Henry had descended into madness following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The couple were present when John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln, and it forever changed the course of their lives.
Clara was the daughter of a prominent, wealthy New York family. She was engaged to Henry Reed Rathbone, and he also accompanied the Lincolns to the theatre that fateful evening. Although I could go into detail about the assassination, I think enough Hollywood portrayals have been told regarding it, so instead we’ll just focus on Clara and the impact the Presidents assassination had on her life.
When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, Clara’s fiancé Henry immediately attacked Booth, and was slashed on the upper arm by a knife in the assassin’s hand. The slash was from elbow to shoulder, and down to the bone. You can imagine how much it would have been hurting, and the amount of blood loss which would have accompanied it, but of course, both Clara and Henry were too caught up in the fact that their President was in critical condition right in front of their eyes, and Mrs Lincoln could not stop screaming.
While everybody else gathered around Lincoln, Clara stayed with her fiancé. Naturally she was covered in his blood.
"Poor Mrs. Lincoln, all through that dreadful night would look at me with horror & scream, 'oh! my husband's blood, my dear husband's blood'...It was Henry's blood, not the president's, but explanations were pointless."
Due to the magnitude of the events, Clara could not bring herself to get rid of the dress she was wearing that fateful night, nor have it laundered. She kept it in a wardrobe in her residence.
At the time, their name was recognised everywhere as being the couple who were with the Lincolns during the assassination. It was particularly bad every year at the anniversary of the event, as they would be bombarded by journalists wanting to interview them, wanting them to relive the event over and over again. This, of course, did nothing to ease the damaged state of mind that Henry was in. Clara once spoke of this, saying:
"I understand his distress...in every hotel we're in, as soon as people get wind of our presence, we feel ourselves become objects of morbid scrutiny.... Whenever we were in the dining room, we began to feel like zoo animals. Henry...imagines that the whispering is more pointed and malicious than it can possibly be."
Despite all of this Henry was eventually appointed US Consul to the Province of Hanover. This led to the family moving to Germany, where Henry continued to threaten Clara, and even went so far as to show envy at the attention she gave their children.
Just as with the Lincoln assassination, the person shot died. But the person who had the run-in with the knife lived. This act was the final straw for Henry’s sanity. He was institutionalised in a German asylum for the criminally insane. He was never released, and suffered terribly in this asylum. He died in 1911 and was buried next to his wife Clara.
In a sad turn of fate, the cemetery that they were buried in had a visitation policy. If your grave was not visited, you were deemed eligible for cremation, due to space requirements. In 1952 the Rathbone’s were disinterred, cremated and disposed of.
Well, as stated previously, Clara kept the dress stored in a closet in their family home in Albany. She claimed that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln visited her, and the visitation frightened her so much that she had the closet bricked up. She was woken up one year to the day of Lincoln’s death. She heard low laughter coming from the closet, and she swore it was Lincoln’s laughter. She chalked it up to her imagination, until exactly one year later a guest staying in the room heard the exact same thing. It was then she decided to make it inaccessible. This did not mean that it’s ‘effects’ were gone though. People in later years claimed to have heard gunshots, seen a blood soaked young woman standing with Lincoln, and all manner of spooky stories.
The dress was said to have been nothing but a curse to the family, and knowing what happened to both Clara and Henry, that could very well be true. In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the bricks removed and the dress destroyed in an attempt to rid the family of the dreaded curse.