Friday, June 19, 2015

The Haunted Satin Dress and Abe Lincoln

This is the strange tale of a bloodstained dress, Lincoln’s ghost and a young couple that witnessed his assassination who afterward experienced their own tragedy.

Major Henry Rathbone was the son of a successful Albany businessman who made his fortune from making and selling stoves. His fiancé, Clara Harris was the daughter of a U.S. Senator, Ira Harris.

Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone
Rathbone and Harris were invited to join Lincoln’s party at Ford’s Theatre the night he was shot by Booth. This young couple had seats in Lincoln’s box.

The Major jumped up and tried to detain the assassin, but Booth pulled a knife out and deeply slashed Rathbone’s arm, he then escaped by jumping to the stage.

The white satin dress Clara wore was splashed with Lincoln’s and her fiancé’s blood. Rathbone and Harris, after this horrific night, traveled back to Albany and were married. They had three children.

Some believe after they witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, it tainted their lives. Clara could not wear the stained dress again, but just getting rid of it didn’t feel right to her.

Henry standing at left, Clara sitting
next to him.
Unfortunately, every time she saw it, bad memories of that terrible night flooded back. The shot that rang out, the splashed blood, her fiancé’s valiant attempt to catch the murderer, the flash of Booth’s knife as it sank into Henry’s arm, her voice that demanded water for the president.

Even when the couple was preparing to sell their Albany home, Clara could not get rid of the gown. Her solution was to have the closet the dress was in sealed off with bricks.

Henry’s life, after the assassination, was one filled with a dark depression, which eventually manifested into mental illness. The Rathbones in 1882 moved to Hanover, Germany, in a quest to seek aid for Henry’s sad illness.

Before dawn on Christmas Eve morning in 1883, a pale, thin Henry who now complained of constant headaches came into his wife’s bedroom, fully dressed.

Henry and Clara
He told Clara he wanted to be with their children. She reminded him of the early hour. Members of the household awakened, hearing their voices, entered the bedroom to discover Clara dead and Henry lying on the floor with multiple stab wounds.

In an eerie repeat of the assassination they had witnessed eighteen years earlier, Henry had taken a revolver and shot his wife and then stabbed himself six times.

Rathbone lived and was committed to a German asylum for the hopelessly insane. He lived in constant fear the other inmates were conspiring against him. Henry died in this institution in 1911. He was buried next to Clara, who was 28 when he murdered her. *

Back in Albany, at the Rathbone’s former house, with the bricked-up closet, witnesses reported a variety of strange happenings.

A shot was heard ringing out on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, people claimed to see the ghost of Abe, and a sobbing woman was seen wearing blood-soaked attire.

These rumors were so prevalent in Albany that in 1929, Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews wrote a story called The White Satin Dress based upon this haunting.

Louis C, Jones, who wrote Things That Go Bump in the Night, grew up in Albany. He remembers one story that was often told.

A family who were descendants of the family who occupied the house, after the Rathbone’s moved, hosted a houseguest who experienced this haunting.

This guest, related to the then Governor of Massachusetts was pondering a political problem while at home. A bill that had been passed in his state was causing a heated controversy.

Having trouble falling asleep, he worried whether he should take the side that would be politically expedient for his career, or do what he considered to be the right thing.

He finally fell asleep to be awoken abruptly. There was someone in the room with him. He raised himself up on one elbow and saw the figure of Lincoln standing in the moonlight.

Lincoln appeared to be calm and had an understanding smile upon his lips-- he then just vanished. The governor switched on the light, and a book of Lincoln’s speeches fell to the floor.

As he picked it up and saw these words, “Hew honesty to the line; let the Lord take care of the chips.” The governor stuck to his guns and supported the bill. He was re-elected and went on to serve his state with more courage than before.

The family that lived in the house was skeptical about what he saw, but during a renovation of the bedroom, that he stayed in, they found the tiny closet that had been closed off. In it was the dress with Lincoln’s bloodstains. They sealed it back up.

*  In 1952, following German cemetery policy regarding graves long unvisited, the remains of the Rathbone’s were dug up and disposed of. This might be why Clara Rathbone’s ghost also haunts her old home in Albany.

Henry Riggs Rathbone
The Rathbone’s oldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone was 13 years old when his mom died. Clara’s brother then raised him and his younger brother and sister. He grew up to be a U.S. congressman. He proposed Ford’s theatre be turned into a museum--which it was.

In 1910, just one year before his father’s death, Representative Rathbone broke down the bricks that enclosed his mother’s white satin dress, which had been worn 45 years earlier. He burned it--saying it had cursed his family.

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