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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Couple Who Sat With Lincoln on the Night of His Assassination

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It's been 151 years since assassin John Wilkes Booth crept into the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater and fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. You know how the story ends: Lincoln died the next morning, Booth was shot and killed days later on April 26, and Mary Todd Lincoln was left to mourn her shattered family.

But the Lincolns weren't alone at the performance of Our American Cousin that night. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, declined an invitation to accompany the President and the First Lady, deciding to visit their children in New Jersey instead. This was an unfortunate turn of events for Booth, who had been hoping to take out both Grant and Lincoln in one fell swoop.

The Lincolns extended invitation after invitation, but were repeatedly turned down for various reasons. They finally received a "yes" from Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. The senator's daughter had become friends with Mary Todd from attending various social engagements in Washington. Harris's date for the evening was her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone (who was also her step-brother).

After Lincoln was shot, Rathbone tried to grab the assassin. Booth responded by using a Bowie knife to slash Rathbone's arm, splitting it open from shoulder to elbow and slicing through a major artery. The massive amounts of blood later found in the Presidential Box mostly belonged to Rathbone, not Lincoln, who actually bled very little.

In 1867, after all of the assassination hoopla had calmed down, Rathbone and Harris were finally married. They had three children (one born on what would have been Lincoln's 61st birthday) and, in 1882, moved to Germany, after he was appointed the U.S. Consul to Hanover.

In the nearly two decades that had passed since Lincoln's assassination, however, Rathbone's mental health had severely declined. He became increasingly obsessed with the idea that Clara was going to leave him, to the point that he forbade her from sitting by windows. He began hallucinating, and even admitted that he was afraid of himself.

G.W. Pope, Rathbone's doctor, believed the night at Ford's Theater had caused post-traumatic stress: "He never was thoroughly himself after that night . . . I have no hesitation in affirming that the dreaded tragedy, which preyed upon his nervous and impressionable temperament for many years, laid the seeds of that homicidal mania."

On December 23, 1883, an erratic Rathbone made a move toward the children's bedrooms that alarmed Clara. Believing that he intended to harm them, Clara blocked his way and managed to get him back to their bedroom. That's when he shot her several times, then stabbed her with a knife, which he then turned on himself.

Rathbone was admitted to a hospital for the criminally insane, residing there until his death in 1911. Their children were raised by Clara's sister and her husband. Henry and Clara's son, Henry Riggs—the one born on Lincoln's birthday—later became a Congressman. Proving that he wasn't bitter about his parents' fateful night out with the Lincolns, Henry Riggs Rathbone headed an unsuccessful attempt to get the government to make a Lincoln Museum at Ford's Theater. When that failed, he worked to help preserve the Petersen House where Lincoln died, including a collection of artifacts from the evening. One artifact that he didn't preserve: his mother's blood-soaked dress. He had it burned in 1910, believing that it had been a curse upon his family.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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