Lewis Powell (conspirator)
|Born||Lewis Thornton Powell
April 22, 1844
Randolph County, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||July 7, 1865
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Cause of death
|Execution by hanging|
|Other names||Lewis Paine
|Known for||Conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln|
|Date||April 14, 1865
10:15 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time)
|April 17, 1865|
Lewis Thornton Powell (April 22, 1844 – July 7, 1865) was one of the conspirators in league with John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. He failed in his attempt to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward on the same night. (He was also known as Lewis Payne/Paine.)
Powell was a Confederate soldier of distinction, who had been wounded at Gettysburg, and then served in Mosby’s Rangers, before working with the Confederate Secret Service in Maryland. Here he met Booth, who recruited him into an unsuccessful plot to kidnap Lincoln. But on April 14th 1865, Booth resolved to assassinate Lincoln, Seward and Vice-President Johnson.
Powell was given the task of killing Seward, with the help of David Herold, who would guide him to Seward’s home and keep his horse ready for the escape. But Powell only managed to injure Seward before the alarm was raised, and Herold fled. Unfamiliar with Washington, Powell appears to have wandered the streets for three days before arriving at a boarding-house run by Mary Surratt, mother of co-conspirator John Surratt. By chance, the police were searching the house at that moment, and arrested Powell, who was duly identified by Seward's son.
Powell and three others, including Mary Surratt, were sentenced to death by a military tribunal, and were hanged at the Washington Arsenal courtyard. Powell went to his death proclaiming the innocence of Mary Surratt, even from the scaffold.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Civil War service
- 3 Involvement in conspiracy
- 4 Lincoln assassination plot
- 5 Trial and execution
- 6 Execution
- 7 Burial
- 8 In film
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
Lewis Thornton Powell was born in Randolph County, Alabama, on April 22, 1844, to George Cader and Patience Caroline Powell. He was the youngest son in a family of eight children. Lewis' father was ordained a Baptist minister in 1847, and in 1848 the family moved to Stewart County, Georgia, where his father had received an appointment as pastor of Beulah Church in the village of Green Hill. About this time, Lewis' father freed the three slaves he owned. Powell and his siblings were all educated by their father, who was the local schoolmaster.
In his early years, Lewis was described as quiet and introverted, and well liked by others. He enjoyed carving, fishing, singing, reading, and studying. He also loved attending church, Sunday school, and prayer meetings. He often nursed and cared for sick and stray animals, earning the nickname "Doc" from his sisters. But Lewis could also be immensely stubborn, and the entire family was well known for their hot tempers.
Lewis' late teen years were spent on the move. George Powell co-signed a loan for a family friend, and when that friend defaulted in 1859 the Powells were forced to sell their farm to make good the debt. The Powells moved that same year to the village of Belleville in Hamilton County, Florida. The following year, George Powell established a church in Apopka, a town on the border between Orange and Seminole County, Florida, and the family took up residence on a farm a half mile outside Live Oak Station in Suwannee County, Florida.
Civil War service
2nd Florida Infantry and capture
On May 30, 1861, Lewis Powell left home and traveled to Jasper, Florida, where he enlisted in Company I of the 2nd Florida Infantry. He was accepted because he lied about his age (he claimed to be 19). Powell's unit fought in March and April 1862 in the Peninsula Campaign. Powell became a battle-hardened and effective soldier. He won praise from his commanding officers, and claimed that when he shot his rifle he did so to kill (never to wound). He was alleged to have carried the skull of a Union soldier with him, which he used as an ashtray. His one-year enlistment having expired, Powell received a two-month furlough, during which time he returned home to visit his family. He re-enlisted at Jasper on May 8, 1862. In November 1862, Powell fell ill and was hospitalized at General Hospital No. 11 in Richmond, Virginia. He returned to active duty within a few weeks, and fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862) near Fredericksburg, Virginia. His unit was then assigned to Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, which was organized at the beginning of 1863. Third Corps finally went into combat at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.
Powell was shot in the right wrist on July 2 (preventing him from participating, and likely being killed, in Pickett's Charge on July 3), captured, and sent to a POW hospital at Pennsylvania College. Transferred to Camp Letterman, the vast medical field hospital northeast of Gettysburg, on July 6, Powell worked as a nurse in the camp and at Pennsylvania College until September 1, when he was turned over to the Provost Marshal. He was taken by train to Baltimore, Maryland, and (still a POW) began working on September 2 at West Buildings Hospital. In Baltimore, Powell met and developed a relationship with a woman named Margaret "Maggie" Branson, who was volunteering as a nurse. It is believed that Branson assisted Lewis in escaping from the hospital on September 7. (Some historians put it more baldly: She actually provided him with a Union Army uniform.)
Escape and Mosby's Rangers
Margaret Branson took Powell to her mother's boarding house at 16 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore. Many, perhaps most, Marylanders were Confederate sympathizers, and the Bransons were fervent believers in the Southern cause. The Branson boarding house was a well-known Confederate safe house and frequent rendezvous point for members of the Confederate Secret Service (the Confederacy's spy agency). Powell may have spent up to two weeks at the Branson house before heading south. While still in Maryland, he learned the location of Harry Gilmor and his "Gilmor's Raiders" (a unit of Confederate cavalry detached from Second Corps) and spent a few days with them. He crossed into Virginia and on September 30 he ended up at the home of John Scott Payne, a prominent doctor and Confederate sympathizer who lived at Granville Tract, a plantation about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Warrenton. By now, Powell was wearing a ragged Confederate uniform, and Payne welcomed him into the home for a meal and a night's stay. They discussed the exploits of Colonel John S. Mosby's 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry (or "Mosby's Rangers"), a very large detached unit of partisans based in Warrenton. Powell joined Mosby the following day (October 1, 1863).
