Grave Thursday: Captain Christian Rath

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Christian Rath

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Burial Location: Mount Evergreen Cemetery, Jackson, Michigan

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Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Hello cemetery patrons,

This is Kate resuming the blog’s Grave Thursday tradition following our holiday hiatus.

After writing about Major General John Hartranft for a previous Grave Thursday, I received a comment regarding my lack of information about Captain Christian Rath, the man who always seems to appear alongside General Hartranft. I answered the question by stating that such a distinguished figure as Captain Rath deserved his own spotlight, not a mere afterthought bolted onto someone else’s legacy. So, without further ado, here is the story of Captain Christian Rath, perhaps secondary in rank but first in honor.

Little is known of Rath’s early life other than he was born on October 22, 1831 in Germany. He either left or fled home – depending on the source – at the age of 18 after joining a group of revolutionaries that attacked the German government. Immigrating to the United States in 1849, Rath made his way to Jackson, Michigan, the place that would become his permanent settlement. In 1857 he married Evaline Henry, with whom he had two children, and became a shoemaker, the trade in which he was employed at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before enlisting himself, Rath ran an enlistment office out of his storefront.

During the war between the states, Rath served with Company G of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the same regiment he had aided and the same company he had organized. In 1862, at the age of 30, he became the company’s second lieutenant. He would be promoted to first lieutenant the same year and rise to the rank of Captain in 1863. Due to being wounded at the famous battle of Antietam, Rath would suffer various medical ailments for the rest of his life. He was also briefly captured by Confederate forces at Spotsylvania in 1864 but managed to escape. Rath remained a Captain for the remainder of the war, his next promotion coming only after fighting had ceased.

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Rath received notice that General John Hartranft, the man placed in charge of the conspirators at Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, wanted Rath as his Provost-Marshal. According to Rath, the two men had known each other for some time:

“I was well acquainted with Hartranft; we had met in many battles, and I had broken many horses for him, both of us being lovers of fine animals.”

General Hartranft had also previously selected Major Richard Watts for his staff. Watts had been a member of the 17th Michigan as well and recommended Rath for service when Hartranft asked for more recruits.

In the courtroom, Hartranft and Rath often sat together at a small table by the public entrance checking audience passes.

Arguably, Rath is most remembered for being the hangman of the four condemned conspirators. On the afternoon of July 6, 1865, the Union government headed by Andrew Johnson presented Rath with a long list of jobs (build and test the gallows, make the nooses and hoods, oversee the digging of the graves) and a ridiculously short amount of time to complete them all (slightly less than one day).  According to the Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers,

“The scaffold was twenty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet high to the floor of the scaffold, and twenty feet high to the beam that held the ropes. The platform consisted of two drops, each six feet by four feet, supported by an upright beam that could be knocked away on command.”

It took all night to complete the gallows. The final nail was only hammered in on the morning of the execution, making it less than 24 hours old at the time of its use.

Rath also tied the nooses long after the sun had set on July 6th. Tired and believing Mary Surratt would be spared, he only put five turns in the knot instead of the regulation seven.

“I put seven knots in each one except one, and I only put five in that, for I fully expected that Mrs. Surratt would never hang.”

Rath found his “prop knockers” (William Coxshall, Daniel Shoup, George Taylor, and Joseph Haslett) only by claiming he needed assistance with a “special duty.” However, this sly idea did not find any volunteer grave diggers and Rath had to order soldiers to the task. “All the workmen were superstitious,” he later wrote. It was a common 19th century belief that grave digging brought bad luck.

Authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliot attempted to follow Rath around the courtyard in their book supplement, Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators. They placed him on the gallows, where he said to Lewis Powell, “I want you to die quick,” and then eventually found him back on the ground where he gave the signal to knock away the support posts. The signal changes from source to source, sometimes being recorded as three claps or a thrust of the hand. Moments before this, Rath recalled asking General Winfield Hancock if Mary Surratt would be saved to which Hancock replied no.

