Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
Burial Location: Mount Evergreen Cemetery, Jackson, Michigan
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
Hello cemetery patrons,
This is Kate resuming the blog’s Grave Thursday tradition following our holiday hiatus.
After writing about Major General John Hartranft for a previous Grave Thursday, I received a comment regarding my lack of information about Captain Christian Rath, the man who always seems to appear alongside General Hartranft. I answered the question by stating that such a distinguished figure as Captain Rath deserved his own spotlight, not a mere afterthought bolted onto someone else’s legacy. So, without further ado, here is the story of Captain Christian Rath, perhaps secondary in rank but first in honor.
Little is known of Rath’s early life other than he was born on October 22, 1831 in Germany. He either left or fled home – depending on the source – at the age of 18 after joining a group of revolutionaries that attacked the German government. Immigrating to the United States in 1849, Rath made his way to Jackson, Michigan, the place that would become his permanent settlement. In 1857 he married Evaline Henry, with whom he had two children, and became a shoemaker, the trade in which he was employed at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before enlisting himself, Rath ran an enlistment office out of his storefront.
During the war between the states, Rath served with Company G of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the same regiment he had aided and the same company he had organized. In 1862, at the age of 30, he became the company’s second lieutenant. He would be promoted to first lieutenant the same year and rise to the rank of Captain in 1863. Due to being wounded at the famous battle of Antietam, Rath would suffer various medical ailments for the rest of his life. He was also briefly captured by Confederate forces at Spotsylvania in 1864 but managed to escape. Rath remained a Captain for the remainder of the war, his next promotion coming only after fighting had ceased.
Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Rath received notice that General John Hartranft, the man placed in charge of the conspirators at Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, wanted Rath as his Provost-Marshal. According to Rath, the two men had known each other for some time:
“I was well acquainted with Hartranft; we had met in many battles, and I had broken many horses for him, both of us being lovers of fine animals.”
General Hartranft had also previously selected Major Richard Watts for his staff. Watts had been a member of the 17th Michigan as well and recommended Rath for service when Hartranft asked for more recruits.
In the courtroom, Hartranft and Rath often sat together at a small table by the public entrance checking audience passes.
Arguably, Rath is most remembered for being the hangman of the four condemned conspirators. On the afternoon of July 6, 1865, the Union government headed by Andrew Johnson presented Rath with a long list of jobs (build and test the gallows, make the nooses and hoods, oversee the digging of the graves) and a ridiculously short amount of time to complete them all (slightly less than one day). According to the Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers,
“The scaffold was twenty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet high to the floor of the scaffold, and twenty feet high to the beam that held the ropes. The platform consisted of two drops, each six feet by four feet, supported by an upright beam that could be knocked away on command.”
It took all night to complete the gallows. The final nail was only hammered in on the morning of the execution, making it less than 24 hours old at the time of its use.
Rath also tied the nooses long after the sun had set on July 6th. Tired and believing Mary Surratt would be spared, he only put five turns in the knot instead of the regulation seven.
“I put seven knots in each one except one, and I only put five in that, for I fully expected that Mrs. Surratt would never hang.”
Rath found his “prop knockers” (William Coxshall, Daniel Shoup, George Taylor, and Joseph Haslett) only by claiming he needed assistance with a “special duty.” However, this sly idea did not find any volunteer grave diggers and Rath had to order soldiers to the task. “All the workmen were superstitious,” he later wrote. It was a common 19th century belief that grave digging brought bad luck.
Authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliot attempted to follow Rath around the courtyard in their book supplement, Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators. They placed him on the gallows, where he said to Lewis Powell, “I want you to die quick,” and then eventually found him back on the ground where he gave the signal to knock away the support posts. The signal changes from source to source, sometimes being recorded as three claps or a thrust of the hand. Moments before this, Rath recalled asking General Winfield Hancock if Mary Surratt would be saved to which Hancock replied no.
After the execution, Rath was promoted to Brevet Major and Lieutenant Colonel for “special and efficient services during the confinement, trial, and execution of the conspirators.”
Christian Rath quietly lived out the rest of his life in Michigan. He resumed work as a shoemaker, owned a fruit farm, raised chickens, frequently participated in military parades and from 1868 to 1900 worked as a a mail clerk for the Michigan Central Railroad. With the exception of a handful of interviews, he did not speak much about the events he witnessed during the summer of 1865. Rath died at the age of 89 on February 14, 1920. He was buried beside his wife, who had died in 1908, in Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan.
Several stories followed Rath’s legacy due to his involvement in the infamous execution. One story, found in the book, The Man Who Traded his Wife for Woodworking Tools: And Other True Stories of 19th Century Jackson, Michigan, claimed that Rath was plagued by nightmares of Anna Surratt screaming at him for killing her mother. Why this hysterical apparition of sorts appeared to Rath and not Andrew Johnson I do not know.
A similar tall tale said that Mary Surratt’s spirit was punishing those who had wrongly taken her life, including Christian Rath who had gone insane and died in a mental institution. However, this was little more than the likes of a penny dreadful fable. Unlike Boston Corbett or Henry Rathbone, Rath only suffered from rheumatism (joint pain), dyspepsia (chest pain), and cystitis (bladder inflammation) due to his war wounds and dementia due to age. Furthermore, Rath treated Mary Surratt with the utmost of respect during the execution. “I had Lieutenant-Colonel McCall lead Mrs. Surratt from her cell to the gallows, as I did not want an ordinary soldier to lay his hands on her,” he said. Even her placement on the gallows, decided by Rath, conveyed honor. “I wanted to give Mrs. Surratt any honor I could, so I seated her one the right.” After the hanging, Rath said, “I took charge of Mrs. Surratt myself, not being willing that any hand should desecrate her. I lifted her tenderly in my arms…removed the noose from her neck, and with my own hands and alone placed her in the box.”
Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Rath was a soldier, not an executioner. His limited knowledge of proper hanging procedures and the demanding deadline swiftly caught up with him. He failed to correctly prepare and secure the ropes, leading to an unexpected botched execution. While Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt did die quickly, the same could not be said for David Herold or Lewis Powell who strangled for about five and seven minutes, respectively. Christian Rath will always be known as the “hangman” of the Lincoln conspirators. However, it should also be remembered that, despite his failures, he did try to make moral choices.
Grave photographs courtesy of Peter Gaudet. You can view his website by clicking here.
Until next time.