Provo, Utah— First there was the grassy knoll . . . and now there is the velvet chair. John Wilkes Booth did not act alone. That is the astounding claim of historian Steven A. Butler of Provo State College (Utah) in his new book, The Wrath of Rathbone: The Lincoln Assassination and the Second Shooter. Butler, an expert in presidential assassinations and author of the screenplay for the upcoming major motion picture, Squeaky Fromme: Devil in a Red Dress, contends that the fatal bullet that pierced Lincoln’s skull came not from Booth’s derringer pistol but from a sidearm carried by Major Henry Rathbone.
The young officer and his fiancée were guests of the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on that fatal night of April 14, 1865. Mid-way through the performance of Our American Cousin, actor John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box where the Lincolns, Rathbone, and Harris were seated. According to the traditional story, Booth discharged his single-shot derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head, jumped from the balcony to the stage below, and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants!) before making his escape.
But Butler claims that the deadly shot came from a pistol carried by Major Rathbone, an officer in the Union Army. Rathbone and Harris were not the first choice of the Lincolns to be their guests at Ford’s Theater. They had first invited General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia. Butler contends that Rathbone was miffed by the slight and in his anger shot Lincoln. “Rathbone saw his chance when he turned to see Booth enter the presidential box wielding the derringer and a knife,” Butler argues. “Thinking quickly, he drew his pistol and fired at Lincoln. Booth then stabbed Rathbone on the arm in frustration and jumped to the stage, claiming the murderous deed as his own.”
As evidence for his theory, Butler points to the fact that Rathbone later went insane, murdering Harris in 1883 after the two were husband and wife and attacking the couple’s three children. He died in an insane asylum. “Rathbone was obviously mentally unstable,” Butler told PRH. “A man who could kill his wife and attack his children would have had no trouble pulling the trigger and shooting a man he didn’t know personally.” Butler also dismisses the idea that Booth’s derringer could have caused the fatal wound to Lincoln: “A deringer is basically a BB gun. It can barely break the skin much less penetrate a skull and travel all the way through the brain to the eye, as the bullet that killed Lincoln did.”