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After the execution, Rath was promoted to Brevet Major and Lieutenant Colonel for “special and efficient services during the confinement, trial, and execution of the conspirators.”

Christian Rath quietly lived out the rest of his life in Michigan. He resumed work as a shoemaker, owned a fruit farm, raised chickens, frequently participated in military parades and from 1868 to 1900 worked as a a mail clerk for the Michigan Central Railroad. With the exception of a handful of interviews, he did not speak much about the events he witnessed during the summer of 1865. Rath died at the age of 89 on February 14, 1920. He was buried beside his wife, who had died in 1908, in Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan.

Several stories followed Rath’s legacy due to his involvement in the infamous execution. One story, found in the book, The Man Who Traded his Wife for Woodworking Tools: And Other True Stories of 19th Century Jackson, Michigan, claimed that Rath was plagued by nightmares of Anna Surratt screaming at him for killing her mother. Why this hysterical apparition of sorts appeared to Rath and not Andrew Johnson I do not know.

A similar tall tale said that Mary Surratt’s spirit was punishing those who had wrongly taken her life, including Christian Rath who had gone insane and died in a mental institution. However, this was little more than the likes of a penny dreadful fable. Unlike Boston Corbett or Henry Rathbone, Rath only suffered from rheumatism (joint pain), dyspepsia (chest pain), and cystitis (bladder inflammation) due to his war wounds and dementia due to age. Furthermore, Rath treated Mary Surratt with the utmost of respect during the execution. “I had Lieutenant-Colonel McCall lead Mrs. Surratt from her cell to the gallows, as I did not want an ordinary soldier to lay his hands on her,” he said. Even her placement on the gallows, decided by Rath, conveyed honor. “I wanted to give Mrs. Surratt any honor I could, so I seated her one the right.” After the hanging, Rath said, “I took charge of Mrs. Surratt myself, not being willing that any hand should desecrate her. I lifted her tenderly in my arms…removed the noose from her neck, and with my own hands and alone placed her in the box.”

Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Rath was a soldier, not an executioner. His limited knowledge of proper hanging procedures and the demanding deadline swiftly caught up with him. He failed to correctly prepare and secure the ropes, leading to an unexpected botched execution. While Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt did die quickly, the same could not be said for David Herold or Lewis Powell who strangled for about five and seven minutes, respectively. Christian Rath will always be known as the “hangman” of the Lincoln conspirators. However, it should also be remembered that, despite his failures, he did try to make moral choices.

old-christian-rath

Grave photographs courtesy of Peter Gaudet. You can view his website by clicking here.

Until next time.

-Kate

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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21 thoughts on “Grave Thursday: Captain Christian Rath

  1. James Caine

    Wonderful post! It was fascinating to learn more about Christian Rath, a man who settled in my home state of Michigan.

  2. Kate H.

    Thank you. Michigan is on my list to visit. I would love to see the University’s collection in Ann Arbor.

    • James Caine

      Out of curiosity, what is in Ann Arbor that you want to see? I thought most Booth related things were out east.

  3. creepy karpis

    saving time by not putting 2 more knots in a noose does not make sense. there is more to the story. maybe superstition

    • Kate H.

      Rath scoffed at the workers refusing to dig the graves due to superstitions and he put seven turns into the other nooses so it seems unlikely that he was superstitious as well. I think it was more of an “I’m worn out and there’s a small chance this will be used anyway” situation. Rath later said, “I preserved the piece of rope intended for Mrs. Surratt for the last. By the time I got at this I was tired, and I admit that I rather slighted the job…I really did not think Mrs. Surratt would be swung from the end of it.”

  4. Kate H.

    I also research H. H. Holmes. He graduated from the medical school in 1884 and there are still items connected to him there.

    • James Caine

      It’s been a while since I read Devil in the White City but I do remember HH Holmes from that. Like John Wilkes Booth, he’s another “unique” individual. I wonder if there are any strange connections between the two. I know they weren’t contemporaries but history can be strange like that sometimes. Like how Edwin Booth saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln. So eerie!

      • Kate H.

