On this day in 1865, not only was President Abraham Lincoln assassinated, but this man unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate United States Secretary of State William Seward. Now WE know em

powell (3)

Lewis Thornton Powell was born April 22, 1844 in Alabama as the youngest of eight children to a Baptist minister.

At the age of three, Powell moved with his family to Georgia and attended school with his father as the schoolmaster.

By the age of 15, Powell and his family had moved again, this time to Florida.


Civil War

On May 30, 1861 at the age 17, Powell left home and enlisted in the 2nd Florida Infantry, Company I in Jasper, Florida.

He went on to fight at numerous battles unscathed before being wounded in the wrist on the second day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, from where he was captured and sent to a POW hospital at Pennsylvania College.

Powell was then transferred to West Buildings Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in September of 1863.

It was at West Buildings where Powell met and developed a relationship with a volunteer nurse named Margaret “Maggie” Branson.

It was believed that it was with the help of Maggie Branson that Lewis Powell was able to escape from the hospital within a week of his arrival, fleeing to Alexandria, Virginia.

Back in Virginia, Powell met up with Colonel John Singleton Mosby in late fall of 1863 and rode with his Mosby Rangers, 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry.

In 1864, Powell became involved with the Confederate Secret Service (CSS).

After leaving the Cavalry, Powell returned to Baltimore on January 13, 1865, crossing Union lines at Alexandria where he returned to the boarding house of Maggie Branson.

While in Baltimore, Powell was arrested for severely beating a black servant at the Maggie Branson house.

Powell was soon charged with being a “spy”.

Upon being required to sign an Oath of Allegiance to the Union, Powell did so, under the fake name of Lewis Paine.

It was also during this time in Baltimore that Powell met fellow CSS operative John Surratt through a man named David Preston Parr, also with the CSS.


President Lincoln assassination plot

On April 13, 1865 John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt and David Herold all met at Powell’s room at the Kirkwood Hotel, where Booth assigned roles.

George Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson; he would fail because he lost his nerve and got drunk.

The next day, Powell was to go to the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward and kill him, accompanied by David Herold.

Powell and Herold arrived at the Seward residence on April 14, 1865.

Herold stayed outside holding their horses.

Powell gained entry into the Seward house by claiming that he had medicine for Seward from Dr. Verdi. (Earlier in the month, on April 5, 1865, Seward had been injured in a carriage accident, and suffered a concussion, a broken jaw, a broken right arm, and many serious bruises. Seward was at home convalescing.)

Powell then attempted to kill William Seward by breaking into his bedroom and stabbing him repeatedly.

A jaw splint worn by Seward helped to save his life by deflecting the knife away from his jugular vein.

Powell also injured Seward’s two eldest sons (Augustus and Frederick), his military nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson, and messenger Emerick Hansell, who arrived right as Powell was escaping.

After the attempt on Seward’s life, Powell threw his bloody knife up into the gutter of the Seward house and fled on horseback with Herold.

In the meantime, Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford Theater.

Powell discarded his light-colored coat in a Washington suburb cemetery.

At some point, the horse Powell was riding, purchased by John Wilkes Booth the previous December, either threw him or he fell off.

The horse was later found near the Lincoln Branch Barracks, close to the Capitol.

After hiding out in a tree for three days, Powell went to Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse only to arrive at the same time that she was being arrested for her part in the assassination.

Although it was night time, when asked why he was there, carrying a pickaxe, Powell claimed that he had been hired to dig a gutter.

Surratt denied knowing who he was, despite his having visited and stayed at the boardinghouse on several occasions.

Powell was also arrested and taken into police custody at the Washington Navy Yard.

Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne, the conspirator who attacked Secretary Seward, standing in overcoat and hat

Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne, the conspirator who attacked Secretary Seward, standing in overcoat and hat

After Seward family servant William Bell picked Powell out from a police lineup, Powell was confined aboard the monitor gunboat USS Saugus.

Powell in wrist irons aboard the monitor USS Saugus, photographed by Alexander Gardner.

Powell in wrist irons aboard the monitor USS Saugus, photographed by Alexander Gardner.

Powell, along with the other surviving conspirators were later transferred to the Old Capitol Prison.


Trial and execution

Powell was tried under the name of “Payne” by a military tribunal. He was represented by William E. Doster, a Yale and Harvard graduate as well as the former District of Columbia provost marshal.

Thirty two witnesses were called to testify concerning Powell, including Seward’s son, Augustus, and William Bell, who worked for the Seward household as a servant and doorman, and who had admitted Powell the night of the assassination attempt.

The evidence was overwhelming against Powell; it included a performance at Ford Theatre attended by Powell, John Wilkes Booth, and two boarders from Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, Honora Fitzpatrick and Apollonia Dean.

Doster tried to argue that Powell was insane at the time of the assassination attempt, an argument refuted by physicians called on behalf of the prosecution.

Doster then argued that Powell was acting as a soldier, attempting to complete his duty as he had been ordered.

The commission rejected this defense as well and Lewis “Payne” Powell was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and treason.

Powell was executed with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865.

He went to the gallows calmly and quietly, though at some point he was believed to have pleaded for the life of Mary Surratt shortly before he was hanged.

Powell’s spiritual advisor, Rev. Gillette, thanked the guards for their good treatment of him while he was in prison, on Powell’s behalf.

Powell insisted to his death that Mrs. Surratt was innocent.

While hangman Christian Rath was placing the noose over young Powell’s head he remarked, “I hope you die quick.”

Rath had been impressed by Powell’s courage and determination in the face of death. To this Powell replied, “You know best, captain.”

However, Powell did not die quickly as Rath had hoped.

After the drop, Powell struggled for more than five minutes.

His body swinging wildly, twice he “Moved his legs up into the sitting position” and was the last to die.

Mary Surratt died instantly.

David Herold gave a brief shudder.

George Atzerodt, whose neck did not break upon impact, also shuddered for several minutes before dying.

Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.


In January 1992, Lewis Powell’s skull was discovered stored at the Smithsonian Anthropology Department.

Two years later his skull was interred at the Geneva Cemetery in Seminole County, Florida, next to the grave of his father.


Now WE know em





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