For more than a year, Powell served under Mosby. Mosby considered Powell to be one of his most effective soldiers, and Powell earned the nickname "Lewis the Terrible" for his ferocity and murderousness in combat. He lived as a civilian with the Paynes, putting on his uniform and participating in military activities only when conducting a partisan raid. Powell participated in a number of actions, including the Wagon Raids of October and November 1863; the Battle of Loudoun Heights on January 10, 1864; the battle of Second Dranesville on February 20-21, 1864; the Action at Mount Zion Church on July 3 and 6, 1864; the Berryville Wagon Raid on August 13, 1864; the Raid on Merritt's Cavalry Division in September 1864; the Mansassas Gap Railroad Raid on October 3–7, 1864; the Greenback Raid on October 14, 1864; the Valley Pike Raid on October 25, 1864; and the Rout of Blazer's Command on November 17, 1864. This last raid proved to be a turning point for Powell. Union Army Lieutenant Richard R. "Dick" Blazer was a noted Indian fighter who'd been sent to destroy Mosby's Rangers. Instead, Blazer's unit was routed and Blazer captured. Powell and three others were given the privilege of taking Blazer to prison in Richmond, Virginia, in late November.
Powell's visit to Richmond changed him. He returned to Warrenton morose and introspective. Historian Michael W. Kauffman argues that Powell saw a Baltimore acquaintance in Richmond, and that turned his thoughts back to the time he'd spent in September 1863 romancing Margaret Branson and her sister, Mary, at the Branson boarding house. Powell biographer Betty Ownsbey, however, argues that his Richmond trip made him aware that the Confederate cause was lost, and his depression was caused by his desire to get out of the fighting. Several other historians claim that the Confederate Secret Service had already recruited him into its ranks during the previous year (with Mosby's consent), and that Powell's moodiness came from moral misgivings he had as he contemplated being sent north to assist with various kidnap plots against Abraham Lincoln.[a]
Involvement in conspiracy
Whatever the reason, Powell deserted on January 1, 1865. He made his way to Richmond, where he sold his horse and purchased a ticket on a train headed for Alexandria, Virginia. On January 13, he entered the Union Army's lines at Alexandria, claimed to be a civilian refugee, and—under the name "Lewis Payne" (or "Paine", sources vary)—took an oath of allegiance to the United States.[b] On January 14, Powell arrived in Baltimore and checked into Miller's Hotel. He made contact with the Bransons, and soon took up residence in their boarding house again. He used the name "Lewis Payne", and the Bransons introduced him to David Preston Parr, a merchant whose china shop was used for meetings, as a mail drop, and as a safe house for Confederate agents and spies. Over the next few weeks, Powell met frequently with Parr, a Confederate Secret Service agent.
The same day that Powell arrived in Baltimore, John Surratt and Louis J. Weichmann purchased a boat at Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland. Surratt, and to a much lesser degree Weichmann, were members of a group led by John Wilkes Booth which planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and spirit him into Virginia, where he could be turned over to Confederate military authorities. The boat was needed to ferry Lincoln across the Potomac River. The two men then traveled to Baltimore on January 21. In testimony for the prosecution in June 1865, Weichmann said that Surratt had $300 which he needed to give to a man in Baltimore. Although Surratt never revealed the man's name, the prosecution at Powell's 1865 trial attempted to show that this man was Lewis Powell. Historian Edward Steers, Jr. agrees that it is likely that Surratt met Powell at this time, while historians David Griffin Chandler and Elizabeth Trindal present their meeting at Parr's China Hall store as fact.
In either late January or early February 1865, Powell encountered John Wilkes Booth outside Barnum's Hotel in Baltimore. Booth treated Powell to lunch at the hotel, and recruited him into the plot to kidnap Lincoln. Powell became a fervent believer in Booth, and Booth came to trust Powell implicitly. Although several others had been part of the conspiracy for some time, Powell swiftly became the second most important person in the plot (next to John Surratt). Booth made arrangements for Powell to stay at Herndon House boarding house under the name "Reverend Lewis Payne" whenever he traveled to Washington, D.C. During this time, Powell used a variety of aliases in addition to "Lewis Payne", including use of the last names Hall, Kensler, Mosby, Paine, and Wood.
Kidnap conspiracy at Surratt's boarding house
One evening in early February, Powell (using the alias "Mr. Wood") appeared at Mary Surratt's boarding house 604 H Street in Washington, D.C. Mary was John's mother, and she had taken up residence in the boarding house in the fall of 1864 after renting out her tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton), Maryland, to former D.C. police officer John M. Lloyd. Powell asked for John Surratt, who was not at home. He then requested something to eat and a place to stay, and Mrs. Surratt granted both requests after her son returned home and vouched for "Mr. Wood". Powell told Louis Weichmann, who was a boarder in the house, that "Wood" was a clerk in Parr's china shop in Baltimore. Powell left the next day.
Powell's role in the plot almost came to an end when, on March 12, 1865, he beat a black maid at the Branson boarding house. She had him arrested and accused him of being a Confederate spy. It was a serious charge: Maryland was under martial law, and the Union Army's Provost Marshal had supervision over such cases. Using the name "Lewis Paine", Powell swore he was from Fauquier County, Virginia, and knew nothing about the war. Declaring he was only 18 years old, he pretended to be stupid and not understand the English language too well. Lacking evidence that he was a spy, the Provost Marshal released Powell on March 14. Powell took an oath of allegiance to the United States, and the Provost Marshal wrote on his allegiance form that "Lewis Paine" was to live north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the duration of the war. (The Provost Marshal had foolishly written the "stay north" order in pencil. Powell later erased it from his oath of allegiance.)
The day before Powell was released, John Surratt sent a telegram to Parr in Baltimore, telling him to send Powell immediately to Washington. Powell was freed just in time to take the 6:00 p.m. train to the capital.[c] Powell arrived at the Surratt boarding house and identified himself as "Reverend Lewis Payne", a Baptist preacher. When members of the boarding house recognized him as "Mr. Wood" from several weeks earlier, Powell explained that he knew a "Mr. Wood" and that they had been confused. In a new suit, his demeanor suave and cultured (quite unlike his previous surly attitude), the members of the household accepted his explanation. But when "Reverend Payne" met with John Surratt, he claimed not to know him—even though on his previous visit he claimed to be a friend of John's. To Louis Weichmann, this was highly suspicious behavior, but Mrs. Surratt said she was happy with "Reverend Payne's" explanations. Powell stayed for three days, then left.
