Thoughts From Major Rathbone

When Booth’s dark deed was committed at Ford’s, no one had a closer seat to the action than the occupants of the theatre box. Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and her fiancée and stepbrother Major Henry Rathbone, had the horror of watching the scene play out within arm’s length. Shortly after the crime, Henry Rathbone gave a lengthy and detailed statement recalling the events as he remembered them. Rathbone’s account (which can be read here) provides a wonderful description of the scene of the crime and his activities after the shot was fired. While a re-reading of Rathbone’s account doesn’t provide any ground breaking new claims, it does contain a few details worthy of address and consideration. This post will discuss two minor details set forth by Rathbone in his testimony.

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (composite by the author)

After Booth shot Lincoln, Major Rathbone, alarmed by the report of a pistol and cloud of powder in the box, raised himself and attempted to subdue the assailant. During the struggle Booth thrust at Rathbone with his knife, which Rathbone parried upwards. In the course of this parry, Rathbone received a deep cut on his left arm between his elbow and his shoulder. It was a painful blow that knocked Rathbone back a bit. At this moment, free from grappling with Rathbone, Booth moved to the front of the theatre box, and leapt over it.

Many witnesses at the time said that Booth’s jump from the box was a noticeably ungraceful one. One eye witness account stated that, “He did not strike the stage fairly on his feet, but appeared to stumble slightly.” Immediately following the events, several others described similar stumbles Booth made upon reaching the stage.

A quite ungraceful engraving of Booth’s jump from the box

Granted, the distance he leapt was twelve feet off the ground and it can be a hard landing for any man to make properly. In his act of jumping, Booth disturbed the flags decorating the box. This, of course, makes perfect sense. The flags decorating the box were merely attached to the outside and weren’t expected to be moved during the President’s attendance. Instead of jumping straight from inside the box down to the stage in a hurdler’s motion, Booth likely leapt over the railing of the box, paused briefly on the small ledge on the other side, and then jumped down. This small ledge is where many flags were resting and draped about. A witness at Ford’s described that, during the jump, Booth, “partially t[ore] down the flag”.

Photograph of the box shortly a day or two after the assassination. Notice the partially pulled down flags.

Another witness had a similar account about his riding spur getting caught up in the decorations, causing his awkward fall. The American mythos of the assassination states that, while jumping, Booth was tangled in an American flag causing him to land poorly onto the stage and breaking his leg. In his diary, the vain Booth, probably attempting to save face for his less than perfect “performance”, claimed that in jumping from the box he broke his leg. Most Boothies accept this as fact while also entertaining the idea set forth by author Michael Kauffman that Booth broke his leg later that night, when his horse fell on him during the rough ride south. With it being impossible to prove one theory over another, historians just pick the idea they like better and concede that differences of opinion exist on the matter.

What is not really debated is that Booth fell uneasily upon the stage, making one of his worst entrances ever. While the flags generally receive the attention for causing Booth’s missteps, Rathbone’s account provides another possible reason:

“The man rushed to front of the box and [I] endeavored to seize him again but only caught his clothes as he was leaping… The clothes, as [I] believe, were torn in this attempt to seize him.”

While Rathbone gets credit for struggling with Booth and sacrificing his own arm attempting to subdue him, is it possible that Rathbone was also the reason Booth landed so hard upon the stage? As Booth was making his jump, could the grasp of Major Rathbone on his clothes have thrown the actor’s balance off and caused his clumsy landing? Further, if this is indeed when Booth broke his leg, effectively slowing down his escape, could it be Rathbone and not the flags, that deserve the credit? These questions and the overall scenario produced by them are merely items to contemplate and I make no claims of them being in anyway definitive.

