COLONIE — It is the most macabre and mythic dress in American political history, the satin gown 20-year-old Clara Harris of Albany wore to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
Harris sat near President Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated, which left the presidential box drenched in blood.
The blood-stained gown became a wretched relic of that fateful night and was blamed for hauntings and a spiral into madness. Its history became the stuff of ghost stories. Its legacy was examined in “The White Satin Dress,” a book by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews published in 1929. Louis C. Jones discussed paranormal phenomena attributed to the bloody dress – which hung for years in a closet at the Harris family’s summer home in Loudonville – in his 1988 book on New York state folklore, “Things That Go Bump In the Night.”
Now, Albany native and Brooklyn playwright John McEneny, son of local historian and former state Assemblyman Jack McEneny, is bringing his own theatrical imaginings to the infamous gown in a new play, “The Lincoln Dress.” McEneny wrote and directed the drama that will premiere Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Siena College, his alma mater, where he majored in theater. It is produced by Piper Theatre Productions of Brooklyn, where McEneny, 49, is artistic director.
“The play is fast-paced and a little bit spooky, with paranormal happenings and complicated characters who feel connected to the legacy of Lincoln and this dress,” McEneny said. “I love the idea of taking an Albany-based ghost story and sharing it with the world.”
McEneny hopes to take “The Lincoln Dress” next year to Scotland and Romania, where his theater troupe has performed in the past. The company focuses on a style of dramatic performance known as physical theatre, which uses physical movement for its storytelling elements. McEneny, a middle school drama teacher in Brooklyn, is deeply influenced by the late Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski, one of the foremost directors and teachers of avant-garde drama.
McEneny’s play is set in Albany in 1931 and the four characters include a World War I veteran, a man recently released from a mental institution, a prostitute from Albany’s Green Street and a maid who works in the Loudonville summer home owned by Clara Harris’ family. They bond as thieves who plot to steal the dress.
“It’s the Depression and the characters are desperate in different ways, trapped by their circumstances and literally confined by a 10-foot by 10-foot white box on stage that represents a downtown rooming house in Albany where the characters are haunted by ghosts,” he said.
Overshadowing everything in the drama is the blood-soaked artifact preserved by Clara Harris.
Harris and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone, 28, of Albany, a Union Army officer, were last-minute fill-in guests of the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” Harris was the daughter of Ira Harris, U.S. senator from New York, and the young couple were friends of the Lincolns.
John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, aimed a pistol at Lincoln and shot the president in the head. Rathbone leapt up and Booth slashed the major with a knife, opening a deep gash on his arm. Rathbone lunged at Booth and knocked the assassin briefly off-balance before Booth leaped down from the box to the stage and fled.
“Stop that man!” Rathbone shouted.
What: World premiere of “The Lincoln Dress,” a play written and directed by John P. McEneny
When: June 28-30 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m Sunday.
Where: Beaudoin Theatre, Siena College.
Info.: Tickets are $15 and available online at http://siena.edu/creativeartstickets
“Won’t somebody stop that man?” Clara Harris cried out as she moved to the side of her gravely injured fiancé, who was bleeding profusely. In the chaotic aftermath of the assassination, her dress was stained crimson with the blood of Rathbone, perhaps mingled with blood from the president’s mortal wounds – although his head wound bled primarily internally, according to historical accounts. Her face and hands ended up caked with her fiancé’s blood.
When Lincoln’s wife saw the blood-splattered gown, she shrieked, “Oh, my husband’s blood, my husband’s blood!”
Traumatized, Clara Harris kept the bloody dress, uncertain whether to clean it or destroy it. She took the dress to her family’s summer home in Loudonville, known as Loudon Cottage, at 4 Cherry Tree Lane. She put the dress in a closet and tried to get past the ordeal. Although they were stepbrother and stepsister through marriage and not directly related, Harris and Rathbone wed in 1867. They had three children.
The major’s mental state began to deteriorate as he suffered the after-effects of the assassination and faulted himself for not saving the president’s life. He exhibited signs of madness and was treated by European doctors in overseas asylums. His mental illness worsened. In Germany on Christmas Eve 1883, Rathbone shot his wife and stabbed himself in a bizarre re-enactment of the Lincoln assassination. She died of her injuries and he was committed to a German mental hospital, where he died in 1911. The bereft children returned to New York.
The cursed dress hung in a closet at the Loudonville home and was eventually sealed off by bricks, according to lore. There were reports of hauntings, spectral visitations and apparitions of Lincoln at the house. Their anguished son broke open the bricked-over closet and burned his mother’s dress, according to legend.
John McEneny let all these bizarre reverberations of the bloody dress steep in his creative imagination while mixing in modern-day themes. “The play addresses the ghosts of racism in Albany and the hangings at Pinkster Hill, and divergent opinions of Lincoln between the white and black characters,” he said.
He is particularly grateful for the assistance of his close-knit family. His dad offered notes on historical accuracy. His sister Maeve was the resident expert on ghost stories and helped with promotion and marketing. His sister Rachel, a co-creator of Piper, organized a staged reading in April and his brother Daniel helped plan a preview performance and garden party fundraiser for the theatrical company at Ten Broeck Mansion on Thursday.
“I couldn’t have done this without all of them,” McEneny said. “Each one is a force to be reckoned with in his or her own way.”
Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com .