Booth’s Trail of Madness

November 2008


John W. Booth decided to kill Abraham Lincoln just a few hours before the dastardly deed was carried out. Booth stopped by Ford’s Theater that afternoon to see if he had any mail and heard from the theater staff that Lincoln would attend that evening’s performance. Hours later, the firing of Booth’s single shot set off a ripple effect of death and madness.


Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris sat alongside President and Mrs. Lincoln in the presidential box on that fateful evening. After the deadly shot was fired and Mrs. Lincoln screamed, Major Rathbone jumped up in alarm and began grappling with the perpetrator. Rathbone suffered several slashes from Booth’s large Bowie knife before Booth leaped to the stage for his last soliloquy. Amazingly, when the “doctor in the house” Charles Leale arrived in the box to attend to the president, Rathbone asked that his own wounds be addressed first. The doctor disregarded Rathbone’s request.


Rathbone and Clara married in July 1867. In 1882, Rathbone was appointed U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany, and his family of five relocated there. On December 23, 1883, after 16 years of marriage, Rathbone stabbed and shot his wife to death and then stabbed himself. Rathbone used the same weapons as Booth. Rathbone recovered from his self-inflicted wounds and spent the rest of his days in a German insane asylum.


Mrs. Lincoln suffered through the deaths of three of her sons and her husband’s assassination. In 1875, she spent three months in an insane asylum, a commitment spurred by her eldest son Robert. In 1882, at the young age of 63, Mary died in the upstairs bedroom of the same house she was married in 40 years earlier.


Booth died at age 26 just 12 days after committing his infamous crime. His death was the result of a single shot to the neck by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Corbett shot Booth without orders and claimed Providence took the shot, not he. After his release from the army, Corbett returned to his trade as a hatter, and apparently a mad one. In 1887, while working as assistant doorkeeper for the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka, Kansas, he brandished a revolver after overhearing a conversation to which he took exception. As a result, Corbett was sent to the Topeka Insane Asylum.


Ford’s Theater was seized by the government almost immediately after the assassination. Within a few years the U.S. Military began using the building for a variety of purposes, including a document library. In June 1893, the upper floor collapsed, killing 22 and injuring 68. In 1968, Ford’s Theater was finally restored to its 1865 appearance. Booth’s taint lasted more than 100 years.