many had gossiped, that he should have done more to prevent the tragedy from happening. He felt he could never escape attention for being there that night and began to suffer from hallucinations and eventually declined into mental illness. On Christmas Eve in 1883 while living in Germany, he attacked his own family and himself. Almost imitating the assassination of years before, he shot Clara and stabbed himself several times with a knife. Clara died from the attack, and Henry was declared insane. He was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany and his children were sent to live with their uncle in the United States. Henry died in 1911 and was buried with Clara in a cemetery in Germany.
For many years, Clara kept her bloody dress from the night at Ford’s Theater in a closet in their family summer home in Albany. According to family lore, she had the closet walled up with bricks after believing that she saw Lincoln’s ghost. In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the dress burned stating that it had been nothing but a curse on his family.
The story of the couple’s life is mostly remembered through historic fiction. Clara Harris’s stained dress was the subject Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews’s 1930 book The White Satin Dress. The story of the ill fated couple is also told in Thomas Mallon’s 1995 book Henry and Clara.
2022 Update: Check out New-York Historical's new Instagram Reel about the letter
Written by Maurita Baldock, curator of manuscripts