Little is known of Christian Rath’s early life other than he was born on October 22, 1831 in Germany. He either left or fled home – depending on the source – at the age of 18 after joining a group of revolutionaries that attacked the German government. Immigrating to the United States in 1849, Rath made his way to Jackson, Michigan, the place that would become his permanent settlement. In 1857 he married Evaline Henry, with whom he had two children, and became a shoemaker, the trade in which he was employed at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before enlisting himself, Rath ran an enlistment office out of his storefront.
During the war between the states, Rath served with Company G of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the same regiment he helped recruit soldiers for from his shoe shop. In 1862, at the age of 30, he became the company’s second lieutenant. He would be promoted to first lieutenant the same year and rise to the rank of Captain in 1863. Due to being wounded at the famous battle of Antietam, Rath would suffer various medical ailments for the rest of his life. He was also briefly captured by Confederate forces at Spotsylvania in 1864 but managed to escape.
Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Rath received notice that General John Hartranft, the man placed in charge of the conspirators at Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, wanted Rath as his Provost-Marshal. According to Rath, the two men had known each other for some time:
“I was well acquainted with Hartranft; we had met in many battles, and I had broken many horses for him, both of us being lovers of fine animals.”
General Hartranft had also previously selected Major Richard Watts for his staff. Watts had been a member of the 17th Michigan as well and recommended Rath for service when Hartranft asked for more recruits.
In the courtroom, Hartranft and Rath often sat together at a small table by the public entrance checking audience passes.
Arguably, Rath is most remembered for being the hangman of the four condemned conspirators. On the afternoon of July 6, 1865, the Union government headed by Andrew Johnson presented Rath with a long list of jobs (build and test the gallows, make the nooses and hoods, oversee the digging of the graves) and a ridiculously short amount of time to complete them all (slightly less than one day).
Execution of (left to right) Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt on July 7, 1865, at the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C. The man in the white coat with his back to scaffold is said to be Captain Christian Rath.
According to the Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers,
“The scaffold was twenty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet high to the floor of the scaffold, and twenty feet high to the beam that held the ropes. The platform consisted of two drops, each six feet by four feet, supported by an upright beam that could be knocked away on command.”
It took all night to complete the gallows. The final nail was only hammered in on the morning of the execution, making it less than 24 hours old at the time of its use.
Rath also tied the nooses long after the sun had set on July 6th. Tired and believing Mary Surratt would be spared, he only put five turns in the knot instead of the regulation seven.
“I put seven knots in each one except one, and I only put five in that, for I fully expected that Mrs. Surratt would never hang.”
Rath found his “prop knockers” (William Coxshall, Daniel Shoup, George Taylor, and Joseph Haslett) only by claiming he needed assistance with a “special duty.” However, this sly idea did not find any volunteer grave diggers and Rath had to order soldiers to the task. “All the workmen were superstitious,” he later wrote. It was a common 19th century belief that grave digging brought bad luck.
After the execution, Rath was promoted to Brevet Major and Lieutenant Colonel for “special and efficient services during the confinement, trial, and execution of the conspirators.” He was discharged from the army less than two weeks following the execution, on July 19th.
Rath was haunted by the event the rest of his life, particularly the execution of Mary Ann Surratt, who he believed was innocent. He became a Christian Scientist in the hope that would prevent him from being doomed to hell for killing an innocent person.
Following the war, Christian Rath quietly lived out the rest of his life in Jackson, Michigan. He resumed work as a shoemaker, owned a fruit farm, raised chickens, frequently participated in military parades and from 1868 to 1900 worked as a a mail clerk for the Michigan Central Railroad. With the exception of a handful of interviews, he did not speak much about the events he witnessed during the summer of 1865. Rath died at the age of 89 on February 14, 1920. He was buried beside his wife, who had died in 1908, in Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan.
John A. Gray, “The Fate of the Lincoln Conspirators; The Account of the Hanging, Given by Lt. Colonel Christian Wrath, The Executioner“, McClure’s Magazine, October 1911, via the Internet Archive.
Kate Ramirez Taylor. “Grave Thursday: Captain Christian Rath”. BoothieBarn January 5, 2017.
Leanne Smith. “Jackson resident played key role in execution of people convicted in plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln; his role was excluded from “The Conspirator““. MLive, (15 April 2011).