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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.

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