Powell was not the only conspirator to have arrived in the city. Booth had assembled his entire team—which consisted of John Surratt, Lewis Powell, Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Michael O'Laughlen—because he wanted the men to plan to kidnap Lincoln the next time he attended a play at Ford's Theatre. Booth rented the President's Box at the theater on March 15, and he provided tickets to Powell and Surratt so that they could familiarize themselves with the layout of the theater and how to access the box. The two attended the theater as planned (in the company of two of Mrs. Surratt's female boarders). The group then had a late-night planning meeting at Gautier's Restaurant at 252 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the first time that Arnold and O'Laughlen were meeting the others, and it was the first time Booth revealed his plan to kidnap Lincoln from Ford's Theatre. Booth assigned Powell (whom he called "Mosby") the job of catching a handcuffed Lincoln as he was lowered from the President's Box onto the stage. Arnold said that Powell, the strongest of the men, should be the one to subdue and handcuff Lincoln, not catch him from below. As the men argued, Booth kept altering his plan and Powell's role in it. Throughout the meeting, Arnold and O'Laughlen expressed their anger at Booth. They said they had joined a plot to kidnap Lincoln in the country, where the president would be unguarded and there was little chance of encountering a military patrol. Now Booth was changing that plan significantly, and they didn't like it. The meeting broke up at 5:00 a.m. after Arnold said trying to kidnap Lincoln from a theater full of people in the middle of the city was suicidal.
On the morning of March 17, Booth learned that President Lincoln had been invited to attend a matinee theatrical performance at the Soldiers' Home. The Soldiers' Home was in a rural part of the District of Columbia about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the city limits (at that time Florida Avenue), and Lincoln usually visited the facility without an escort. The group met in front of the Surratt boarding house at 2:00 p.m. to receive instructions from Booth. Booth sent Herold out to the Surratt tavern with equipment, and informed the others that they should wait at a local saloon while he rode out to the Soldier's Home to scout the area. When Booth arrived at the Soldier's Home, he learned that Lincoln had decided to address a group of Indiana soldiers at a downtown hotel instead. Powell and the other conspirators never left the tavern.
Powell returned to the Branson boarding house that evening, then traveled to New York City with Booth on March 21. Powell stayed at the Revere House, a fashionable hotel, and later moved to a boarding house.[d] There is evidence that Booth and Powell then traveled to Toronto, Canada, a major center of Confederate activity. Richard Montgomery, a Confederate spy, said that he saw Powell meet with Jacob Thompson and Clement Claiborne Clay, the two heads of the Confederate Secret Service, in Toronto. On March 23, Booth sent a coded telegram to Louis Weichmann, which John Surratt understood to mean that Powell should stay at the Herndon House after he returned to Washington. Powell returned to the capital on the night of March 27 and checked into the Herndon House using the alias "Kensler". Powell joined Booth that night to watch a performance of the opera La Forza del Destino at Ford's Theatre.
On April 11, President Lincoln addressed a crowd from the balcony on the north side of the White House. In this speech, Lincoln discussed his plans for accepting the rebellious states back into the Union, and singled out Louisiana as the first he'd like to see do so. Lincoln announced that he also wanted to see African Americans given the right to vote. Booth and Powell stood on the White House lawn listening to the speech. Booth seethed at the idea of giving blacks political power, and told Powell, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make."
Lincoln assassination plot
It is unclear just when Powell learned that the kidnap plot had turned to an assassination. There is testimony from the nurse attending the Secretary of State indicating that Powell may have learned of his role to assassinate Seward on Thursday, April 13. A man fitting Powell's description appeared at the Seward home that day to inquire about secretary's health. Powell himself was inconsistent. He once said he learned he was to kill Seward on the morning of Friday, April 14, but later claimed he did not know until the evening of April 14.
On the afternoon of April 14, Booth learned that Abraham Lincoln would be attending a play at Ford's Theatre that night. Booth decided that the time had come to kill Lincoln. Booth sent David Herold to tell Powell the news. The two men probably spent the afternoon and early evening at the Canterbury Music Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Powell met and possibly had a tryst with Mary Gardner, a performer there.
At 8:00 p.m. that night, Booth, Atzerodt, Herold, and Powell met in Powell's room at the Herndon House in Washington, D.C., where Booth assigned roles. They would strike that very night, Booth said. Powell (accompanied by Herold) was to go to the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward and kill him. Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson.[e] Booth was to murder Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.
The attack on Seward
At about 10:30 p.m., Powell was escorted to the Seward residence on Lafayette Square near the White House by David Herold. Seward had been injured in a carriage accident on April 5, and suffered a concussion, broken jaw, broken right arm, and many serious bruises. Local newspapers reported that Seward was at home convalescing, so Powell and Herold knew where to find him. Powell was armed with a Whitney revolver and large knife, and wore black pants, a long overcoat, a grey vest, a grey dress coat, and a hat with a wide brim. Herold waited outside, holding Powell's horse. Powell knocked and rang the bell, and the door was answered by William Bell, Seward's African American butler. Holding up a small bottle, Powell claimed that Seward's physician, Dr. T.S. Verdi, had sent some medicine to the house. Bell was suspicious, as Dr. Verdi had departed the home only an hour earlier and left instructions for Seward not to be disturbed. Bell asked Powell to wait, but Powell pushed past him and began mounting the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms.
Seward's son, Frederick, appeared at the top of the steps in his nightclothes. As Powell reached the second floor, Frederick ordered Powell to stop. Seward's daughter, Fanny, stuck her head out of her father's bedroom door and warned the men that Seward was sleeping. She then returned to the bedroom. Powell said he was delivering medicine, and Frederick asked for the bottle. Powell gave it to him, then pulled out his revolver and pulled the trigger with the barrel of the gun against Frederick's chest. The revolver misfired, and Powell pistol-whipped Frederick over and over. Bell fled the house screaming "Murder! Murder!" and raced to the office of General Christopher C. Augur next door for help. Terrified, Herold tied Powell's horse to a tree and fled on his own steed.
