The year is 1926, and sitting at a desk in the Petersen House on Tenth Street, NW, in Washington, D.C., are U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone (R-Ill.) and Osborn Oldroyd, once a soldier in the Union Army. The paper held by Mr. Rathbone is, we believe, an Act of Congress authorizing the purchase of Mr. Oldroyd’s Lincoln Collection, long housed in the Petersen House, where tourists paid 10 cents to view it. In 1933, that collection would move across the street and become the beginnings of the Lincoln Museum—now known as the Ford’s Theatre Museum and housed in the basement of Ford’s Theatre. (Of note: A 1911 bill—to purchase the Petersen House, the Oldroyd Collection and the lots that now hold the Center for Education and Leadership and shop on the right of the Petersen House—was never enacted. Imagine what kind of museums might have existed if it had been!)
The path that brought Rathbone and Oldroyd to this desk is remarkable. And tragic.
Mr. Rathbone was the eldest of three children born to Major Henry Reed Rathbone and Clara Harris, the couple who accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Henry Riggs was born less than five years after that terrible night, and his parents never recovered from witnessing the assassination. When the boy—sometimes called Harry and sometimes Riggs—was 17 and the family lived in Hanover, Germany, his father—who had grown increasingly unstable perhaps as a result of his experience—killed his mother while the children slept in an adjoining room. As an adult, Harry Rathbone became a Chicago lawyer and served in the House of Representatives from 1923 until his death in 1927, where his most notable actions seem to have been an unsuccessful attempt to build a Lincoln Museum at Ford’s Theatre (he was ahead of his time), and a successful effort to bring the Oldroyd Collection under the aegis of the federal government. His desire to herald President Lincoln publicly is poignant, given his parents’ connection to Lincoln’s violent last day of life.
Osborn Oldroyd did not inherit a yoke of tragic fame, as did his companion in this photo. Instead, he was a Civil War soldier who early on developed a fascination with Abraham Lincoln that arguably bordered on the obsessive. He also had a streak of the showman P.T. Barnum in him, and could be considered an early museum professional. Oldroyd collected all things Lincoln starting during Lincoln’s presidency. In 1883, he, his wife Lida and his collection of more than 2,000 items of Lincoln memorabilia moved into the Lincoln family home in Springfield and charged an entrance fee to inquisitive visitors. In 1896, evicted from the Springfield home, Oldroyd and his collection moved to Washington to occupy the Petersen House, recently purchased by the federal government. Oldroyd and his wife lived upstairs, while downstairs, he filled the rooms with all that he’d collected, piling paintings, sculpture and documents from floor to ceiling. He lived off the tourists’ entrance fees until he died.
Without Henry Riggs Rathbone and Osborn Oldroyd, Ford’s Theatre surely would not be what it is today. Their stories are sad and odd in turn. It’s easy to have mixed feelings about Oldroyd and to feel sorry for Rathbone. Each man in his own way was instrumental in preserving the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and they both understood that the president’s death at Ford’s Theatre helped shape the way the American people will understand that legacy.
Sarah Jencks is Director of Education Programming at Ford’s Theatre, where she founded the education department seven years ago today. The longer she studies Abraham Lincoln and his legacy, the more she finds to admire in him.