The True Tale of Grandma Rathbone: An Odd Coincidence At Lincoln’s Birth and Death
I grew up in Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and my family traded Lincoln stories like many others in the area. My maternal grandmother liked to say that we were related to the woman who served as midwife at the future president’s birth, but I wasn’t sure I believed her. For one thing, I sometimes heard that we were related to Pocahontas too, and I never really bought it. Then there was this supposed midwife’s name: “Grandma Rathbone.” Really now, I thought, What is this, a William Faulkner story? Much later I discovered that the man sitting beside Lincoln at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth burst in was himself named Rathbone and that decided my opinion. There was no way that there had been Rathbones present at both Lincoln’s birth and death. What’s more, with the 15,000+ books written about Lincoln so far, I was sure that if this strange coincidence was true it would be widely known.
Trust your grandmothers, folks. That’s the lesson here. Let me explain.
The woman who probably served as midwife for Thomas and Nancy Lincoln the morning of February 12th, 1809 had been born Mary Brooks forty-five years earlier in Frederick, Virginia. At age twenty she married John LaRue, the man for whom the county where Lincoln’s birthplace now sits was named (though it would still be part of Hardin County until 1843). They moved to what became Hodgenville, Kentucky, though Mr. Hodgen’s mill, from which the town took its name, was only about three years old when John LaRue passed away.
[There's another odd connection with Lincoln that I will only hint at here. John LaRue and Mary Brooks had four children. Their great great grandson James LaRue Jr. just wrote a book about Mary Brooks. Their daughter Rebecca had a son named John LaRue Helm, a two-time governor of Kentucky whose own son, Benjamin Hardin Helm, married Emilie Todd, half-sister of Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln's wife. So Lincoln's midwife was also the grandmother of his brother-in-law. In spite of these family ties, Helm rejected Lincoln's offer of a desirable position in the Union army and joined the Confederacy instead. After his death as a general at the Battle of Chickamauga, Lincoln gave Helm's wife Emilie a pass to visit the White House, where she caused the first family considerable political trouble by demonstrating repeatedly that she wasn't personally ready to rejoin the Union just yet. But again, this is another story.]
After John LaRue died, Mary Brooks remarried Isom Enlow. Between 1794 and 1806 they had seven children. Their oldest, a son named Abraham, was the one who found Thomas Lincoln walking toward the Enlows’ farm to bring Mrs. Enlow to help with his wife’s labor. There’s some indication that the Enlows thought that the Lincolns named their son in honor of their Abraham, unaware that the Lincoln family tree was already nearly as full of Abrahams as it was Mordecais.
Isom Enlow lived until 1816, so it wasn’t until 1819, when Abraham Lincoln was already ten years old and living in Indiana, that Mary Brooks married for the third time, this time to Thomas Wells Rathbone. Mary Brooks LaRue Enlow Rathbone passed away in 1843, three years before Lincoln won his first congressional race, fifteen years before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and seventeen years before he won the presidency. So it would likely only have been well after her death that her numerous offspring (173 at the time of her death, according to one source) might have referred to “Grandma Rathbone” serving as the midwife at Lincoln’s birth. My grandmother was right, if not entirely precise on this matter.
Mary Brooks’ third husband, Thomas Wells Rathbone, was born in Connecticutt in 1779 to a line of well-established New Englanders. His great great grandfather John Rathbone Jr. had been born in Massachusetts in 1658, the son of two immigrants from Lancashire. This man was also great great great grandfather of Henry Reed Rathbone, the Union officer who, along with his fiancée, accepted Lincoln’s invitation to see Our American Cousin after General Grant and his wife politely refused the invitation. So the man who briefly fought with John Wilkes Booth after Booth had shot President Lincoln in the back of the head that night was the third cousin once removed of the later husband of the woman who served as midwife at Lincoln’s birth.
The distance of this connection may explain why it isn’t more widely known. By comparison, John Wilkes Booth’s brother once saved Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert from an oncoming train, and that coincidence is deservedly famous. This story’s best feature is the name “Rathbone,” but as I said, unfortunately Lincoln’s midwife wasn’t quite a Rathbone yet when she served in that role. Still, there’s plenty of material for a good trivia question for that history buff you can never stump.