Powell now drew out his knife and burst through Seward's bedroom door. Inside were Seward's Army nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson, and Fanny Seward. Powell slashed Robinson on the forearm, and the soldier fell. Powell punched Fanny in the face, and leapt onto the bed. He savagely began knifing Seward in the head and throat. Seward, however, was wearing a metal and canvas splint on his jaw, which deflected most of Powell's blows. However, Powell managed to cut through Seward's right cheek and along his right throat, causing a large amount of blood flow.[f] Believing Seward to be dead, Powell hesitated. Just then, Seward's other son, Augustus, burst into the room. Powell stabbed him several times. Augustus dragged Powell onto the floor. Robinson and Augustus Seward wrestled with the strong, uninjured Powell. Powell stabbed Robinson in the chest and shoulder, and slashed a portion of Augustus' scalp from his head.
Powell shouted, "I'm mad! I'm mad!" and fled the room. Powell was confronted by State Department messenger Emerick "Bud" Hansell in the hallway. Hansell had just arrived at the house moments earlier and found the front door ajar. As Hansell turned to flee, Powell stabbed him in the back. Powell ran out of the house, and threw his knife in the gutter of the street.
Flight and capture
Powell now realized that Herold had abandoned him. Unfortunately, Powell had almost no knowledge of the streets of Washington, D.C., and without Herold he had no way of locating the streets he was to use for his escape route.[g] He mounted his horse, and began riding at a relatively slow pace north on 15th Street.
Powell's exact movements from the time he was seen cantering up 15th Street until the time he appeared at the Surratt boarding house three days later are not clear. It is well-established that he ended up (by riding or walking) in the far northeast part of the District of Columbia near Fort Bunker Hill, where he discarded his overcoat.[h] In the overcoat pockets were Powell's riding gloves, a false mustache, and a piece of paper with Mary Gardner's name and hotel room number on it. Sources differ widely on what happened. Historian Ernest B. Furgurson says Powell's horse gave out near Lincoln Hospital (now Lincoln Park), a mile east of the United States Capitol on East Capitol Street. He then hid in "a cemetery" (without specifying which). Ownsbey says Powell hid in a tree for three days. Historians William C. Edwards and Edward Steers, Jr. claim Powell made it to both Fort Bunker Hill and Congressional Cemetery (at 18th and E Streets SE), while Ralph Gary claims that Powell hid out in a marble burial vault at Congressional Cemetery. Andrew Jampoler, however, says Powell just wandered the streets of the city. Did Powell abandon his horse, or did it throw him? Or did both happen? These facts are unclear, and Powell never gave a public or formal statement about what happened.[i][j]
Powell decided to return to Surratt's boarding house to seek help. His clothes were somewhat bloody from the attack at Seward's home, and he'd dropped his hat at the Seward home. During much of the Victorian era, it was considered unseemly for any man (even a menial laborer) to be seen in public without a hat, and Powell would have been viewed with suspicion had he tried to enter the city without one. Ripping the sleeve from his undershirt, Powell placed the sleeve on his head in the hope that people would think it was a stocking cap. To complete his disguise as a common laborer, he then stole a pickaxe from a farmyard. Powell then headed for Surratt's.
Unfortunately, members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department already suspected John Surratt of complicity in Lincon's murder, and had visited the Surratt boarding house for the first time as early as 2:00 a.m. on April 15 (less than four hours after the attacks). Nothing incriminating was found, so federal authorities decided to make a second visit. Military investigators arrived at about 11:00 p.m. on Monday, April 17, to bring Mrs. Surratt and others in for questioning. As they were about to depart at 11:45 p.m., Powell showed up on the doorstep. Powell claimed to be a menial laborer who'd been hired that morning by Mrs. Surratt to dig a gutter in the street. He explained his arrival at the house by saying that he wanted to know what time he should begin work in the morning. His clothes aroused intense suspicion, as he wore rather good quality boots, pants, dress shirt, vest, and coat. His pickaxe seemed unused, and his hand were uncalloused and well manicured (unlike those of a common laborer). Mrs. Surratt denied knowing him. (She would later claim that her extremely poor eyesight and the darkness of the room prevented her from recognizing Powell. Powell stood under a bright lamp just five feet from her when she made her denial.)
Taken into custody, Powell was discovered to have a box of pistol cartridges, a compass, hair pomade, a brush and comb, two fine handkerchiefs, and a copy of his oath of allegiance (signed "L. Paine") in his pockets. These were not the possessions of a menial laborer. Although he claimed he was a poor man who barely earned a dollar a day for ditch-digging, Powell's wallet contained $25. About 3:00 a.m. on April 18, William Bell identified Powell as the man who assaulted Seward. Powell was formally arrested, and imprisoned aboard the monitor USS Saugus, then at anchor in the Anacostia River at the Washington Navy Yard. A second identification was made around mid-morning on April 18 when Augustus Seward visited the Saugus and positively recognized Powell as the man who attacked him and his father.
Trial and execution
The federal government arrested a great many people for their role in the Lincoln assassination. Arrests included John T. Ford, owner of Ford's Theatre; Ford's brothers, James and Harry Clay Ford; John "Peanuts" Burroughs, the African American boy who unwittingly held Booth's horse in the alley behind Ford's Theatre; Mary Surratt's brother, John Zadoc "Zad" Jenkins; Surratt's boarder, 15-year-old Honora Fitzpatrick; and many others. Some, like Judson Jarboe, had merely seen one of the key conspirators walk by. All were released, although many were incarcerated for up to 40 days or more.
