Ira Harris was born at Charleston, Montgomery County, NY on May 31st, 1802 to Fredrick Waterman Harris and Lucy Hamilton. When he was six years old, his family moved to Preble, NY where his father became one of the largest landowners in Cortland County.
Harris attended Homer Academy and graduated from Union College in 1824. He studied law for one year in Homer, New York and then moved to Albany where he assisted one of that city’s most highly regarded jurists, Ambrose Spencer.
In 1827, Harris was admitted to the bar and began practicing law, forming a partnership with Silas Dutcher. In 1842, Dutcher moved to New York City and Harris took Julius Rhoades as his new partner. In May 1838, Harris was a member of the first board of the Albany Medical School founded by Doctors Alden March and James H. Armsby. He was also a member of the State Temperance Society.
Edward Delavan was the leader of the Albany and New York State Temperance movement. Delavan served as president of both groups and personally paid for the publication of most of their pamphlets and publications. Several hundred Temperance Societies had formed as a result of Delavan’s efforts.
Harris seems to have been somewhat skeptical of some of Delavan’s promotional literature however, since in 1843, he and several others, including Erastus Corning, co-authored a letter sent to three highly respected doctors asking them if certain drawings made by a Doctor Sewell presented an accurate representation of the effects of drinking on the human stomach. These drawings, showing a badly diseased stomach, were being distributed by Delavan supposedly representing the “pathology of drunkenness.”
Rent-War, Women’s Rights Advocate
The early 1840s were a tumultuous political time in Albany. Since the 1600s, the “Dutch patroons,” Kiliaen van Rensselaer and his descendants, had owned most of the land surrounding Albany and what is now Troy. Since there were no taxes to support the colony, the patroon had a policy of renting his land rather than selling it, similar to management of a feudal fiefdom. After the American Revolution, new laws restricted this practice, but did not entirely eliminate the practice.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the most recent patroon, continued to rent his land, but also allowed lands to be sold. To try to continue to provide income for the Van Rensselaer Manor, when he sold land, he included restrictions reserving for himself and his heirs, “all minerals, streams of water for mills,” and charged rents for the production of “wheat, fowls,” and other products.
In addition to these restrictions, one quarter of the amount of any future sale of the land had to be paid to the patroon. Supposedly, Stephen Van Rensselaer’s brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, had devised this method for the patroon to insure a steady income for his heirs and to support the Van Rensselaer Manor.
Stephen Van Rensselaer was very lenient in enforcing these provisions and had done much to aid and assist his tenants and no problems had arisen. After his death in 1839, he left his rights to this land to his two sons, William and Stephen IV, who began to more strenuously enforce them.
At that time, many of his tenants were behind in their rent, some owed for 10 or 15 years, and could not pay, some refused. This led to the Anti-Rent War which began in December, 1839, when the Albany County Sheriff and a posse of 600 men, attempting to collect rents, were turned back at Reidsville in the Heldebergs by 1,500 mounted men.
Governor William Seward called out the New York State Militia, which descended on Reidsville in a huge force but found no armed men and returned to Albany. Opposition continued however, with many rent collectors being attacked and homeowners being forcibly evicted.
The Albany Whig Party supported the anti-renters and Ira Harris ran for State Assembly in 1844 and again in 1845 running on a platform of support for the tenants, winning both elections by large margins. In 1846, Harris was elected to the State Senate. A state law introduced by Harris, was passed in 1846 prohibiting eviction of a land owner from his own land for nonpayment of rent on products, for instance, a wheat harvest.
The Court of Appeals found in the tenants favor in 1858, eliminating the need to pay the one quarter fee to the patroon for any subsequent property sale, but other court decisions, most notably ones obligating tenants to pay unpaid rent on rented land, including unpaid rent owed by previous owners, went against the tenants and many were evicted through the mid-1860s.
In the 1840s, Harris socialized with Albany merchant Ezekiel McIntosh and his wife Caroline at their home at the Schuyler Mansion, previous home of Revolutionary War general and senator, Philip Schuyler. McIntosh had purchased the home in 1846. Upon McIntosh’s death in 1855, Harris was the co-executor of his estate and reportedly introduced his widow, Caroline, to former President of the United States, widower Millard Fillmore. On February 10, 1858, Caroline and Fillmore were married at the Schuyler Mansion.
In 1846, Harris served as a delegate to the NY Constitutional Convention, where he was an early advocate of women’s rights, proposing rights in inherited and acquired property for women. He also pushed for an elected judiciary and simplification of court practice, all of which were enacted.
New York Supreme Court Justice; Albany Law School Founder; Mary Hartung Murder Trial
In the fall of 1846, Harris was elected a justice of the New York Supreme Court and resigned his position in the State Senate. Harris served as a Supreme Court justice for 15 years during which time (according to an article written at the time) his opinions were highly regarded and he demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the law, excellent judicial qualifications and strict impartiality. In 1851, Harris, together with Amos Dean and Amasa J. Parker were credited with being the principals behind the formation of the Albany Law School. Harris was a member of the first faculty.
