Marc Hoover: The forgotten life of war hero Henry Rathbone

If you had an opportunity to stop an assassination or help capture a killer, would you get involved or turn a blind eye? Without being in the situation it’s impossible to determine how you would react. More than 100 years ago, a former soldier named Henry Rathbone tried to capture a famous killer and almost lost his life for his troubles.

Marc Hoover

This week’s story goes back to April 14, 1865, which was the day when an actor named John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln as he watched a play. Sure, you know the story. There have been many movies and books covering the story. You likely studied the details in high school or a college history class. The key players were Lincoln, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Booth. When most people think of Lincoln’s assassination they remember the famous Currier & Ives lithograph. The picture depicts Booth shooting Lincoln.

And if you look at the left of the picture you will see a man in a military uniform pointing to Booth. If you have seen the picture you probably never gave the soldier another glance or have never inquired into his identity. His name was Henry Rathbone—a decorated Civil War hero and friend of the Lincoln’s. Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris had attended the event as guests of the Lincoln’s.

After Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone unsuccessfully attempted to capture Booth. For his troubles, Booth stabbed Rathbone in the left arm with a dagger which severed an artery and almost caused Rathbone to bleed to death. He eventually passed out from his wounds. Rathbone, however, did hamper Booth’s escape. When Booth leapt from the theater box to escape, he fell and broke a leg.

Union soldiers caught up with Booth and killed him within two weeks of the assassination. So we know Booth and Lincoln both died. But whatever happened to the war hero that tried to capture his friend’s killer? Although the name John Wilkes Booth is recognizable, the name Henry Rathbone was long forgotten. One might assume that Rathbone spent his final days remembered as the war hero who nearly died trying to capture John Wilkes Booth.
Unfortunately, Rathbone would also commit murder, become institutionalized and have his remains discarded without any fanfare. Rathbone physically recovered from his stabbing, but he never recovered mentally.

In 1870, Rathbone left the Army and married Clara Harris. The union produced three children. Although Rathbone had a successful military career and married his sweetheart, he never forgave himself for preventing Lincoln’s assassination or capturing Booth. He also lived with witnessing Lincoln’s death.

In 1882, Rathbone and his family moved to Germany after Rathbone accepted a political position. After the move, Rathbone’s mental health declined for the worse. On December 23, 1883, Rathbone murdered his beloved wife. He stabbed and shot her to death. He then attempted suicide by stabbing himself five times in the chest. He survived and was charged with murder.

A court declared him insane and sentenced him to life in a German asylum for the criminally insane. In 1911, the former military hero and friend of President Abraham’s Lincoln died in the asylum. He was buried next to the wife he murdered in a German cemetery. If life couldn’t have been worse for the Rathbone family, facilitators of the German cemetery disinterred the remains of the deceased couple and disposed of their remains. Not only did John Wilkes Booth destroy the Lincoln family, one cannot help but wonder if he also destroyed the Rathbone family.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at http://www.lifewithgrandpa.com. He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.