Thursday, September 27, 2012

Senator Ira Harris

This massive square granite headstone in an old section of the South Ridge (not too far from the lovely grave of Daniel Campbell) marks the grave of Senator Ira Harris, a man whose family history is closely linked to the Lincoln assassination.

Harris was born in 1802 on a farm near Charleston, Montgomery County.  Educated at Union College, he was admitted to the bar in 1828 and practiced law in Albany.  His active political and civic career included tenures the New York State Assembly, the New York State Constitutional Convention (1846), New York State Senate, and New York State Supreme Court.  He also served as president of Union College and was a founder of Albany Law School.

In 1861, he was elected to the United States Senate to replace William H. Seward after the latter was appointed Secretary of State by President Abraham Lincoln.  Senator Harris would become a friend of the President and a regular visitor to the Lincoln White House (which led to a joke that Lincoln would check under his bed each night to make sure Senator Harris was not there with yet another patronage request).

On the night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre, his guests for the evening were Senator Harris' daughter, Clara, and her fiance, Colonel Henry Rathbone (who was also Senator Harris' stepson).  Rathbone was wounded by Booth's knife during the assassination and his failure to prevent the President's death would haunt Henry for the rest of his life.  In 1883, suffering from declining mental health, Henry stabbed Clara to death and attempted to take his own life (he survived, was declared insane, and died in an asylum in 1911).

Senator Ira Harris' summer home just off modern-day Route 9 in Loudonville still stands.  Located just minutes from the South Gate of the Albany Rural Cemetery, the old Loudon Cottage (which is privately owned) is said to be haunted by Lincoln.  Clara's evening gown, stained with Lincoln's blood, was reportedly sealed in a closet there and the slain President's ghost has been seen there by a number of people, beginning with Clara who is said to have seen the apparition on the first anniversary of the assassination.

Senator Ira Harris died on December 2, 1873 after an illness described in contemporary accounts as "paralysis."  He was buried in his family's lot at the Rural Cemetery.  The back of the monument lists other member of the Harris family interred there.

Ira Harris was also a part of the Rural Cemetery's history; he was a founding member of the Albany Cemetery Association and served as a Trustee of the Cemetery from its incorporation until his death.  It was Harris who, after receiving a letter from the General's granddaughter, presented the resolution to have Phillip Schuyler's remains transferred from an obscure grave in the Van Rensselaer family lot to a new lot marked with a fine column more in keeping with Schuyler's legacy as a key figure in the region's Revolutionary-era history.

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