A second item Rathbone mentions in his testimony is about the set up of the box itself. From the beginning Rathbone gives a wonderful description of the box and the locations of the parties therein. From his description the following diagram of the box seems to correct display the set up:

Booth entered the box through the outer passageway door marked H on the diagram. Remember, during normal nights the box in which the President’s party occupied severed as two boxes. A partition would separate it into two smaller boxes. That is why there are two doors inside the passageway. The door marked as G, was actually the closest door to the President, but was closed during the whole night. It was the entrance to Box 7. The Presidential party and Booth all entered the box through door F. That was the door to Box 8.

This inner door to Box 7 is on display at in the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

This door has a unique feature as it has a peep hole bored into. For many years it was written that this hole was bored by John Wilkes Booth on the morning of the assassination. After learning about Lincoln’s attendance that night, Booth did enter the theatre and found a wooden bar with which to jam the outer door so that it could not be opened. The wooden bar can be seen in the above picture sticking out from the bottom of the door. It was assumed that during this prep work, that he also bored a hole into the door in order to have an eye on the President before entering the box.

A letter written by Frank Ford (son of Harry Clay Ford, the theatre’s treasurer) denounced this idea. Frank stated that his father ordered the hole to be bored into the door so that the President’s guard, and others employed in their duties for the government or theatre, could look in on the President and his party instead of barging in straight away and disturbing them. Frank quotes his father as saying, “John Booth had too much to do that day other than to go around boring holes in theatre doors.” However, a period statement from Harry Ford has him saying, “Did not notice a hole in the door or in the wall. Did not take particular notice of the wall or door however.” So the mystery regarding the hole remains.

Even if this hole was bored at the bequest of the Ford’s, Booth still used it to eye the President before making his move, right? Not necessarily. According to Rathbone:

“The distance between the President as he sat and the door was about four or five feet. The door, according to [my] recollection, was not closed during the evening.”

Rathbone claims that the door to Box 8 was never closed during the performance. If this is the case, Booth may not have used the peephole to spy on the President through Box 7. After entering the passageway door, Booth stealthily put the wooden bar in place to “lock” the outside door, and either peered through the slightly open Box 8 door into the box, or just waited until the lines of the play were right to bust in and get his first real view. With all eyes directed on stage and not towards the rear, it seems that Booth could have been standing in the shadows of the passageway eyeing the President for some time before he acted. If Rathbone is to be believed and the door was open during the performance, the image of Booth before he shot Lincoln could change. Instead of a man hiding behind door 7 nervously peeking at his target through a hole, Booth becomes a shadowy figure, standing motionless in the doorway to box 8 eyeing his prey. To me the latter image is in line with Booth’s brazen persona. He brought an unreliable single shot derringer to kill the President, assured that he would succeed. I have no problem picturing this arrogant Booth, lurking near an open door a few feet away from the President, coiled like a viper waiting to strike.

Again, these small pieces of Rathbone’s account are posted here merely to initiate contemplation and conversation. Feel free to post your thoughts about them by clicking on the “comment” button below.

The Lincoln Assassination – The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers
We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy S. Good

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20 thoughts on “Thoughts From Major Rathbone

  1. Herb Swingle

    What a fabulous experience to be able to read Rathbone’s actual account of him being there in the Box.I agree that Rathbone’s effort to stop Booth did alter his”quick”escape! Can you imagine the”shock”that everyone went through in that box?

    • We certainly know the sad outcome of the occupants of the box. Mary Todd walked the line of sanity for the rest of her life, and Clara Rathbone suffered death at the hands of her insane husband, Henry. It seems that the shock never wore off for those sad folks.

  2. Art Loux

    In Rathbone’s statement, “The distance between the President as he sat and the door was about four or five feet. The door, according to [my] recollection, was not closed during the evening,” my interpretation is that he was referring to the door to box 8. The president’s chair in tiny box 7 would have been much closer to the box 7 door than four or five feet, but that would be the distance roughly to the door to box 8. Various diagrams of the boxes differ markedly. Some show the president’s chair much closer to the box 7 door than the diagram provided here.

