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April 18, 2019

1865-1956: The Emotional Aftermath on Witnesses of Lincoln’s Assassination

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln left deep scars on the American psyche and people, who had just been traumatised by four years of Civil War. The devastation also left Mary Todd Lincoln a widow, scarcely three years after the death of their second son, Willie. Mary, who had been holding hands with the president when he was shot, was never the same. But what about the other people present and witnesses to the assassination? What emotional wake did it leave in their lives?

There were only four people in the presidential box at Ford’s theatre on the night of the assassination; Abraham Lincoln, Mary Lincoln, Major Henry Reed Rathbone, and his fiance, Clara Harris. Well known is the fate of the President and the First Lady, but what of their companions?

Rathbone, who tried to apprehend Booth, was stabbed in his arm to the bone by the assassin. Despite sustaining a serious injury, Rathbone managed to pull Booth’s coat, as the latter escaped by jumping twelve feet from the box to the stage. Rathbone’s persistence may have caused Booth to break his leg when he landed awkwardly on the stage. By the time the numerous physicians who were tending to Lincoln got to Rathbone, he had lost a lot of blood due to a severed artery. Although Rathbone did physically recover, his mental health deteriorated over the years. He and Clara Harris married, and in 1882, President Chester Arthur appointed Rathbone the US Consul to Hannover, where his mental health deteriorated even further. The following year, Rathbone tried to attack his three children, and fatally shot his wife in the head as she protected them. The children were sent to live with Clara’s brother, William Harris, in the USA. Their father died in an insane asylum 28 years later, in Hildesheim, Germany.

Many of the physicians who cared for Lincoln left eyewitness reports and medical summaries of the events of the night, including his personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone.  

The youngest eyewitness to the assassination was a five-year-old Samuel J. Seymour, who sat on his godmother’s lap in the balcony across from the presidential box. He recalls Lincoln slumping over, as well as Booth jumping to the stage. That night, “I was shot at 50 times, at least in my dreams–” and, Seymour goes on, “I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker, as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

You can see Seymour appearing on a a game show called I Have a Secret in February of 1956, less than two months before he passed away at the age of 96.

Video Transcript

Speaker
…I’ve Got A Secret. I would like to go over and personally escort our next guest on the show tonight.

Speaker

There you go. Now then sir, will you tell our panel, please… Let’s get in a little closer. Do you mind if I pull you in, sir? There we go. Will you tell our panel, please, what your name is and where you’re from?

Samuel J. Seymour
I am Samuel J. Seymour. I’m from Maryland.

Speaker

This is Mr. Seymour from Maryland. And we brought Mr. Seymour all the way up from Maryland and by golly, he got in the hotel and fell down the steps and gave himself a shiner. And we urged him not to come on the show tonight, as a matter of fact, and finally got in touch with his doctor and the doctor said it was up to Mr. Seymour. Mr. Seymour said he wouldn’t miss it, so here he is and feeling [inaudible 00:01:05].

[inaudible 00:01:07].

Speaker
Now then Mr. Seymour, how old are you by the way, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour
96.

Speaker
96 years old.

[inaudible 00:01:21].

Speaker
Now Sir, if you’ll whisper your secret to me, I’m sure the folks at home would like to know what it is.

Speaker
Well, now to help classify his secret I will tell you it concerns something that he witnessed. And Bill Cullen, we’ll start with you. Something that he saw, something he saw happen.

Speaker
This thing that Mr. Seymour saw, does it have historical significance?

Speaker
Does this have historical significance, Mr. Seymour? I would say yes, wouldn’t you, sir?

Speaker
Yeah. I can’t hear him very good. You’re going to have to tell-

Speaker
Yeah, sir. There’s quite a distance between our desks here. Let’s all speak up. Huh?

Bill Cullen
Does it have have political significance?

Speaker
It had political significance at the time.

Samuel J. Seymour
Yeah.

Speaker
Yes.

Bill Cullen
Well, if you’re 96, that would make the Mr. Seymour born in-

Henry
1860.

Bill Cullen
1860.

Speaker
That Henry, he’s such a mathematician.

Bill Cullen
Yeah. He’s been writing over there all the time. This thing that didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War, Mr. Seymour?

Speaker
No. It had not to do with the Civil… Well, let’s say indirectly it was concerned with the Civil War. All right in answering?

Samuel J. Seymour
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker
Anyway.

Samuel J. Seymour
Did it concern a famous person in American history, a very well-known person?

Speaker
Did it concern a famous person, Mr. Seymour?

Samuel J. Seymour
Yeah.

Speaker
Yeah.

Bill Cullen
Would it help me to know who this person was?

Samuel J. Seymour
What’d he say?

Speaker
He wants to know if it would help him to know who this person was, and he has to know who that is, yes.

Bill Cullen
Did this man hold political office?

Speaker
Did this man hold political officer, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour
Yes.

Speaker
Yes. $20 down and $60 to go. And we go to Jane Meadows.

Samuel J. Seymour
You’re killing me.

Jane Meadows
Mr. Seymour, would-

Speaker
Henry is being his usual helpful self by whispering to Jane, “McKinley.”

Jane Meadows
And I’m not listening. Mr. Seymour, would this person have ever been president of the United States?

Speaker
Was he ever president, this man?

Samuel J. Seymour
I think he was once.

Speaker
He was.

Jane Meadows
Would it have been Abraham Lincoln?

Speaker
It was Abraham Lincoln. Yes.

Jane Meadows
You witnessed something to do with Abraham Lincoln. Was this a pleasant thing?

Speaker
Was it a pleasant thing you saw, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour
Not very pleasant I don’t think.

Speaker
No.

Samuel J. Seymour
I was scared to death over it.

Speaker
He said, “No. He was scared to death.”

Jane Meadows
Would it have had anything to do with the President Lincoln’s death by any chance?

Speaker
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Unfortunately, yes.

Jane Meadows
Did Mr. Seymour witness the shooting of President Lincoln?

Speaker
We found out about Mr. Seymour through a recent article in the American Weekly, and it said, “I saw Lincoln shot.” And this article is by Samuel J. Seymour. And it goes on to say that Mr. Seymour was five-years-old at the time. He had been taken to Ford’s Theater by some good friends. And the curious thing was that when he was his youth, five years of age, when he saw Booth jump from the box to the stage, at which time he broke his leg, his only concern was not for the president because he didn’t realize that the president had been shot, but the poor man who fell out of the balcony. And that’s all of his memory is of going to the theater and seeing a man fall out of the balcony.

Sir, it’s been a great joy and you might say an honor to have… You are by the way, the only living witness of that tragic event. And we are certainly going to forfeit the complete $80 to you just for your courage in coming here to see us tonight.

(silence)

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