|January 1, 1999|
Henry and Clara
Henry Reed Rathbone and Clara Harris joined President and Mrs. Lincoln in their Ford's Theatre box seats to watch Our American Cousin on the evening of Good Friday, 1865 -- the night the President was assassinated.
Thomas Mallon, whose novel Henry and Clara was the freshman reading assignment this summer, discovered that the story of the young couple extended well before and after that April evening. Last fall, Mallon spoke on campus about Henry and Clara, which has a special connection with Union.
Henry Rathbone had entered Union on April 29, 1854, at age sixteen. A "Classical course" student, he lived in North College and was a member of Sigma Phi fraternity, graduating in 1857. Mallon based part of his story on records that he found at Union.
The quotations below are taken from chapter twenty-nine of Henry and Clara.
Please tell them that the President and his lady are here.
President and Mrs. Lincoln's horse-drawn carriage arrived at the Harris family residence a little late. Their guests awaited an evening to remember with the witty President and the boisterous first lady.
Henry and Clara had jumped at the presidential invitation, which had been declined by Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. Young, handsome, and well-to-do, Henry Reed Rathbone was the son of the mayor of Albany. He was seventeen when his father died, and he inherited the grandiose sum of $200,000. A close friend of his mother happened to be Mary Todd Lincoln.
His fiancee, Clara, was the striking daughter of U.S. Senator Ira Harris, Union alumnus and trustee who would serve as acting president of the College in 1868-69.
"Where is your good father this week?" asked Mr. Lincoln, looking first at Clara and then at Major Rathbone, unsure which one to put the question to. To his mind they were both Harris's children, and when Mrs. Lincoln burbled the secret of their engagement to him last year, he had stood for a moment without saying anything, just feeling that it was a peculiar thing for a boy and girl raised together as they had been to be marrying each other.
The couple actually had grown up almost as siblings. Henry's mother, Pauline, married Clara's father, Ira Harris, after the death of her first husband. Henry and Clara were children, and it was to their parents' dismay that they later become engaged.
The opinion expressed by President Lincoln is one of the many liberties that Mallon took in creating his characters. True, the President and the young couple were well acquainted by the night the Lincolns picked them up on their way to the theater. The President might have made such a remark in his mind, although in re
ality, of course, it was Mallon who spun the dialogue.
Mrs. Lincoln made a whispery fuss of arranging them all: the President in a rocker, herself beside him, Clara on a chair to her right, and Henry on a small sofa behind his fiancee. "Will you be able to see?" she asked him. Everything she noted was red: the floral wallpaper, the carpet, the damask of Henry's couch. The balcony seemed a toy world.
Lincoln was preoccupied with the reconstruction of the South and so weary, in fact, that he was seeking a bit of relaxation in going to the play. Henry, known as the red-headed, fiery-natured young major, served in the infantry and was provost marshall of the City of Washington. John Wilkes Booth had been planning an assassination attempt, and officials feared the President to be danger.
Clara felt the muscles of her arms jump inside their puffed sleeves. A trap door must have been sprung onstage. The loud crack was some bit of stage business, like this burst of blue smoke she could see and smell. But that had to be wrong, she realized, turning left in her seat: The smoke was behind her.
In Mallon's story, Clara Harris doesn't even realize that the President had been shot in the back of his head when a loud bang startles the audience. In his telling of the scene, Clara is shocked and still at the sight of a man grappling with her fiancee and striking him with a knife, ripping skin from his elbow to his shoulder. John Wilkes Booth pushes through the box, splattered with Henry's blood.
"Stop that man!"
"Won't somebody stop that man?"
Henry and Clara yelled as Booth scrambled over the balcony and through the crowd. In their shock, it was all they could do, and Henry was haunted by guilt for the rest of his life, thinking he should have done more to save the President.
Mallon's account describes how the balcony quickly filled with Army officials and how a young doctor in the audience stretched the President out on the floor. In the confusion, Clara and Mary went in and out of hysteria and disorientation, and Henry continued to bleed. Booth's gun, a derringer pistol, had sent a nickel-sized bullet into the President's brain, and doctors could do little before he died the next morning. Henry, who had received six stab wounds, was rushed by carriage back to the Harris residence to recover.
The doctors were trying to keep the tiny puncture behind his ear from clotting; the pillow, Clara heard Stanton tell Sumner much too loudly, was a terrible sight.
After the President's funeral, Clara returned to New York, where her family owned a summer cottage in Loudonville. She had been unable to part with the white satin dress still stained with blood, untouched since the night she left the theater. It hung in a closet until exactly one year after the assassination, when Clara claimed that she awoke to the ghost of Lincoln laughing, just as he had been enjoying the play before he was shot.
Family and friends assumed Clara had dreamed the episode, until another year later when the same phenomenon affected the governor of Massachusetts, who was staying with the Harrises. Henry walled off the closet, but locals always claimed the house was haunted. A Rathbone son tore down the wall in 1910 and burned the dress, believing it had placed a curse of violence and insanity on the household.
Clara and Henry had married in the summer of 1867, despite the changes that the horrendous incident had caused. Ever since that evening in 1865, Henry suffered from delusions and panic attacks, and Clara experienced faltering health as well.
On Christmas morning of 1883, the most disturbing part of the story is played out. Henry entered his wife's bedroom in a house in Hanover, Germany, where the Rathbones were seeking medical help for Henry. In a mad fit, supposedly duplicating John Wilkes Booth's actions eighteen years earlier, Henry shot Clara and then stabbed himself six times. Clara died, but Henry survived. He lived in an asylum until his death in 1911.