The most important prisoners were kept aboard monitors, to prevent escape as well as any effort to free them. Along with Powell on the Saugus were Michael O'Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Edmund Spangler (scene shifter at Ford's Theatre), and George Atzerodt's cousin, Hartmann Richter (who had harbored Atzerodt for four days). Aboard the USS Montauk were David Herold, George Atzerodt (he was later moved to the Saugus), and the body of John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt were held at the Old Capitol Prison (now the site of the United States Supreme Court Building).[k]
Reporters were denied access to the prisoners, but not so photographer Alexander Gardner. On April 27, Gardner began taking photographs of those who were caught up in the government's dragnet.[l] One by one, each prisoner was brought on deck and photographed in a few positions. Gardner took far more photographs of Powell than anyone else. Powell obliged Gardner by posing seated, standing (with and without restraints), and modeling the overcoat and hat he'd worn the night of the Seward attacks. Among the most famous of these photographs is one in which Powell sits against the gun turret of the Saugus, staring into the camera in a modern fashion, relaxed and direct.
Powell's confinement was not easy. He was constantly shackled with a form of manacles known as "lily irons", a riveted handcuff that had two separate iron bands on each wrist that prevented bending of the wrist or use of the hands independently. Like all the male prisoners, a heavy iron ball at the end of a 6-foot (1.8 m) long chain was manacled to one of his legs. Shackles were riveted closed about the ankles, which caused Powell's feet to swell considerably.[m] Like all the prisoners, he had only a straw pallet on which to sit or lie, and a single blanket for warmth. The same meal was served four times a day: Coffee or water, bread, salted pork, and beef or beef soup. On April 29, all the prisoners aboard the monitors and at the Old Capitol Prison were moved to newly constructed cells at the Washington Arsenal (now Fort Lesley J. McNair). The prisoners were not permitted to bathe or wash until May 4, at which time all bindings and clothes were removed and they were permitted to bathe in cold water in the presence of a soldier. In early May, General John F. Hartranft, special provost marshal overseeing the prisoners, began improving the living conditions. Powell and the other prisoners began to receive fresh clothing (including undergarments) more frequently, more food, and writing instruments (paper, pen, ink). When Powell was observed raising the iron ball to his head, Hartranft feared Powell might be contemplating suicide, and had the ball removed on June 2. Living conditions improved again on June 18, when the prisoners were given a box to sit on, outdoor exercise time each day, and reading material and chewing tobacco after each meal.
On April 22, Powell repeatedly banged his head into the iron walls of his cell aboard the Saugus. Whether this was a suicide attempt (as his jailers believed) or not, it deeply alarmed military officials. A canvas padded hood, with only a slit for the mouth and nostrils, was fashioned. Powell and all the other prisoners aboard the monitors were forced to wear them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prevent any further suicide attempts. Only Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd were not required to wear the hoods. Powell cried when the hood was placed on him. The hoods were hot, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable, and in the humid confines of the monitors in the steaming Washington summer the prisoners suffered immensely. On June 6, Hartranft ordered them removed—except for Powell's.
The suicide attempt worried prison officials for another reason, too. Powell allegedly could not remember what state or country he had been born in, nor his age. Military personnel became concerned that he was insane, or was being driven mad by his confinement. Three physicians were called in to determine his sanity, and on June 17 he was interviewed for 3 hours and 40 minutes by Major Thomas Akaryote and Dr. John T. Gray. (The military tribunal later ruled him sane.)
With Booth dead and John Surratt still at large, Lewis Powell was the individual who knew most about the conspiracy, and government officials pressed him for information. Major Thomas T. Eckert spent hours with Powell over the weeks until his execution, trying to get him to talk. During this time, Powell told many stories—some true, and some obviously not—about his war experiences and various plots to kill Lincoln or commit other crimes (such as burn New York City).
The trial of the alleged conspirators began on May 9. A military tribunal, rather than a civilian court, was chosen as the prosecutorial venue because government officials thought that its more lenient rules of evidence would enable the court to get to the bottom of what was then perceived by the public as a vast conspiracy. A military tribunal also avoided the possibility of jury nullification, for federal officials worried that a jury drawn from the pro-Southern populace of the District of Columbia might free the prisoners. All eight alleged conspirators were tried simultaneously. The trial was overseen by a trio of judges, led by Judge Advocate General Brigadier General Joseph Holt. He was assisted by Assistant Judge Advocate General Colonel Henry Lawrence Burnett, and Judge Advocate Major John Bingham. These three, plus six other judges (all military officers), sat in judgment over the accused. Conviction required a simple majority of judges, while imposition of the death sentence required a two-thirds majority. The only appeal was directly to the President of the United States.[n]
A room on the northeast corner of the third floor of the Arsenal was made into a courtroom, and the prisoners were brought into the room through a side door, which prevented them from passing by or being harassed by spectators. All the prisoners sat together on long benches, except for Surratt who sat apart in a chair. An armed guard sat on either side of each prisoner during the trial, and (except for Surratt) each prisoner wore their wrist and ankle manacles in the courtroom. Next to Mrs. Surratt, Powell received the most attention from the press during the trial.
Powell did not have legal representation until the third day of the trial. He initially attempted to hire James Mason Campbell, the son-in-law of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (who died in October 1864). Campbell declined to take the case. On the trial's second day, Assistant Judge Advocate General Burnett asked Colonel William E. Doster to assume Powell's defense. Doster was a Yale and Harvard graduate and the former provost marshal for the District of Columbia. John Atzerodt had hired Doster to represent his brother, George Atzerodt, during the trial. Although reluctant, having his hands full with one client, Doster agreed to assume Powell's defense as well. Doster's task was not an easy one. The evidence against Powell was overwhelming, and for weeks Powell refused to speak to Doster.
