Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Sitting next to Lincoln at Ford's Theater

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

"It's been 154 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 Cousinthat 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."
* "In 1910, the year before his father’s death, Henry Riggs Rathbone reportedly broke down the brick wall his mother had built decades ago to shut out the past, recovered her blood-stained dress, and set it ablaze—an attempt to put an end to what he felt was a family curse." Smithsonian

Lincoln in February 1865, about two months before his death

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Woman of No Importance...

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 from OSS chief General Donovan.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy, Virginia Hall

Review: Gripping true-life account of the Nazis’ most wanted one-legged target...
Anna Carey - Irish Times - 27 April 2019
“One evening in 1942, two agents working for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, were hiding in a Marseilles safehouse. One was 32-year-old Peter Churchill, a relative newcomer to the field. The other was Virginia Hall, a thirty five year old American woman who had been in France since the previous summer.
As they waited for the coast to clear, Hall offered the new arrival some advice. “When you get home, it’ll look different from a distance,” she teasingly told Churchill. “You’ll forget how cold you were – except to bring warmer clothes next time; you’ll forget all the frights you had, and you’ll only remember the excitement.”
Over seventy years later, the exploits of the SOE and their Resistance comrades retain their romantic power over the imagination. The SOE was founded in July 1940 with the purpose of setting occupied “Europe ablaze” with acts of sabotage and espionage. Its modus operandi was, as Sonia Purnell reminds us, inspired by the Irish forces during the War of Independence, which showed that “regular troops could be defeated by a hostile population whose will had been stiffened by a few resolute gunmen”. And one of its first, and best, agents was Virginia Hall.


Having worked for the US State Department in Italy and Turkey, where she lost a leg in a shooting accident, Hall signed up as ambulance driver for the French Army in early 1940. Forced to flee to London, Hall joined the newly formed SOE and in 1941 was sent on her first mission.
Once in France’s Free Zone she proved herself to be a brilliantly skilled operative, recruiting and coordinating multiple agents and while keeping her true identity a secret from the Gestapo. The mysterious “limping lady” – she called her artificial leg Cuthbert – became the Nazis’ most wanted target.
After her network was betrayed by a particularly loathsome traitor, a priest who gave anti-Nazi sermons in order to ingratiate himself with the Resistance before selling their details to the Germans for large payments, Hall eventually had to flee across the Pyrenees – an agonising experience for a woman with a prosthetic leg.
Undaunted, she insisted on returning to the field. Eventually she was given the opportunity to properly organise a serious fighting force. Her intelligence work played an important role in enabling the Allies to advance after D-Day.
It’s a cliché to describe a true-life spy story as being as gripping as any thriller, but it really is the case here. Purnell has done a huge amount of research for this superb biography, interviewing Hall’s beloved niece and uncovering previously lost documentation of Hall’s military honours from the French state.
But the narrative wears this research lightly, as Purnell nimbly takes the reader through Hall’s complicated manoeuvres all over central France and beyond. And in doing so, she paints a rounded portrait of a complicated, resourceful, determined and above all brave woman.

Feeling free

Purnell also gives readers vivid pictures of Hall’s fascinating associates, such as Denis Rake, a jovial gay cabaret artist who hated loud noises but who proved himself to be one of SOE’s most courageous operatives. Another memorable figure is the glamorous and rackety Germaine Guérin, lynchpin of the Lyon resistance and proprietor of one of the town’s most elegant brothels.
Her clients included many German officers, providing Germaine and her girls with opportunities for both spying and sabotage. SOE agent William Simpson later wrote that although Guérin “moved in sordid surroundings and her morals were irregular . . . she had the shining cleanliness of a sealion.”
While Purnell pays rightful homage to the deeply moving bravery of Hall and her comrades, she is at pains not to romanticise their often murky, gruelling world. The various local resistance groups were riven with infighting and mistrust and SOE command was guilty of naivety and sometimes carelessness.
After the war Hall joined the newly established CIA; today the agency recognises her as a war heroine and a portrait of her hangs in CIA HQ, but her time there saw her constantly thwarted by sexist superiors. Purnell’s brilliant book shows that the war gave Hall, and others, a rare opportunity to prove their true worth. “Although capture was a real prospect every minute of the day,” Purnell writes of Hall’s time in France, “she had never felt so free.”