Thursday, April 30, 2015

Madness in the Wake of Lincoln's Assassination

In addition to the national tragedy following President Lincoln's assassination, there were personal tolls on those involved with the attack and conspiracy.  Madness and depression plagued those touched by the event.

Presidential Box at Ford's Theater
Let's begin with the people in the box at Ford's Theater.  After Lincoln's death, Mary Lincoln remained in Washington for about a month before returning to Chicago to live with her sons, Tad and Robert. The death of Tad in July 1871 sent Mary into grief and depression. Her behavior became increasingly erratic, which alarmed Robert. During Mary's visit to Jacksonville, Florida in March 1875, Mary became concerned that Robert was deathly ill and rushed home to Chicago where she found him in good health. Mary told Robert that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a "wandering Jew" had taken her pocketbook but returned it later. She had also spent large amounts of money in Jacksonville on draperies and elaborate dresses. Mrs. Lincoln only wore black after her husband's assassination and had no use for the expensive outfits.  She walked around with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats.  Despite this large amount of money and a $3,000-a-year stipend from Congress, Mrs. Lincoln was irrationally afraid of poverty.

Mary Todd Lincoln
After she nearly jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, Robert committed her he committed her to Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois, on May 20, 1875. Three months after being sent to Bellevue, she devised plans to gain her release. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife and wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times. These letters produced a public scandal. Because Robert controlled his mother's finances, the public began to question his character and motives. The director of Bellevue, who had assured the jury at the commitment trial jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, changed his mind and he declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth. The commitment proceedings led to the estrangement of Mary and Robert. They did not reconcile until shortly before her death.

Mary was released into her sister's custody and moved to Springfield. A court proceeding in 1876, declared her competent to manage her own affairs. However, she was so enraged after the court decision that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered a lethal dose of laudanum to kill herself. The pharmacist realized her intentions and gave her a placebo.

Mrs. Lincoln traveled throughout Europe during the next four years and lived in Pau, France. Her final years were marked by declining health. She suffered from severe cataracts that reduced her eyesight; this condition may have contributed to her increasing susceptibility to falls. In 1879, she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall from a stepladder.

During the early 1880s, Mary Lincoln was confined to the Springfield, Illinois residence of her sister Elizabeth Edwards. On July 16, 1882, she collapsed at her sister's home and lapsed into a coma. She died at age 63 and was interred in the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield alongside her husband.

On April 14, 1865, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford's Theater from President and Mrs. Lincoln. The couple had been friends with the President and his wife for some time. Rathbone and Harris were asked after several other people had declined Mrs. Lincoln's invitation to the play.

After John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, Rathbone attempted to restrain Booth and prevent his escape. During the struggle, Booth slashed Rathbone's left arm from the elbow to his shoulder with a dagger. Rathbone quickly recovered and tried to grab Booth as he prepared to jump from the Presidential Box. He grabbed onto Booth's coat and caused Booth to vault over the rail of the box down to the stage. The off-balance fall caused Booth to break his left leg. However, in spite injury, Booth managed to escape the theater and make his way to Virginia. Despite his own serious wound, Rathbone escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the Petersen House where her husband had been taken. Shortly after helping Mrs. Lincoln to the house, Rathbone passed out due to loss of blood.

Major Henry Rathbone
Clara Harris arrived at the house soon after Mrs. Lincoln and held Rathbone's head in her lap while he drifted in and out of consciousness. A surgeon, who had been attending the President, finally examined Rathbone and realized his wound was more serious than initially thought. Booth had severed an artery located above Rathbone's elbow and had cut him nearly to the bone. Rathbone was taken home and Harris remained with Mrs. Lincoln during President Lincoln's death vigil.

Rathbone's wounds healed, but his mental state deteriorated after the assassination.  He agonized over his failure to prevent the attack on Lincoln. He recovered sufficiently to marry Clara Harris on July 11, 1867 and the couple had three children.

Rathbone resigned from the Army in 1870, but his mental instability made it difficult to find and hold a job. He became paranoid and believed that Clara was cheating on him. He also resented Clara's attention to their children. He worried that Clara was going to divorce him and take the children. As his condition declined, he reportedly threatened Clara.

Despite his behavior, President Chester Alan Arthur appointed Rathbone as the US Consul to the Province of Hanover in 1882. The family relocated to Germany where Rathbone's mental health continued to worsen.
On December 23, 1883, Rathbone attacked his children in a fit of madness. Then he fatally shot and stabbed his wife, who was trying to protect the children. After killing his wife, Rathbone stabbed himself five times in the chest in an attempted suicide. He was charged with murder and declared insane.  He was convicted and committed to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane in Hildesheim, Germany. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum, died on August 14, 1911, and was buried next to Clara in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde.

Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett
Sergeant Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett, who shot Booth in the Garrett barn, received a large reward for the killing. He left the military soon after receiving the money and returned to his former job as a hatter. The hat manufacturing process involved using a mercury compound, mercury nitrate, to remove fur from pelts and turn it into felt more easily. Hat makers, exposed to large amounts of vaporized mercury, began to experience its effects on their nervous systems. Doctors even recorded seeing "holes the size of quarters" inside some hatters' brains. This gave rise to the term "mad as a hatter." The exposure to mercury caused Corbett to become mentally unstable. At this time, he was working as assistant doorman for the Kansas state legislature. In 1887, he was sent to an insane asylum after brandishing a revolver in the legislature. He escaped, moved to Minnesota, and died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

Preston Hill King
Preston Hill King is our last possible victim of Booth's derringer.  King was a career politician who held positions as both a Democrat and Republican. He graduated from Union College in 1827 and became a lawyer.  He established the St. Lawrence Republican in 1830 and was Postmaster of Ogdensburg, NY from 1831 to 1834. He was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly from St. Lawrence County from 1835 to 1838. King was elected as a Democrat to Congress and served from March 4, 1843, to March 3, 1847. Then he was elected as a Free Soiler to Congress and served from March 4, 1849, to March 3, 1853. He was elected as a Republican to the Senate in February 1857 and served from March 4, 1857, to March 4, 1863.

King was considered for the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1860 and was a presidential elector on the Abraham Lincoln ticket in 1864. After the death of President Lincoln, he served as White House Chief of Staff during the early days of the Johnson Administration. He was involved in the Lincoln assassination by virtue of his role in the petition to save Mary Surratt's life.  The petition to spare Mary Lincoln's life never reached President Andrew Johnson's desk because King kept the information from Johnson.

On August 14, 1865, King was appointed by Johnson as Collector of the Port of New York. He was selected in an effort to eliminate corruption in the Port of New York and to heal divisions within the Republican Party. He became depressed and committed suicide by tying a bag of bullets around his neck and leaping from a ferryboat in New York Harbor on November 13, 1865. Some attribute his death to the pressure of his new job and the odds against his success. In Killing Lincoln, authors Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard attribute his suicide to remorse from failing to give Johnson the petition. In Killing Lincoln, his body was never found. Other reports say he was buried at the City Cemetery in Ogdensburg.

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