The prosecution opened its case against Powell on May 13. Louis Weichmann tied Powell strongly to the Booth-led conspiracies against Lincoln. Slowly, the public realized that "Lewis Payne"—the name used to formally charge the individual with conspiracy, attempted murder, and murder—was really someone named Lewis Powell. Court testimony turned to other issues for a week before the prosecution's case against Powell resumed. Seward butler William Bell, Augustus Seward, and Sergeant George F. Robinson testified about the attack on the Secretary of State and identified Powell as the assailant. The Herndon House landlady testified that Powell rented a room from her, while two police officers discussed Powell's arrest. A long list of other witnesses testified about minor pieces of evidence (such as the discovery of Powell's knife in the gutter and the recovery of his abandoned horse).
Bell's testimony proved to be a turning point. Powell was freed from his restraints, obliged to put on his hat and overcoat, and place his hands on Bell as if to shove him aside. Bell's reaction provoked much laughter in the courtroom, even from Powell. But Powell was rattled by the testimony, and finally agreed to speak with Doster about himself and his case. Powell expressed remorse for hurting Frederick Seward. But most of his discussion was disjointed and rambling, and he still could not remember his age or place of birth.[o] Doster became convinced that Powell was half-witted. Although Powell revealed his real name, the name of his father, and where his parents lived, Powell's many fabrications left Doster too distrustful of these facts to act on them. (Doster did not write to George Powell in Florida until nearly a month had passed.)
The defense opened its case on June 21. Doster's defense of Powell was essentially a plea for his life. The weight of evidence against Powell was so overwhelming that Doster never attempted to disprove his guilt. Rather, Doster characterized Powell's actions as those of a soldier who "aimed at the head of a department instead of a corps". On June 2, Doster suggested to the court that Powell was insane. Dr. Charles Nichols, superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane, testified as to his belief that Powell was insane, as did the two guards who watched over Powell. But despite additional examinations by a number of physicians, none of them found Powell insane. Many claimed he was stupid or slow-witted, but none found him mad. Doster made one last bid to save Powell's life. He argued that Powell had not killed Lincoln, nor had he killed Seward, and thus his life should be spared. Doster ignored the conspiracy laws of the day (which incorporated the concept of vicarious liability), under which Powell was responsible for Lincoln's murder even if the original conspiracy had been to kidnap rather than kill and even if Booth had acted to kill without Powell's knowledge or consent.
The nine judges of the military tribunal began considering the guilt and sentencing of the co-conspirators on June 29. About an hour was spent considering each defendant's guilt. On June 30, the tribunal began voting on the charges facing each individual. They disposed of the Herold and Atzerodt cases before considering Powell's guilt. He was found guilty of all charges, except the two counts of conspiracy with Edmund Spangler. The tribunal sentenced Powell to death. President Johnson affirmed the verdicts and sentences on July 5.
On July 6, the verdicts were made public. General Winfield Scott Hancock and General Hartranft began informing the prisoners of their sentences at noon the same day. Powell was the first to be told that he was found guilty and sentenced to die, and he accepted his fate stoically. Powell asked to see two ministers: Reverend Augustus P. Stryker, an Episcopalian minister at St. Barnabas Church in Baltimore and a Confederate sympathizer, and the Reverend Doctor Abram Dunn Gillette, a loyal Unionist and pastor at the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Gillette arrived shortly after Powell made his request. Powell spent several hours with Gillette, whom he had seen preach in Baltimore in February 1865. Powell told Gillette about his background, how he came to be involved in the conspiracy, and how much he regretted his actions (which he still justified as those of a soldier). Powell wept profusely during portions of their interview, and blamed Confederate leaders for his predicament.
Powell strenuously attempted to exonerate Mary Surratt. According to one source, Powell asked Gillette to bring Captain Christian Rath to him. Rath came, and Powell declared that Surratt knew nothing of the conspiracy and was innocent. Rath conferred with Eckert, and within an hour had taken down Powell's statement for consideration by President Johnson. Another source, however, says that it was the two Roman Catholic priests who were consoling Mary Surratt, Father Jacob Walter and Father B.F. Wiget, and Surratt's daughter, Anna, who visited Powell that evening and elicited the statement declaring Mrs. Surratt innocent. Whichever version is true (perhaps both), Powell's statement had no effect on anyone with authority to prevent Surratt's death. Powell was the only one of the conspirators to make a statement exonerating Surratt.
Gillette spent the night with Powell. The condemned man alternately wept and prayed, and fell asleep for three hours near dawn. Reverend Stryker was on his way to Washington, but would not receive permission to see Powell until noon the following day.
Construction of the gallows near the northeast corner of the Arsenal courtyard began immediately on July 5 after the execution order was signed. They were 12 feet (3.7 m) high and the platform was about 20 square feet (1.9 m2) in size. Captain Christian Rath, who oversaw the preparations for the executions, made the nooses. He tested the nooses that night by tying them to a tree limb and a bag of buckshot, then tossing the bag to the ground (the ropes held). Government officials decided to have the dead buried on site at the Arsenal, to avoid despoilation of the graves or their transformation into a Confederate shrine. Superstitious civilian workers did not want to dig the graves, so Rath asked for volunteers among the soldiers at the Arsenal and received more help than he needed. The graves, which lay against the east wall of the Arsenal, were 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, 7 feet (2.1 m) long, and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide. Four wooden gun boxes were stacked near the graves to serve as coffins.
Although many press reports said Powell consumed a large breakfast, Rev. Gillette says he consumed nothing. Powell asked to see General Hartranft, and impressed upon him once more Mary Surratt's innocence. Hartranft wrote a memorandum to President Johnson outlining Powell's statement, and informed the President that he believed Powell to be telling the truth. Powell then made a statement exonerating Atzerodt from guilt, declaring that Atzerodt refused to kill Vice President Johnson even though Booth had ordered him to do so. Neither statement made a difference.
At 9:00 a.m., the four condemned were moved to a large room on the first floor of the prison building. Powell met with Doster and said his good-byes. Powell asked Doster to give his love to his parents, and to let them know he died at peace with God. The prisoners were then returned to their cells.
