Worst Seat in the House by Caleb Jenner Stephens

Worst Seat in the House: Henry Rathbone's Front Row View of the Lincoln AssassinationWorst Seat in the House: Henry Rathbone’s Front Row View of the Lincoln Assassination by Caleb Jenner Stephens

On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth changed the world with a single bullet. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln had many repercussions and for Henry Rathbone they were profound. Henry was the only man to confront Booth and attempt to apprehend the assassin. Henry was also the man that let Booth escape. While Henry wasn’t officially blamed for allowing John Wilkes Booth to kill Abraham Lincoln, he blamed himself. After the assassination the vivid memories of Lincoln’s death and failure to capture Booth caused Henry’s mind to unravel. He traveled the world with his young family looking for an escape from his past. In 1883, eighteen years after the assassination, Henry’s tortured mind reached its limit. In the early hours of Christmas Eve Henry murdered his wife, shooting and stabbing her multiple times in a fashion reminiscent of Lincoln’s assassination. In Worst Seat in the House follow the life of Henry Rathbone from his childhood through the Civil War, the assassination and his final years in a German insane asylum. In this biography and case study of a man dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, see how the events of Henry’s life created the man he finally became. Place yourself into the mind of Henry Rathbone and ask yourself how you would cope with failing the world?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being just a tad bit of a Lincoln junkie, I knew when I saw this book that I had to read it. This book, for me, was a cut above the rest before I even opened the cover, as it actually recognised the important roles of Major Rathbone and his future wife, Clara Harris. This is very unusual for any account of Lincoln’s assassination.

Right away this was an interesting and different perspective of a tragedy that has been covered countless times before. Mr. Stephens did a good job researching his subject matter and put together a historical account that has not already been written in one form or another. Rather than making this just another simple account of Lincoln’s death, he took the time to put forth ideas about how the event affected those closest to the former President, especially Henry Rathbone, in later years.

His use of retelling the story of John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln’s activity on the day of the shooting was limited to a brief recount of the events and was relevant to the main point in this work. Henry Rathbone may well have suffered with PTSD which eventually became completely out of control, causing him to make some very unwise choices and ultimately become his own undoing.

I appreciated that the author took the time to explore the relationship between Henry Rathbone and his wife after the assassination and did not end where most books on the subject of Lincoln do–at the time of death. I think this book is important to those who are scholars of this subject, and for future generations. I agree with his assessment that had things in the 1800’s been as they are now with social media and internet, the roles of Henry and Clara would not have been so easily ignored or erased. It was refreshing to see someone take the time to explore this subject and the lives of two people that history has nearly forgotten.

The author does speculate some, here is an example: “The house may have stirred up memories of his father, which mixed with those of Lincoln.” If I had to choose single fault with this book, the speculation of the author in certain places would be it. Still, I can’t imagine getting to know someone’s life so well through documents and photos and not feeling the urge to insert a little “What might they have been thinking.” The speculation was not over the top.

There are plenty of photos in this book as well, and each of them support the story.

Overall, I thought this was a well researched, well constructed historical account with a lot of research hours compiled into it. If you are a historian, or someone who enjoys reading accounts of the past with a different spin, this book would be a great choice.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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