    • Art,

      You make the excellent point that the box is far more compact than the diagram shows. Here’s a picture of the box interior after it was restored in 1968:

      The doors were extremely close to each other, but according to Rathbone’s account, they appeared very much like what the picture shows above. I quote from Rathbone’s account, “This passageway is entered by a door which opens on the inner side. The door is so placed as to make an acute angle between it and the wall behind it on the inner side. At the other end of the passageway is another door standing squarely across and opening into the box. On the left hand side of the passageway and very near the inner end is a third door, which also opens into the box. This latter door was closed. The party entered the box through the door at the end of the passageway.”

      From this, it sounds like the door that was actually closest to the President was closed that night. A picture the next day by Matthew Brady shows the same door, right behind the President, closed:

      While it clearly could have been shut later, looking closely at the photo, I notice that no hole is bored into it. Suggesting that the peephole is in the other door. So, even if Rathbone is wrong, and Booth did use the peephole to spy on the party, it would have been through the other door.

      All of this is circumstantial, of course, but fun to think about. Thanks for commenting!


  3. Pingback: “An old codger like me” « BoothieBarn

  4. I must say touring Ford’s Theatre these days is a big mess. I was in there many years ago, there was
    no lines, no guides you had to follow, you could go upstairs and look into the booth. Not anymore, there was a huge line all day to take a tour. All we did was sit in the theatre and hear the story we
    already know. A second tour was scheduled but we found we had to stand around for over 3 hours and apparently it just goes to the second floor and you do not get anywhere near the booth, at least
    that was what was told us after we went around the museum I don’t know how many times, having already seen the Petersen house the previous night. I wish I had taken photos before, there was no
    elevator, no garage, I did not see Booth’s diary in the museum. They also had wooden chairs when I went before and no Broadway shows which I don’t think goes well with the setting. It was totally disappointing for us. I found anywhere in Washington was a hassle, the Smithsonians filled to the rafters and really noisy, the Washington Monument of course was closed, it even looked tipsy but
    maybe that was the camera, we tried to see the Lincoln Memorial and those others on the mall but could not find a place to park. I never saw the capitol or the White House. When I went you did not
    need a ticket, you had a guide in the White House and not some recording to listen to. In fact the president was there when we were and we were told by the guides that he often came down to visit with the tourists and not to go crazy and try to get an autogragh. Also the Capitol we were free to roam around, it was wonderful back then yet I have hardly any photos.

  5. Well, getting back there for a 2nd look, I did find the door which had many many holes in it and is not
    displayed as in the story. I was shocked in that most people did not know the story of Major Rathbone and his wife. How sad things came out of that. I am certainly glad Gen. Grant and his wife did not go.

  6. Herb Swingle

    If a hole was made by anyone in the door,wouldn’t there have been woodshavings inside and outside the door?

    • Some have pointed to the fact that Booth had a gimlet in his hotel room and wood shavings in a handkerchief when he was captured as evidence that he bored the hole. However, why in the world would Booth hold on to pointless wood shavings from Ford’s for 12 days? I’m more of the opinion these were just shavings in case he needed to start a fire.

      When the box was being set up for the President, I’m sure any new shavings from the door would have been swept up.

      We’ll probably never truly know who made the hole in the door.

  7. Anthony Classick

    That door has tons of holes in it. And that 1968 photo was how I saw it sometime back then, you could go back and look in and now it’s all don’t get near it.

  8. missmoose

    looks like he could have stood in the opening of door #8 which was ajar; he could fire from there since he’d be right behind A.L. And why WOULDN’T he still have shavings in his pocket? he’s running for his life; he’s terrified and panic stricken — you really think he’s worrying about cleaning out his pockets?
    i’m almost certain he bored shavings from something — probably the bar for the door, but also likely that he did put in a peep hole. i remember reading an account wherein he and other conspirators were in the box by themselves, also booth was probably in the box by himself. He was meticulous and laid plenty of ground work, why wouldn’t he put the hole there? in the end, i’m confused since, from door#8, you can see into the box just fine (from the photos). guess he just wanted to cover all his bases sincer there was a chance that all doors would be shut when he came in, making the peep hole very necessary. i wonder if this guy had a fatal illness (syphilis?) and knew he was going to die anyway (?). he acted like someone with nothing to live for, but we know he had been a good actor, had a caring family and plenty of women — WHY would he have a death wish?