The soldiers began testing the gallows about 11:25 a.m. on July 6. The sound of the tests unnerved all the prisoners. The heat in the city that day was oppressive. By noon, it had already reached 92.3 °F (33.5 °C). The guards ordered all visitors to leave at 12:30 p.m., and Powell handed his death warrant to Gillette for safekeeping. Gillette placed a straw hat on Powell's head to protect him from the sun.
At 1:15 p.m., a procession led by General Hartranft escorted the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Powell was the last in line, accompanied by Reverend Gillette and Reverend Stryker (who had finally arrived). Once atop the gallows, each prisoner's ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. More than 1,000 people—including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters—watched from the Arsenal courtyard and the tops of the Arsenal walls. General Hancock limited attendance to those who had a ticket, and only those who had a good reason to be present received one. (Most of those present were military officers and soldiers, as fewer than 200 tickets were printed.) Alexander Gardner, who had photographed Powell and the others two months before, photographed the execution for the government.
The ceremony began as Hartranft read the execution order. The condemned were seated in chairs, with Surratt seated to the right of the others (the traditional "seat of honor" in an execution). While General Hartranft read the findings of the court, a momentary breeze blew Powell's hat off. Gillette retrieved it for him. Powell said, "Thank you, Doctor, I shall not need it much longer." White cloth was used to bind the prisoners' arms to their sides, and to tie their ankles and thighs together. Each person was ministered to by a member of the clergy. Gillette stepped forward and on Powell's behalf publicly thanked the prison officials for their kindness. He then uttered a prayer for Powell's soul, and Powell's eyes filled with tears. From the scaffold, Powell said, "Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us". About 16 minutes elapsed from the time the prisoners entered the courtyard until they were ready for execution.
A white bag was placed over the head of each prisoner after the noose was put in place. Finally, the prisoners were asked to stand and move forward a few feet to the nooses. Powell was the first to have a noose placed around his neck. He asked that it be snug under the chin. Captain Rath, who placed the noose on him, said, "I want you die quick, Payne." Powell replied calmly, "You know best, captain." The chairs were then removed. Powell's last words, uttered quietly to Captain Rath through his hood, were, "I thank you, goodbye."
Powell and the others stood on the drop for about 10 seconds, and then Rath clapped his hands. Four soldiers of Company F of the 14th Veteran Reserves knocked out the supports holding the drops in place, and the condemned fell. Surratt's death appeared to be the easiest. Her body snapped tight at the end of the rope, and swung back and forth without any additional movement. Atzerodt's stomach heaved once and his legs quivered, and then he was still. Herold and Powell struggled for nearly five minutes, strangling to death. Powell's body swung about wildly, and once he brought his legs up so that he was almost in a sitting position.
Each body was inspected by a physician to ensure that death had occurred. The bodies were allowed to hang for about 30 minutes, and began to be cut down at 1:53 p.m. A corporal raced to the top of the gallows and cut down Atzerodt's body, which fell to the ground with a thud. He was reprimanded, and the other bodies cut down more gently. Herold's body was next, followed by Powell's. Surratt's body was cut down at 1:58 p.m.
Upon examination, the military surgeons determined that no one's neck had been broken by the fall. The manacles and cloth bindings were removed (but not the white execution masks), and the bodies were placed into the gun box coffins. The name of each person was written on a piece of paper by acting Assistant Adjutant R.A. Watts, and inserted into a glass vial (which was placed into the coffin). Powell and the other executed co-conspirators (along with that of John Wilkes Booth) were buried against the east wall of the prison yard at the Washington Arsenal, just a few feet from the gallows where they were hanged. A white picket fence marked the burial site.
In 1867, the War Department decided to tear down the portion of the Washington Arsenal where the bodies of the executed lay. On October 1, 1867, the coffins were disinterred and reburied in the basement of Warehouse No. 1 at the Arsenal, with a wooden marker placed at the head of each burial vault. In February 1869, after much pleading from the Booths and Surratts, President Johnson agreed to turn the bodies of the co-conspirators over to their families.
There is some dispute about what happened next. Historian Betty Ownsbey says that Powell's family was contacted, and that they wished to reclaim the remains. But no attempt to do so was made. Historian Richard Bak believes that Powell's remains were interred at Graceland Cemetery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. When Graceland Cemetery closed and was sold for housing lots, Powell's remains were disinterred and reburied at Holmead's Burying Ground. According to Powell family legend, Bak says, the family made the trip to Washington in 1871 to retrieve Lewis' remains. The family discovered that the skull was missing, but reclaimed the rest of their son's body. On the way back to Florida, George Powell fell ill with pneumonia in North Carolina. Lewis Powell's remains were temporarily interred on a nearby farm, and remained there for eight years. In 1879, the remains were retrieved and a headless corpse was buried at Geneva Cemetery in Geneva, Florida. Betty Ownsbey relates this story as well, but says it is nothing more than a fanciful story. She argues that the events could not have occurred as related by family members, for the city of Washington, D.C., would have issued a disinterment order as well as issued a receipt for the body—neither of which occurred. There are also other reasons to believe the family legend is inaccurate. Graceland Cemetery (a burial ground primarily for African Americans) did not open until 1872, but Powell was reburied before that. Graceland closed in 1894, a date which does not fit with the date of the Holmead's burial as related by Bak or Ownsbey.[p]
Other documents describe an alternative series of events. According to this version, Powell's family declined to retrieve the body, at which point Powell was buried at Holmead's Burying Ground in either June 1869 or February 1870. A.H. Gawler of Gawler's Funeral Home handled the reburial. The burial site was unmarked, and only Gawler and a few Army personnel knew where Powell was interred at Holmead's. Holmead's closed in 1874, and for the next decade bodies were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. Family members and friends reclaimed about 1,000 bodies. The remains of 4,200 Caucasians were removed to Rock Creek Cemetery, while several hundred African American remains were reinterred at Graceland Cemetery. According to the Washington Evening Star newspaper, Powell's body was exhumed by Gawler's on December 16, 1884. The identifying glass vial was recovered, but the paper it was supposed to contain was missing. Wesley Pippenger, a historian who has studied Holmead's Burying Ground, asserts that Powell's remains were buried at Graceland Cemetery.[q] With unclaimed white remains at Graceland moved to mass graves at Rock Creek Cemetery, Powell's remains may lay there.
