When Booth’s dark deed was committed at Ford’s, no one had a closer seat to the action than the occupants of the theatre box. Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and her fiancée and stepbrother Major Henry Rathbone, had the horror of watching the scene play out within arm’s length. Shortly after the crime, Henry Rathbone gave a lengthy and detailed statement recalling the events as he remembered them. Rathbone’s account (which can be read here) provides a wonderful description of the scene of the crime and his activities after the shot was fired. While a re-reading of Rathbone’s account doesn’t provide any ground breaking new claims, it does contain a few details worthy of address and consideration. This post will discuss two minor details set forth by Rathbone in his testimony.
After Booth shot Lincoln, Major Rathbone, alarmed by the report of a pistol and cloud of powder in the box, raised himself and attempted to subdue the assailant. During the struggle Booth thrust at Rathbone with his knife, which Rathbone parried upwards. In the course of this parry, Rathbone received a deep cut on his left arm between his elbow and his shoulder. It was a painful blow that knocked Rathbone back a bit. At this moment, free from grappling with Rathbone, Booth moved to the front of the theatre box, and leapt over it.
Many witnesses at the time said that Booth’s jump from the box was a noticeably ungraceful one. One eye witness account stated that, “He did not strike the stage fairly on his feet, but appeared to stumble slightly.” Immediately following the events, several others described similar stumbles Booth made upon reaching the stage.
Granted, the distance he leapt was twelve feet off the ground and it can be a hard landing for any man to make properly. In his act of jumping, Booth disturbed the flags decorating the box. This, of course, makes perfect sense. The flags decorating the box were merely attached to the outside and weren’t expected to be moved during the President’s attendance. Instead of jumping straight from inside the box down to the stage in a hurdler’s motion, Booth likely leapt over the railing of the box, paused briefly on the small ledge on the other side, and then jumped down. This small ledge is where many flags were resting and draped about. A witness at Ford’s described that, during the jump, Booth, “partially t[ore] down the flag”.
Another witness had a similar account about his riding spur getting caught up in the decorations, causing his awkward fall. The American mythos of the assassination states that, while jumping, Booth was tangled in an American flag causing him to land poorly onto the stage and breaking his leg. In his diary, the vain Booth, probably attempting to save face for his less than perfect “performance”, claimed that in jumping from the box he broke his leg. Most Boothies accept this as fact while also entertaining the idea set forth by author Michael Kauffman that Booth broke his leg later that night, when his horse fell on him during the rough ride south. With it being impossible to prove one theory over another, historians just pick the idea they like better and concede that differences of opinion exist on the matter.
What is not really debated is that Booth fell uneasily upon the stage, making one of his worst entrances ever. While the flags generally receive the attention for causing Booth’s missteps, Rathbone’s account provides another possible reason:
“The man rushed to front of the box and [I] endeavored to seize him again but only caught his clothes as he was leaping… The clothes, as [I] believe, were torn in this attempt to seize him.”
While Rathbone gets credit for struggling with Booth and sacrificing his own arm attempting to subdue him, is it possible that Rathbone was also the reason Booth landed so hard upon the stage? As Booth was making his jump, could the grasp of Major Rathbone on his clothes have thrown the actor’s balance off and caused his clumsy landing? Further, if this is indeed when Booth broke his leg, effectively slowing down his escape, could it be Rathbone and not the flags, that deserve the credit? These questions and the overall scenario produced by them are merely items to contemplate and I make no claims of them being in anyway definitive.
A second item Rathbone mentions in his testimony is about the set up of the box itself. From the beginning Rathbone gives a wonderful description of the box and the locations of the parties therein. From his description the following diagram of the box seems to correct display the set up:
Booth entered the box through the outer passageway door marked H on the diagram. Remember, during normal nights the box in which the President’s party occupied severed as two boxes. A partition would separate it into two smaller boxes. That is why there are two doors inside the passageway. The door marked as G, was actually the closest door to the President, but was closed during the whole night. It was the entrance to Box 7. The Presidential party and Booth all entered the box through door F. That was the door to Box 8.
This inner door to Box 7 is on display at in the Ford’s Theatre Museum.
This door has a unique feature as it has a peep hole bored into. For many years it was written that this hole was bored by John Wilkes Booth on the morning of the assassination. After learning about Lincoln’s attendance that night, Booth did enter the theatre and found a wooden bar with which to jam the outer door so that it could not be opened. The wooden bar can be seen in the above picture sticking out from the bottom of the door. It was assumed that during this prep work, that he also bored a hole into the door in order to have an eye on the President before entering the box.
A letter written by Frank Ford (son of Harry Clay Ford, the theatre’s treasurer) denounced this idea. Frank stated that his father ordered the hole to be bored into the door so that the President’s guard, and others employed in their duties for the government or theatre, could look in on the President and his party instead of barging in straight away and disturbing them. Frank quotes his father as saying, “John Booth had too much to do that day other than to go around boring holes in theatre doors.” However, a period statement from Harry Ford has him saying, “Did not notice a hole in the door or in the wall. Did not take particular notice of the wall or door however.” So the mystery regarding the hole remains.
Even if this hole was bored at the bequest of the Ford’s, Booth still used it to eye the President before making his move, right? Not necessarily. According to Rathbone:
“The distance between the President as he sat and the door was about four or five feet. The door, according to [my] recollection, was not closed during the evening.”
Rathbone claims that the door to Box 8 was never closed during the performance. If this is the case, Booth may not have used the peephole to spy on the President through Box 7. After entering the passageway door, Booth stealthily put the wooden bar in place to “lock” the outside door, and either peered through the slightly open Box 8 door into the box, or just waited until the lines of the play were right to bust in and get his first real view. With all eyes directed on stage and not towards the rear, it seems that Booth could have been standing in the shadows of the passageway eyeing the President for some time before he acted. If Rathbone is to be believed and the door was open during the performance, the image of Booth before he shot Lincoln could change. Instead of a man hiding behind door 7 nervously peeking at his target through a hole, Booth becomes a shadowy figure, standing motionless in the doorway to box 8 eyeing his prey. To me the latter image is in line with Booth’s brazen persona. He brought an unreliable single shot derringer to kill the President, assured that he would succeed. I have no problem picturing this arrogant Booth, lurking near an open door a few feet away from the President, coiled like a viper waiting to strike.
Again, these small pieces of Rathbone’s account are posted here merely to initiate contemplation and conversation. Feel free to post your thoughts about them by clicking on the “comment” button below.