  9. Jack Baumun

    Has anyone read the book ” Worst seat In The House” by Caleb Stephens ? Leading question I have is , what did Major Rathbone see , and when did he see it ? In one of my vhs documentaries , Clara Harris indicates that the Major addressed Booth just before Both rushed passed him to shoot the President. This would have been a major factor in causing the Major a life time of guilt and grief for failure to save the president .Any thoughts ?

    • Michael Bezek

      I’ve read Clara’s statement about the Major challenging Booth before the shooting, but since she made the statement just a couple of hours afterwards, I’m tempted to think that she was still in a state of extreme shock and misremembered the sequence of events.

      What I find much more intriguing is the idea that Booth said something before he fired the shot. In his diary, Booth wrote that he said “Sic semper” before he fired, but I always dismissed that claim as sheer theatrical bravado. Now I’m not so sure, because I’ve read an account that says Rathbone was put under hypnosis in the 1890s and regressed back to the night of the assassination. In reliving the events of that night, the Major said he heard Booth say something like “I bring blessings to your Union,” before firing the shot. Couple that with an eyewitness account (Ferguson, I believe) who said he saw Lincoln turning his head right before the shot. Could it be that Booth did say something loud enough for Lincoln to hear, and that caused him to turn his head, but not loud enough for anyone else in the box to hear, at least on a conscious level? I don’t know much about hypnosis, but I’m guessing that while Rathbone didn’t consciously hear Booth’s statement, it was imprinted into his brain on a deeper level and the hypnosis drew it out.

  10. Additionally, I find Harris’ account that Booth made a dry run intriguing. She said, “Nearly one hour before the commission of the deed the assassin came to the door of the box, and looked in to take a survey of the position of its occupants.” As far as I know Harris’ account of the dry run was not seen by anyone else.

    • Michael Bezek

      Roger, I find it rather odd that none of the witnesses in the audience who testified that Booth made his way past them to the box to do the shooting (I think two of these people were army officers) ever said anything about him having made an earlier trip there. You would think that somebody would have noticed him!

  11. Jack Baumun

    And , it’s occurred to me that Mr. Lincoln’s footman/valet would have had to let Booth pass not once , but twice ! Am also wondering just WHEN did John F. Parker leave his station ? Still not sure of the challenge of Rathbone / Booth interface can be dismissed . Need to do more reading .

  12. Michael Bezek

    Has anyone definitively established where Forbes the footman was at the time of the shooting?

  13. Michael, I think the most in-depth study I have seen of this question is in John Fazio’s new book. John made an effort to gather every possible account. To me one of the most logical and believable statements was given by Simon P. Hanscom who delivered a dispatch to President Lincoln during the play. Hanscom was the editor of the “National Republican,” and in the newspaper he wrote that “the only person at the door to the box was Charles Forbes, the president’s messenger and footman.” Looking at all the evidence available, John Fazio writes, “We may safely conclude that after he escorted the presidential party to their box…Forbes took a seat in the dress circle very close to the outer door.” IMO John Fazio is right.

  14. Renee Lee

    something doesn’t seem right about the photo which shows the box after being rebuilt in 1968. The idea is that the two doors existed to provide separate entrances to the two boxes when the partition was up. Okay, if you go with that idea, then there would be no room for box 7 to even exist….. it would be something absurd like 3 foot square. I give a lot more credence to rathbone’s description of the inside of the box. Someone said that the crew doing the rebuild did not make an exact copy and things like this prove it to me.

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