On April 14, 1865, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln sent off shock waves throughout a United States that was crawling out of four years of civil war. Murdered by a Confederate sympathizer in a Washington, DC theater, the death of Abraham Lincoln shocked everyone. America would never be the same - it was the first presidential assassination in the nation’s history.
As one of the most traumatic and significant events in American history, Lincoln’s assassination is also one of the most-taught subjects in schools across the country. Consequently, the vast majority of Americans know the basics of the story: Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, just as the Civil War was coming to a close. The play Lincoln and his wife were seeing was Our American Cousin, a light comedy.
But there are many shocking facts connected to Lincoln’s assassination that are a bit more surprising and obscure to the casual historian. The events of April 14, 1865, were simultaneously bigger and more tragic than most people realize. Many dramas were unfolding outside of Ford’s Theater before, during, and after that fateful, bloody night. And the horrors that happened in the presidential box continue to haunt the witnesses for the rest of their lives.
The events of April 14, 1865, were supposed to be even more sinister than the assassination of the president. Booth and some of his conspirators had also meant to murder two prominent members of the Lincoln administration that night: Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. The plan was for each assassin - Booth for Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, Lewis Powell for Seward at his home, and George Atzerodt for Johnson at the Pennsylvania House Hotel - to strike at around 10:00 pm.
Atzerodt backed out of the plan. Instead of murdering Johnson, he got drunk at a nearby saloon, checked into his room at the hotel, and passed out on his bed.
Lewis Powell, a former Confederate ranger with John S. Mosby, followed through with the plan. He gained entry to Seward’s own home and charged into the Secretary of State’s bedroom, slashing and pushing his way past two of Seward’s sons, his daughter, and a Union Army guard. He stabbed Seward and fled the scene. Though Seward’s wounds - and those of his sons’ - were serious, they all healed.
The Lincolns were not alone in their Ford’s Theater box on April 14, 1865. They had invited one of the most promising young couples in Washington to accompany them on a night out at the theater: dashing Union officer Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris.
When Booth soundlessly entered the presidential booth and fired a bullet into Lincoln’s head, it was Rathbone who immediately attempted to apprehend the assassin. Booth was prepared, however, and slashed Rathbone’s arm with a knife before fleeing the scene. Though his wound was severe, Rathbone called out, “Stop that man!” to the stunned theater.
Though Rathbone would survive his physical wounds, he continued to blame himself for Lincoln’s assassination - the president, he felt, had died on his watch.
Rathbone and Harris married in 1867 and the couple had three children. Despite their attempts to make a normal life in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, the specter of the Lincoln assassination would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Rathbone’s mental health declined, and he became increasingly paranoid and suspicious.
Things came to a head in Germany, where Rathbone had been placed as a diplomat by President Chester Arthur. On Christmas Eve 1883, Rathbone suffered a fit of madness and approached his children’s room. Clara, fearful for her children’s lives, intervened - Rathbone shot her and then stabbed himself. Though his wife died from the wounds, he survived.
Rathbone lost custody of his children, who were sent back back to the United States, and he was committed to an asylum in Germany, where he lived out the rest of his troubled days.
The Lincolns had initially invited Civil War hero and future President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia to attend Our American Cousin with them on the night of April 14, 1865. The Grants turned down the invitation, however.
Had the Grants accepted the Lincolns’ invitation, Ulysses Grant surely would have been attacked - if not assassinated - alongside the president that night, and the process of Reconstruction would have looked very different. Indeed, Booth himself had believed that Grant would be with Lincoln in the presidential box.
Ward Hill Lamon, one of Lincoln’s friends and colleagues, wrote in a memoir published two decades after the assassination that Lincoln had confided in him about a disturbing dream. On around April 4, 1865, Lamon claimed, Lincoln dreamt that he had walked into a room in the White House, where he saw a body laying on a table. When he asked what had happened, a solider replied, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.”
To make matters even weirder, Lincoln’s bodyguard also insisted that the president had repeatedly dreamed about his own death. Whether or not this actually happened or it was merely a tale concocted to add dramatic effect to Lincoln’s end, these death-premonition stories suggest that survivors saw Lincoln’s end as a bitter, almost prophetic tragedy.