Bad Days in History

Burleith resident Michael Farquhar’s latest book was published in April by the National Geographic Society.  Photo by mark thiessen.

Burleith resident Michael Farquhar’s latest book was published in April by the National Geographic Society.  Photo by mark thiessen.

By Michael Farquhar

Plucked from all eras of history, and from around the globe, the 365 bad days in my new book are intended to amuse, tantalize, and enlighten—without being predictable. Thus, to cite one famously rotten day, Lincoln’s assassination gets short shrift. Look instead at the tragic effect it had 18 years later on the couple who shared the Lincolns’ box at Ford’s Theatre.

December 23, 1883 | John Wilkes Booth’s Other Victim

The psychic scars that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln left on the nation were deep and enduring, but for the president’s companions that fateful evening at Ford’s Theatre—Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris—the trauma proved particularly tragic.


Rathbone didn’t hear John Wilkes Booth sneak into the president’s box during the performance of Our American Cousin, and, right after shooting Lincoln, the assassin immediately disabled him with a deep knife slash to the arm. As Rathbone stood there bleeding and helpless, Booth made his famous escape by leaping onto the stage and slipping out of the theater. It was a moment of horror from which the Civil War veteran would never recover.

As President Lincoln lay dying at a home across the street from the theater, Rathbone, who had helped bring him there, drifted in and out of consciousness from blood loss—his head resting on his fiancée’s lap. As it turned out, Booth’s knife attack had severed an artery. Nevertheless he eventually recovered—at least physically—and married Clara Harris.

In 1882, the couple, along with their three children, moved to the German state of Hanover, where Rathbone had been appointed U.S. consul. But there was little relief from the mental agony of the assassination and his inability to stop it. “I understand his distress,” Clara wrote to a friend. “In every hotel we’re in, as soon as people get wind of our presence, we feel ourselves become objects of morbid scrutiny . . . Whenever we were in the dining room, we began to feel like zoo animals. Henry . . . imagines that the whispering is more pointed and malicious than it can possibly be.”

On the evening of December 23, 1883, Rathbone, his mental state always fragile, finally snapped. Clara sensed something was wrong when her husband tried to force himself into their children’s bedroom. When she tried to stop him, he shot her, and then repeatedly stabbed her before turning the knife on himself. Clara died, but Rathbone survived to spend the remaining 27 years of his life in a German asylum for the criminally insane.

April 15 | Death and Taxes and Death

What’s done is done on this truly dreadful day: Abraham Lincoln succumbed to the wounds inflicted by his assassin in 1865; the Titanic sank in 1912; the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the worst in U.S. history, began; and the Boston Marathon bombers committed their dastardly act of terror in 2013. But just to keep the spirit of April 15 alive and relevant, the government would like to remind you that taxes are due in the mail by midnight.

Illustration © 2015 by Giulia Ghigini.

Illustration © 2015 by Giulia Ghigini.