Around 1854, Harris, a widower, married for a second time. He married Pauline Rathbone, widow of Jared Rathbone, the first popularly elected mayor of Albany, president of Albany Medical College and successful merchant and banker. Pauline Rathbone and her son, Henry Reed Rathbone, joined Harris and his two sons and four daughters.
Harris presided in many of Albany’s major cases. One, the trial of John Henderson, Jr. for the murder of his wife by poison, resulted in a guilty verdict on April 7th, 1854. Harris sentenced the guilty Henderson to be hung in the Albany Maiden Lane Jail, located behind City Hall.
In 1859, Harris played a major role, as presiding judge in one of Albany’s most celebrated murder cases. On January 31st, the trial of Mary Hartung began. She was the mother of two children, who had been charged with murdering her husband, Emil. William Rheinmann was tried separately as an accessory, but was acquitted.
On February 5th, the trial concluded with Harris charging the jury and deliberations began. On February 7th, after 48 continuous hours of deliberation, the jury found Mary Hartung guilty of the murder and on March 2nd, Harris denied her motion for a new trial and in conformance with his firm conviction that women and men should be treated equally, sentenced her to death by hanging to take place in Albany on the 27th of April.
This created a firestorm of criticism. Most of the public was outraged at the thought of hanging a woman, especially one with two children. On March 8th, public petitions were circulated seeking to commute her sentence. One petition contained the signatures of almost every member of the Albany bar. On April 8th, a bill was introduced in the State Assembly to bar capital punishment altogether. Four days before her scheduled execution, Judge Wright issued a stay in proceedings.
The bill barring capital punishment was enacted into law and the Court of Appeals commuted her death sentence to a reduced jail term, however, before she was released, the law was reinstated by the Legislature the next year. On December 12th, 1861, a report states, “Mary Hartung, convicted of the murder of her husband, was discharged after a long imprisonment” [three years].
This created outrage from other residents because a man guilty of murder was hung but a woman equally guilty was released after only three years.
Due to the passage of the new law reinstating the death penalty, Mary Hartung was rearrested on December 20th. Subsequently, her attorney brought an action stating that having been sentenced to death and commuted by the Legislature, she could not be sentenced to death a second time; this was called “Double Jeopardy.” The Court of Appeals found in her favor and she was finally released March 25th, 1863, having served a little over four years.
Friend of the Lincolns
In 1854, Harris’ political party, the Whigs, split over the issue of slavery. Harris joined with the anti-slavery segment to form the new Republican Party. In 1860, Harris, together with party leader Thurlow Weed, Robert H. Pruyn and John L. Schoolcraft and many others, attended the second Republican Presidential Convention in Chicago nominating Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s election, William Seward was appointed Secretary of State.
In 1861, Harris ran for Seward’s now vacant, U.S. Senate seat. His opponents were Horace Greeley and William M. Evarts. On the first ballot in the New York Legislature, Evarts led with 42 votes to Greeley’s 40 and Harris’ 20, however as Greeley gained strength and his election seemed assured, Evarts withdrew and threw his support to Harris. Harris was elected by a vote of 60 to 49.
After his election, Harris and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. where the Harrises and the Lincolns became close friends. Lincoln consulted with Harris on many issues valuing his judgement highly.
The Lincolns and Harrises attended many Washington social events together. Harris supported the President strongly and helped raise a regiment of cavalry, a regiment of infantry and a military hospital (the Ira Harris Hospital at Albany) to lend support during the Civil War. Pauline Harris became one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s closest friends and at the second inaugural ball, Lincoln gave up his seat so that Pauline could sit near Mrs. Lincoln.
Near the end of the war, Henry Reed Rathbone (Pauline Harris’ son by a previous marriage to Albany mayor Jared Rathbone) and Ira Harris’ daughter, Clara, announced their intention to marry and the wedding was planned. Mrs. Lincoln was fond of Clara and on Tuesday, April 11th, 1865, invited her to the Capitol to hear Lincoln’s address on Reconstruction, nearby sat John Wilkes Booth.
Three days later, on Good Friday, the Lincolns were to attend a play at Ford’s Theater called Our American Cousin. The Lincolns invited several different people to accompany them, including Ira and Pauline Harris, but were turned down for different reasons. The Harrises suggested Henry and Clara, who happily accepted. The President’s carriage carrying Lincoln and his wife arrived at the Harris residence a little late, so they arrived at Ford’s Theater shortly after the play started
During the play, John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box unnoticed and shot Lincoln in the head with his derringer. Clara said that she remembered jumping at the shot but thought it had something to do with the play. Henry Rathbone jumped up and lunged at Booth. Clara turned to see Booth slash Rathbone from shoulder to elbow and jump out of the box and onto the stage, breaking his ankle in the process. Rathbone reportedly shouted, “Stop that man!” While Clara repeated, “Won’t someone stop that man!” Booth was able to hobble off the stage and escape.
