The Curse of John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

History remembers John Wilkes Booth as the actor-turned-Southern sympathizer who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. While the fate of Booth, along with that of co-conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt, is well documented, less widely known are the bizarre fates of several other individuals who played a role in the drama of Lincoln's assassination.

One such example are the fates of the man and woman who accompanied President Lincoln to Ford's Theatre on that fateful night-- Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. That these two individuals even ended up at Ford's Theatre in the first place is a strange twist of fate; Lincoln's invitation to attend the theatre that evening was rejected by several other people. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia were originally invited, but Mrs. Grant (who was not fond of Mary Todd Lincoln), refused the invitation.
In the years following Lincoln's death, Rathbone's mental state began to deteriorate and he constantly found himself embroiled in bad publicity due to his erratic behavior. In spite of his being an embarrassment in Washington's social circles (or perhaps because of it) Rathbone was appointed to serve as ambassador to Germany by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. The following year, in a delirious rage, Rathbone fatally shot and stabbed his wife. He then stabbed himself in the chest five time in an attempt to take his own life. Declared insane, Rathbone was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, where he died in 1911. He was buried next to his wife in a Hanover cemetery, but in 1953 the remains of Henry and Clara Rathbone were disinterred by cemetery officials and discarded. Their final resting place has been forever lost to history.

Henry Rathbone

The man who was sitting next to Lincoln in the presidential box of Ford's Theatre wasn't the only "victim" who went insane from the curse of John Wilkes Booth-- the same distinction also goes to Boston Corbett, the Union soldier who fired the fatal shot that killed John Wilkes Booth at the conclusion of our nation's greatest manhunt. Prior to serving in the Union army, Corbett was a hat-maker by trade. Exposed to mercury throughout his career, he developed the "mad hatter" syndrome, and was afflicted with delusions and hallucinations. A religious zealot, he castrated himself with a pair of scissors in order to avoid sexual temptation and then signed up for the army, joining Company I of the New York Militia's 12th Regiment. In 1887, still regarded as a national hero for slaying Lincoln's assassin, Corbett was arrested and declared insane by a Kansas judge and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane, from which he escaped. He relocated to Hinckley, Minnesota, and died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, which claimed over 400 lives.

Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett would not have been around to fire the shot that killed John Wilkes Booth in a barn in northern Virginia had it not been for Lafayette Curry Baker, the spy and private investigator who was chosen by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to lead the manhunt for Booth and Herold. While many conspiracy theorists believe that Corbett and Stanton played a role in the assassination of Lincoln (as postulated in the 1977 book The Lincoln Conspiracy), the common consensus among historians is that Baker was innocent. However, his bizarre death casts a shadow on doubt on his innocence.

On July 3, 1868, Baker returned to his home feeling sick after a night of drinking with his brother-in-law, an employee of the War Department named Wally Pollack. Baker died later that evening, and meningitis was cited as the cause of death. Ray A. Neff, a professor at Indiana State University, analyzed hair samples from Lafayette Baker. Using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer, Neff determined that Baker died from arsenic poisoning. According to a diary kept by Baker's wife, Wally Pollack often brought beer to the Baker home when visiting, and the levels of arsenic found in Baker's hair correspond to Pollack's occasional visits. In all likelihood, Lafayette Baker was poisoned by Wally Pollack.

Lafayette Baker

As an employee of the Department of War, Pollack took his orders from Edwin M. Stanton, who died just three years after Lincoln, passing away from an asthma attack at the age of 55.

While John Wilkes Booth is romantically linked to Lucy Lambert Hale (whose photograph was found inside Booth's pocket after he was killed), the popular actor was known to have numerous lovers. One such lover was Ella Turner, who attempted suicide by inhaling chloroform on April 15, 1865. But, while the curse of John Wilkes Booth spared the life of his mistress, it claimed the life of Preston King.

Preston King

After Lincoln's death, Preston King served as White House Chief of Staff during the administration of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. It was Preston King who was approached by petitioners to spare the life of Mary Surratt, who was hanged for her minor role in the assassination (becoming the first woman ever executed by the federal government). The petition to spare Surratt's life was kept from President Johnson by King, who later became so despondent over his actions that he took his own life by tying a bagful of bullets around his neck and leaping from a ferryboat into New York Harbor on November 13, 1865-- just seven months after Lincoln's death.

Perhaps the most tragic fate awaited the soldiers who hunted for Booth and Herold in the swamps of Maryland, where the two fugitives were hiding out after escaping Washington, DC. The swamp search party consisted of 700 men from the Illinois Cavalry, 600 men from the 22nd Colored Troops, and 100 men from 16th New York Cavalry. Their method of combing the malarious marshes was crude and dangerous yet effective; they assembled in a straight line and marched forward, one step at a time. Those fortunate enough to find solid ground were lucky, while others were swallowed by mud and sank to their deaths. During the week-long search of the swamps, 87 men lost their lives.

While history books record the deaths of Lincoln and Booth, along with the four other conspirators who were hanged, not much has been written about the other victims whose lives were forever altered by one of the darkest days in American history.

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