We have not yet recovered all the names of our society presidents from 1854 to the present year, but if you click here, we do have names of 98 presidents from 1867 to 2012. Here are some of their stories.
On January 11, 1928, the Illinois State Society of Washington, D.C., hosted a reception at the Willard Hotel for its new president, Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone (R-Ill.) pictured at left, who succeeded Major Victor Martin. Rathbone was the first of twenty-one Members of Congress who served as presidents of the Illinois State Society during the twentieth century.
Henry Riggs Rathbone was the grandson of Senator Ira Harris who had represented New York during the Civil War. He was born in Washington, D.C., on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1870. He graduated from Yale University in 1892, then from the law department of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was admitted to the Illinois bar and began the practice of law in Chicago in 1895. He was a delegate to the 1916 Republican National Convention that nominated Charles Evans Hughes. In 1922, 1924, and 1926, he was elected to Congress from Chicago.
Congressman Rathbone had a great deal of tragedy in his life. He was the son of Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. They were the engaged couple who were invited to sit in the box at Ford’s Theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the night that John Wilkes Booth shot the president. Major Rathbone had been scarred emotionally by some of his Civil War battles. Moreover, some of his friends believed that he partly blamed himself for not stopping Booth. If true, such guilt would have been baseless since Booth entered the box from the opposite side near the president and fired his Deringer pistol directly at the back Lincoln's head before Rathbone, Mrs. Lincoln, and Clara were even aware he was there. Major Rathbone struggled with Booth after Booth got around Mrs. Lincoln and Clara Harris and he was cut by Booth on the arm with a knife before Booth jumped eleven feet from Rathbone’s side of the box which was over the edge of the stage. It was then that Booth caught his spur in the bunting below the box and broke his leg in the fall as he shouted the motto of Virginia, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (Thus Always to Tyrants) according to some contemporary witnesses.
For whatever reasons, Major Rathbone’s erratic mental condition became much worse over the years. Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were married in 1867 and President Grover Cleveland appointed Major Rathbone as consul in Germany. Two days before Christmas 1883, Rathbone was at their home in Germany when he asked his wife early one morning where the three children were. She said they were asleep and Major Rathbone became furious. He murdered Clara and tried to take his own life. He was confined for the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane and died there in 1911. Coincidentally, for a very brief time of four months in 1875, a jury deemed it necessary to declare that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane and placed her in the care of the Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. She was depressed, but regained some of her composure. Her son thought two major things in her later life contributed to her mental instability. One was a 1863 carriage accident in which she fell and hit her head hard against a rock. The other was the shot by Booth and bloody head wound to her husband as she sat next to him holding his hand during the performance at Ford’s theater. Mrs. John F. Kennedy faced a similar trauma in Dallas in 1963.
Despite this tragic loss of his mother and the imprisonment of his father, Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone made a success of his life and served the people of Illinois with skill and ability. He was still serving his term as president of the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC when he died suddenly in Chicago on July 15, 1928 at the age of 58. He is buried in Rosehill Cemetery on the north side of Chicago.
When Congressman Rathbone died, the members of the Illinois State Society asked Senator Charles S. Deneen (R-Illinois), shown at left, to take over as president in late 1928 and Deneen agreed. Deneen was the first U.S. Senator to serve as president of the society and the only former governor to do so. Deneen had also served as governor of Illinois from 1905 to 1913 and he was the first governor in the history of the state to serve more than one consecutive term. The only other Senator who would serve as a president of the Illinois State Society was Sen. William Dieterich (D-Ill.) from Beardstown in 1933. Dieterich started both his term as senator and his term as society president in early 1933. But he was disliked by the first Jewish governor, Henry Horner, who also started his term in 1933 because Horner feared that Dieterich as a German-American had sympathies for the new anti semitic Nazi regime of the dying Weimar Republic in Berlin that also came to power in 1933. In spite of the worries of Gov. Horner, Dieterich, a former House member, kept politics out of the social events of the society and had one successful year as society president. But tragedy struck the state society and the people of Illinois again on Wednesday night, Feb. 15, 1933, when Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was greeting President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in an open car in Miami as a would-be assassin Giuseppe Zangara tried to kill Roosevelt but he missed FDR and fatally shot Mayor Cermak instead. According to newspaper legend of that era, Tony Cermak's last words to FDR as he lay mortally wounded were "I'm glad it was me, not you." Cermak lived a few more weeks and died in a Miami hospital. His daughter Helena Cermak married Otto Kerner, Jr. in 1934 and Mr. Kerner later served as governor of Illinois from 1961 to 1968 and as a federal judge after that but he was sentenced to a term in federal prison himself for taking bribes as governor in the infamous Marge Everett race track stock scandal. Helena Cermak Kerner suffered from alcoholism and lived at a sanitarium in Hinsdale when Kerner was governor. 22nd Street in Cicero and Berwyn was re-named as Cermak Road in honor of Tony and his Bohemian heritage after he died.