Lincoln’s Death, New Nation: April 1865 to 1877

Lincoln’s Assassination

How did Major Rathbone come by his wound?

A split second after Booth fired his pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head, Major Rathbone was on his feet and crossing the box. Booth anticipated him, lunging with his knife, and he wounded Rathbone severely in the arm. Reeling from the pain, Rathbone stood by and watched for the next several hours as Lincoln hovered between life and death. When the doctors finally ministered to Rathbone, they found he had lost a great deal of blood, but he did not lose his arm. Something else, however, proved his undoing.

Guilt followed Rathbone for the rest of his life. Most of us, with our twenty-first century mindset, would absolve him of any weakness or guilt: he had jumped when the call of duty arrived. But Rathbone was a thoroughly nineteenth-century person, and it seemed to him that he had signally failed to protect the president. Though he later married Clara Harris and though they had three children, Rathbone still seemed ill at ease. Appointed U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany, in 1882, he went there with his family, and on December 23, 1883, he murdered his wife. Rathbone shot Clara dead, then stabbed her many times. When the police arrived, they found that Rathbone had attempted to stab himself. Found insane, he was confined to an asylum, where he died in July 1911.


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