Powell biographer Betty Ownsbey suggests at third sequence of events. She argues Powell was interred at Graceland Cemetery, but that his remains were disinterred some time between 1870 and 1884 and moved to Holmead's Burying Ground. Powell's remains were disinterred in 1884, and buried in a mass grave in Section K, Lot 23, at Rock Creek Cemetery.
Discovery and burial of Powell's skull
In 1991, a Smithsonian Institution researcher discovered Powell's skull in the museum's Native American skull collection. After extensive research, Smithsonian and U.S. Army investigators came to believe that A.H. Gawler removed the skull at the time of its 1869/1870 interment. The skull was then donated in 1885 to the Army Medical Museum. At that time, it was stenciled with the accession number 2244 and the capital letter "P". The museum's documentation shows that the skull came from "Payne', a criminal who had been executed by hanging. The Army gave the skull to the Smithsonian on May 7, 1898, and somehow it became mixed with the Native American collection.
The Smithsonian contacted Powell's nearest living relative, his 70-year-old great-niece Helen Alderman, who requested that the skull be turned over to her. Verification of Alderman's relationship took two years. On November 12, 1994, Lewis Powell's skull was buried next to the grave of his mother, Caroline Patience Powell, at Geneva Cemetery.
- There is significant dispute as to whether Mosby was involved with the Confederate Secret Service. Historian Jeffrey D. Wert noted that, in the absence of hard evidence, there is not enough circumstantial evidence to prove Mosby's involvement. C. Wyatt Evans goes even further, and has concluded there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to link Mosby to Confederate spy organization.
- Powell later claimed that he had to use an alias, because Mosby's men would kill him for deserting.
- Steers claims that this telegram also told Parr to give $300 to Powell. But the text of the telegram printed in Kauffman and in Griffin shows no such order.
- Powell often told friends and acquaintances that he was going to New York City, when in fact he was headed some place else. This appears to be the first time Powell did not use New York as a "blind" for some other activity.
- Johnson was staying in the Kirkwood Hotel, and Atzerodt checked into a room at the hotel on the morning of April 14. Atzerodt failed in his task because he lost his nerve and got drunk.
- Seward was badly maimed for life by this attack.
- Powell biographer Betty Ownsbey admits that "countless" historians have concluded that Powell did not know his way around the city. Ownsbey, however, asserts he knew his way around and was headed for Baltimore. She cites an 1880 article by J.W. Clampitt, one of Mrs. Surratt's attorneys, in which Clampitt says that Powell told him he was headed for Baltimore.
- Ownsbey claims that Fort Bunker Hill is "behind" Congressional Cemetery, but the fort is 4 miles (6.4 km) north-northwest of the cemetery.
- The horse was later found near Camp Barry, an artillery training camp on the D.C.-Maryland border at Bladensburg Road and Eastern Avenue.
- Ownsbey gives great weight to an April 3, 1892, article in the New York World newspaper by the Reverend Dr. Abram Dunn Gillette. Gillette comforted Powell in the final hours of his life, and Gillette's statement represents the only version which allegedly came from Powell himself. In Gillette's version, Powell says he was closely pursued by cavalry during his escape from Washington. His horse stumbled and Powell was thrown, so he abandoned the animal. Powell says he slept under a tree about a mile from the city, and on Saturday, April 15, he walked two or three miles through forest. Several times, cavalry or scouting parties almost discovered him, and he slept in a tree on Saturday night. Wracked with guilt, yet not willing to be captured, Powell spent Sunday preparing his disguise and Monday walking back into the city.
- Also on the Montauk was Joao Celestino, a Portuguese ship captain. He had the unfortunate luck to be overhead on April 14 advocating the assassination of William H. Seward. He was arrested in Philadelphia on April 18 and transferred to the Montauk on April 25.
- Gardner did not photograph Mary Surratt or Dr. Samuel Mudd, and the reasons remain a mystery.
- Powell's feet remained swollen, and during the trial he shuffled into court wearing nothing but stockings because his feet were too swollen for boots.
- Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution permits the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during times of rebellion or whenever the public safety requires it. On April 27, 1861, President Lincoln issued an executive order suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Although the executive order was successfully challenged in the courts (Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 ), Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863 affirming Lincoln's executive order. This act gave President Johnson the power to suspend writs of habeas corpus, effectively making direct appeal to the president for mercy or clemency the only option.
- Ownsbey suggests that Powell either was purposefully playing dumb in order to protect his friends and family, or that Powell may have been suffering trauma from his extended hooding.
- Griffin provides a much truncated version of this story, and claims that Powell's body was claimed by his father and older brother and buried next to his mother in Geneva, Florida.
- Pippenger cites The Sunday Star article of February 22, 1870; Allen C. Clark's 1925 Records of the Columbia Historical Society article; and John Claggett Proctor's The Sunday Star article of December 1, 1929, as sources for the Graceland claim. But none of these sources say where Powell was reinterred.
- Prior July 1964, p. 2.
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- Steers, Edward (2002). Blood on the Moon. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122775.
- Steers, Edward, Jr. (2010). "George Atzerodt". The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122775.
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- Turner, Thomas Reed (1982). Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 080710986X.
- Turner, Thomas Reed (1996). "Beware the People Weeping". In Boritt, Gabor S. The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252065446.
- Verge, Laurie (2003). "Mary Elizabeth Surratt". In Steers, Edward Jr. The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122775.
- Watts, R.A. (No. 1, 1922). "Trial and Execution of the Lincoln Conspirators". Michigan History Magazine: 81-110. Check date values in:
- Wert, Jeffrey D. (1991). Mosby's Rangers. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780671747459.
- Media related to Lewis Powell at Wikimedia Commons
- Lewis Powell biography at RogerNorton.com (a Lincoln assassination site for middle school children)
- Lewis Powell at Find a Grave