After accompanying Mrs. Lincoln to the house across the street where Lincoln would eventually die, Clara wrapped a handkerchief (or possibly the hem torn from her white gown) around the wound on Rathbone’s arm. Shortly thereafter, Rathbone passed out from shock and loss of blood and was taken to the Harris’ Washington residence.
Clara spent the night with Mrs. Lincoln and later recalled in a letter to a friend that Mrs. Lincoln’s hands and face were “saturated literally with blood.” After the funeral, Clara returned to the Harris residence in Albany. She married Henry Reed Rathbone in 1867.
When Harris’ Senate term expired, he did not run again and retired to his home in Albany. In 1867, he was chosen a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and resumed his position as a professor of Equity Jurisprudence and Practice at Albany Law School where he served for the last eight years of his life.
Albany Law, Albany Medical, Union & Vassar College Leader
Harris served as president of the Board of Trustees of Union College, president of the Albany Medical College and president and a trustee of Vassar College. He was one of the founders and first Chancellor of Rochester University and president of the American Baptist Missionary Union. Ira Harris was the brother of Hon. Hamilton Harris, also of Albany.
On November 28th, 1868, while Harris was president of Union College, a meeting was held in Albany’s City Hall to discuss the possibility of moving the college to Albany, as it was struggling for survival in Schenectady. Doctor Alden March presided at the meeting. Several speakers made presentations and Harris made himself available to answer questions about the college.
Harris said that if the residents of Albany would raise a half million dollars, the trustees of the college would probably be willing to move to Albany. The speakers, however, felt that Albany would soon have a university of its own and that since all efforts to establish one in Schenectady had failed, placing two of them so close together would make it impossible for one to succeed and it was evident which one would succumb since Union had run its scholarship down from 330 to 140. The effort was tabled.
Judge (Senator) Ira Harris and his wife Pauline are interred in Section 18, Lot 3, of Albany Rural Cemetery together with other members of the Harris and Rathbone Families.
Ira Harris lived in Albany at 28 Eagle Street. Ira Harris was the first secretary and member of the first board of trustees of Albany Rural Cemetery.
Following the funeral of President Lincoln, Clara returned to her family home in the Albany suburb of Loudonville, at Cherry Tree Road. She brought with her the bloodstained, white satin dress she had worn on the fateful night Lincoln was assassinated. She hung the dress in her closet.
The story goes that exactly one year after the assassination, she awoke to the sound of low laughter, which she swore was the sound of Abraham Lincoln enjoying the play, moments before he was shot. She was assured that it was just a dream, but supposedly one year later, a guest sleeping in the same room heard the same laughter.
Clara married Henry Rathbone in 1867, and it is said that they had the closet walled up. However for many years other visitors to the home, including the governor of Massachusetts, had very strange experiences while sleeping in the room including seeing Abraham Lincoln, hearing a single shot on the anniversary of his assassination, and seeing a blood-soaked young woman.
The main weakness to the story is that Clara thought that the blood on her dress was Henry Rathbone’s and not Lincoln’s. In a letter to a friend, Clara had written, “Poor Mrs. Lincoln, all through that dreadful night she would look at me with horror and scream, ‘Oh! My husband’s blood, my husband’s blood’ – which it was not, though I did not know at the time.” The doctors said that President Lincoln’s brain was “instantly suffused” from Booth’s single derringer shot and created only a small amount of blood.
From 1865 onward, Henry suffered constant psychological problems. Many said that he blamed himself for not saving Lincoln. He resigned from the Army in 1870 and Clara had three children. He was reported to have threatened her and the children on several occasions as his mental health declined. Rathbone sought a position as a U.S. Consul in Europe but was rebuffed. He and Clara spent years traveling all over Europe, visiting spas and hospitals, seeking help for his worsening condition. They eventually settled in Germany.
On December 23, 1883, Henry attacked his children and Clara with a knife and shot and killed Clara before stabbing himself several times in the chest. He survived, however, and although charged with murder he was found insane and spent the remaining years of his life in a German asylum for the criminally insane and the children returned to the U.S. to live with their uncle William Harris.
Henry Rathbone died in 1911 and was buried next to his wife in Germany. In 1930, their son was the U.S. Congressman Heenry Riggs, who first proposed that the U.S. government restore Ford’s Theater to the way it looked on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and establish it as a museum.
In 1952, in conformance with German law concerning un-maintained graves, Henry and Clara’s gravesite was reused. Their remains are believed to be buried deeper, under new graves to save space.
Fragments of a bloodstained white satin dress reportedly worn by Clara during Lincoln’s assassination reside in the Chicago Historical Society’s collection.
Illustrations, from above: Ira Harris; Anti-Rent Poster; Henry Rathbone, with Clara Harris, attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth (Currier and Ives Print); and Ira Harris Home at 4 Cherry Tree Road, Loundonville.