        The Holmes story had been all but forgotten by history until Devil in the White City reintroduced it to the public. That was the first book I read on the subject.

        He was unique, cunning, bizarre, multifaceted, ridiculously far off the rocker…so many descriptions.

        There is a connection between Holmes and Booth actually. Thomas Jones, the man who hid Booth and Herold in the thicket and led them to the river, wrote a book about his experience and went to the Chicago World’s Fair (where Holmes was active) to sell it. Perhaps Holmes saw him there. There was also a contemporary of Holmes’ who visited the fair – Lizzie Borden. I like to think that the two may have crossed paths.

  5. Stacey

    I love getting these emails. Very interesting to read. His grave is only 2.5 hours from me. Thanks for the info.

  6. Paul Hancq

    Seven or even five minutes — that’s a very long time to be dangling and strangling. Some might say that those who suffered the longest (Powell and Herold) were more culpable for the assassination than those who suffered for a shorter time (Atzerodt and Surratt).

  7. Kate H.

    Newspapers reported that many of the spectators were horrified, especially when Powell’s body started moving. Even some of the execution pictures show the soldiers turned away.

  8. Laurie Verge

    Reference has been made to one of the soldiers assigned to the gallows throwing up, and of course, the horror of Anna Surratt having to prepare her mother for the walk to the gallows and say goodbye to her would be hard for anyone.

    Anna was then taken to a room where it is reported that she watched the proceedings until she fainted at the sight of the hood being placed over her mother’s head. Following the execution, she finally returned to the boardinghouse – only to find curiosity seekers trying to get in to steal “souvenirs.”

    This 22-year-old, sheltered lady faced the consequences of Booth’s (and perhaps her mother’s) actions with only the support of friends. Her two brothers were “missing in action” at the time. Isaac, the elder, was still with the Confederate army and did not return until September. Brother John had escaped to Canada.

    The family had been in debt since the time of her father’s poor management of their finances and then his death in 1862 led to an estate that still had not been settled in 1865. Anna was faced with administering both his estate and now that of her mother. The problems continued…

    I consider Anna Surratt one of the collateral victims of the Lincoln assassination.

    Separate comment: I do not believe that Powell and Herold could have survived long enough to struggle for such long, reported periods of time. I have to think that some of those minutes near the end were attributed to the throes of death after the last breath, resulting from the violent force of their execution.

    • Kate H.

      It was William Coxshall, the prop knocker missing part of his finger, that vomited. In the photographs, he can be seen under Mary Surratt’s position. Coxshall later testified that when he and his comrades returned to the bunks, a brawl almost ensued. The other soldiers were mocking them, calling them hangmen, even as the four men claimed they wouldn’t have volunteered if they were told what the “special duty” entailed.

      Anna Surratt is one of the many victims of collateral damage forced to pick up what remained of their lives and continue on. We tend to focus on those who died but, once that happened, their problems were over. Behind them were the family and friends who had to live with the remaining physical and mental repercussions for the rest of their lives. (PTSD existed even if it had no name). For some of them, that was 40 or 50 years. It was a story that ended in tragedy for both the Union and the Confederacy.

  9. Yvonne Beohm

    Thank you for all your hard work. I look forward to every Thursday for your post. I find this part of history so fascinating. Thank you for keeping it alive.

  10. Kate H.

    Thank you 🙂

  11. Art Candenquist

    I’ve come across references that Christian left Germany because he was involved in the political unrest and revolution in Germany in 1848. This period of revolution also forced a number of notable personages out of Germany at that particular time, including the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, who was performing on the operatic stage in Berlin, Leipzig, and other German cities at the time.

    • Kate H.

      I came across that too. The rebels that Rath was involved with attacked the government (doesn’t that sound familiar) and there was backlash that caused them to flee. I did not know about Jenny Lind though. My brother is studying opera and I’m sure he’d be interested in knowing that. Thanks for the new information.

      • Laurie Verge

        Kate – If your brother has the least bit of interest in Jenny Lind, please put him in touch with Art. The man is a walking encyclopedia on that lovely lady.

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