Monday, May 20, 2013

Murder, mayhem and a touch of madness: in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

LOUDONVILLE - The noises had been heard for decades, floating into the bedroom from a spot behind the wall.

At first, there was the eerie sound of giggling. Then, a woman's anguished cry would follow the startling cannon of a single gun shot, ripping into the darkness of night. Over the course of a half-century, and precisely at the stroke of midnight on April 14, residents would report seeing the ghostly image of a sad-eyed man creaking back and forth in his rocker. The man, they said, bore a resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
Abe Lincoln's artifacts on display at Saratoga Springs History Museum

There were four people seated in the State Box at Ford's Theatre that Good Friday evening in 1865. Another 1,700 theatergoers paid between 25 cents and $1 to watch the staging of the play 'Our American Cousin.' The president sat in his rocking chair at the right side of the box, next to his wife Mary Todd.

To their right, 28-year-old Maj. Henry Reed Rathbone sat with his fiancé Clara Harris, who had chosen a white satin dress to wear for the special occasion.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the third act of the comedy had begun. John Wilkes Booth crept ever closer to the entry door of the State Box.

Albany connection

Rathbone was born in Albany in 1837, where his father, Jared Rathbone, served as mayor from 1838 to 1841. A banker and merchant by trade, when the elder Rathbone died, he left young Henry sufficient money that would ensure he would never need to work a day in his life. The young man enrolled at Union College.

His widowed mother Pauline remarried. Ira Harris, himself a widower, was a prominent Albany judge who would soon become a New York state senator.

Harris owned a summer cottage just outside Albany, in the neighborhood of Loudonville. Loudon Cottage, as it came to be known, was built in the 1830s and served the Harris family through the 19th century.

Harris had two sons and four daughters, one of whom was named Clara. At the time of her father's marriage to Pauline Rathbone, Clara was either 10 or 20 years old -- depending on whose records you choose to believe. A decade later, Henry and Clara -- stepbrother and stepsister -- had designs on wedding plans of their own, as they sat alongside the Lincolns in the Ford Theater box.

Historic murder

It was about 10:15 p.m Friday, April 14, as Booth crept inside the door, gun in hand. The shot hit the president just behind his left ear. Rathbone rose to grab him, but he was too late. Booth dropped the gun and drew out a long knife, repeatedly stabbing Rathbone across his upper body.

Dazed and bloodied, Rathbone nonetheless tried to assist the president. He and fiancee Clara -- her white satin dress turning crimson as it saturated with blood -- helped escort the mortally wounded Lincoln to a boarding house across the street. The next morning, Lincoln was pronounced dead. Rathbone collapsed from his injuries, but survived the physical attack.

He and Clara retreated to the Harris summer house in Loudonville. She couldn't bear to dispose of the blood-stained, white satin dress. Instead, she hung it on a hanger out of sight. Exactly one year later, she first saw the ghostly image of Lincoln.

She had the closet sealed by a secret brick wall, the dress hang-ing inside the wall like it was in its own tomb, where it remained long after Harris moved away. Years later, guests would hear and see similar visions.

In July 1867, shortly after his 30th birthday and on the eve of his wedding, Rathbone resigned his position with the army, and the couple began traveling around the world. They had three children -- two boys and a girl. The circumstances of Lincoln's assassination however, continued to gnaw at Rathbone.

Friends who visited with the couple in Albany when they returned to spend the summer of 1882 at the Harris farm noticed Rathbone's increasingly violent temper, as well as his becoming noticeably morose and troubled. He suffered delusions and lived in constant state of fear.

His wife also noticed her husband had developed a strong jealousy toward her and fears that she would leave him.

More tragedy

A year and a half later, the family continued trekking around the world and spent Christmas Eve in Hanover, Germany. Early on Christmas morning, the sound of gun shots rang out in the home where the family was staying. The three children slept a bedroom away.

Moments later, Mrs. Rathbone was discovered on the bed, bleeding to death from multiple gun shot and stab wounds. Rathbone stood next to the bed and dropped his gun on the floor. Three chambers remained loaded. He picked up a dagger and proceeded to stab himself several times.

A few days later, Mrs. Rathbone was buried in Germany. The funeral was attended by many friends of the dignified family.

Her husband, much as he did when stabbed by Booth 18 years earlier, recovered from his wounds. As the couple's three children boarded a boat headed for Albany, where they would be raised by the Harris family, their father was committed to a German asylum for the insane, where he would spend the rest of his life. Rathbone lived until he was 73 years old.

Still, his wife's blood-stained, white satin dress continued to hang in a secret closet in Loudonville. And for visitors to the old home, which became an early 20th century boarding house, the ghostly visions and cries in the night continued.

Around the time of Rathbone's death in 1911, legend maintains that one of the Rathbone sons -- now fully into adulthood -- broke down the brick wall of the secret closet, took a flame to his mother's white satin dress and burned it to ashes.

Rathbone was buried in Germany next to his wife. By the early 1950s, there were no more visitors coming to the Rathbone graves. The couple's remains were dug up and disposed of.

According to the town of Colonie historian's office, the Loudon Cottage house was sold in the late 1920s. Its new owner moved the cottage 500 feet south to a location on Cherry Tree Road, where it remains to this day.

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