Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Major majorly loses it...and with good reason

You’re standing outside 8 Jackson Place, when suddenly you hear footsteps and Wait! Was that a woman’s voice? How can it be, there’s no one standing around you? You, the tourist, quickly consult your DC guide book. Aha there it is! 8 Jackson Place—the Rathbone House—former home of Major Henry Rathbone, who shot his wife and stabbed himself. They say the place is haunted!

Major Rathbone is most famous for having been in the box at Ford’s Theatre the fateful night President Lincoln was shot. Rathbone’s fiancée Clara Harris was a close friend of the Mary Todd, and after General Grant could not make it to the play, Harris and Rathbone accompanied the Lincoln’s to the viewing of Our American Cousin. It was Rathbone who witnessed Booth entering the box, and it was he who made a grab at Booth, suffering a slash across the chest from Booth’s knife. Clara Harris soon found her dress covered in Rathbone’s blood.

Though our favorite president met this end, Rathbone recovered. The couple married in 1867 and eventually had children. Recovered in body Major Rathbone, never fully recovered in spirit. He blamed himself for failing to prevent Lincoln’s assassination. He suffered headaches and grew paranoid that his wife and children would leave them. His condition forced him to resign his commission in the army and take his family to Europe in search for a cure.

Early on Christmas Eve morning in 1883, Rathbone entered his wife’s bedroom fully dressed in a suit. He asked for the children. Clara pointed out the early hour. Rathbone took out a revolver and shot his wife. He then stabbed himself with a knife six times. His wife quickly died and was buried in Hanover, but the tortured Henry survived yet again. He was placed in an asylum in Germany and spent the rest of his days shouting about people in the conspiring to get him. The US Consul in Germany declared him “hopelessly insane.” Rathbone died in 1911, and was buried next to Clara with little fanfare. Incidentally, his son went on to become a member of the House of Representatives representing the great state of Illinois.

As to whether or not the Rathbone house is haunted, I’ll leave it to you to decide. Personally though, I find it difficult to believe that the ghosts of the Rathbones would cross the Atlantic Ocean and take residency there. It would be a chilly swim… even for a ghost.

Sources: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals.

Michael E. Ruane, “A Tragedy’s Second Act,” The Washington Post, page W14 (April 5, 2009).

Gene Smith, “The Haunted Major,” American Heritage, February/ March 1994, Vol 45 Issue 1.

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