Lewis Powell

Lewis Powell

Lewis Thornton Powell, the son of a Baptist preacher, was born in Randolph County, Alabama, on 22nd April, 1844. The family moved to Florida in 1859 and Powell worked supervising his father's plantation until the outbreak of the American Civil War.

On 30th May, 1861, Powell joined the Second Florida Infantry. He was a member of the Confederate Army that fought at Gettysburg. He was wounded during the battle and taken prisoner. After being transferred to an hospital in Baltimore Powell escaped and enlisted in the Virginia Cavalry in the autumn of 1863. However, in January, 1865 he left the cavalry and took the Oath of Allegiance to the Union. At this time he began using the name Powell

Powell had a reputation for having a violent temper. While in a Branson boarding house he was reported to the military authorities for nearly killing an African American maid. A witness claimed that he "threw her on the ground and stamped on her body, struck her on the forehead, and said he would kill her".

Powell knew John Surratt who introduced him to John Wilkes Booth who recruited him to take part in his plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln to Richmond and hold him until he could be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war. Others involved in the plot included George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin and Samuel Arnold. Booth decided to carry out the deed on 17th March, 1865 when Lincoln was planning to attend a play at the Seventh Street Hospital that was situated on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnap attempt was abandoned when Lincoln decided at the last moment to cancel his visit.

On 9th April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later Booth attended a public meeting in Washington where he heard Abraham Lincoln make a speech where he explained his views that voting rights should be granted to some African Americans. Booth was furious and decided to assassinate the president before he could carry out these plans.

Booth persuaded most of the people, including Powell, who had been involved in the kidnap plot to join him in his plan. Booth discovered that on 14th April, Abraham Lincoln was planning to attend the evening performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Booth decided he would assassinate Lincoln while George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Powell agreed to murder William Seward, the Secretary of State. All attacks would take place at approximately 10.15 p.m. that night.

At 10.00 p.m. Powell and David Herold arrived at the home of William Seward, who was recovering from a serious carriage accident. When William Bell, a servant opened the door, Powell told him he had medicine from Dr. Tullio Verdi. When Bell refused to let him in, Powell pushed past him and rushed up the stairs. Frederick Seward, the Secretary of State's son, came out and asked him what he wanted. Powell hit Steward with his revolver so hard he fracturing his skull in two places. Powell was now confronted with George Robinson, Seward's bodyguard. Powell slashed him with his bowie knife before leaping onto Seward's bed and repeatedly stabbed him. Powell, thinking he had killed him, racing out of the house where Herold was waiting with his horse.

Herold went to Mary Surratt's boarding house and together with John Wilkes Booth, who had successfully killed Abraham Lincoln, headed for the Deep South. Whereas Powell hid for three days in a wood before visiting Sturratt's house. Unfortunately for Powell, soon afterwards the police arrived and arrested him and Mary Surratt.

On 1st May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators. It was argued by Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, that the men should be tried by a military court as Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the army. Several members of the cabinet, including Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Edward Bates (Attorney General), Orville H. Browning (Secretary of the Interior), and Henry McCulloch (Secretary of the Treasury), disapproved, preferring a civil trial. However, James Speed, the Attorney General, agreed with Stanton and therefore the defendants did not enjoy the advantages of a jury trial.

The trial began on 10th May, 1865. The military commission included leading generals such as David Hunter, Lewis Wallace, Thomas Harris and Alvin Howe and Joseph Holt was the government's chief prosecutor. Powell, Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln. During the trial Holt attempted to persuade the military commission that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had been involved in conspiracy.

Joseph Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots: the first to kidnap and the second to assassinate. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of John Wilkes Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from 14th April. The defence surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.

Just before he was executed Lewis Powellwas photographed by Alexander Gardner.
Just before he was executed Lewis Powell
was photographed by Alexander Gardner.

During his trial Powell was identified by all the people in Seward's house as the man who had attempted to kill the Secretary of State. Powell's lawyer, W. E. Doster, claimed in court that his client was insane. He argued that this had been caused by his experiences in the Confederate Army. Throughout the trial Powell insisted that Mary Surratt had not been part of the conspiracy.

On 29th June, 1865, Powell, Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Powell, Surratt, Atzerodt and Herold were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865.

Primary Sources

(1) William Bell, testimony before the Military Tribunal investigating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (19th May, 1865)

I live at the house of Mr. Seward, Secretary of State, and attend to the door. That man (pointing to Lewis Powell) came to the house of Mr. Seward on the night of the 14th April. The bell rang and I went to the door, and that man came in. He had a little package in his hand; he said it was medicine for Mr. Seward from Dr. Verdi, and that he was sent by Dr. Verdi to direct Mr. Seward how to take it. He said he must go up; then repeating the words over, and was a good while talking with me in the hall.

He then walked up to the hall towards the steps. He met Mr. Frederick Seward on the steps this side of his father's room. He told Mr. Frederick that he wanted to see Mr. Seward. Mr. Frederick went into the room and came out, and told him that he could not see him; that his father was asleep, and to give him the medicine, and he would take it to him. That would not do; he must see Mr. Seward. He must see him; he said it in just that way. He then struck Mr. Frederick. Then I ran down stairs and out of the front door, hallooing "murder".

(2) George Robinson, testimony before the Military Tribunal investigating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (19th May, 1865)

On the 14th April I was at the residence of Mr. Seward, Secretary of State, acting as attendant nurse to Mr. Seward, who was confined to his bed by injuries received from having been thrown from his carriage. One of his arms was broken and his jaw fractured.

I heard a disturbance in the hall, and opened the door to see what the trouble was; and as I opened the door this man (Lewis Powell) struck me with a knife in the forehead, knocked me partially down, and pressed by me to the bed of Mr. Seward, and struck him, wounding him. As soon as I could get on my feet, I endeavored to haul him off his bed, and then he turned upon me. In the scuffle Major Seward came into the room and clinched him. Between the two of us we got him to the door, and he, unclinching his hands from around my neck, struck me again, this time with his fist, knocking me down, and then broke away from Major Seward and ran down stairs.

I saw him strike Mr. Seward with the same knife with which he cut my forehead. It was a large knife, and he held it with the blade down below his hand. I saw him cut Mr. Seward twice that I am sure of; the first time he struck him on the right cheek, and then he seemed to be cutting around his neck.

(3) Major Augustus Seward, testimony before the Military Tribunal investigating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (26th May, 1865)

I am the son of William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and was at his home on the night of 14th April, 1865. I retired to bed at half-past seven. I very shortly fell asleep, and so remained until I was awakened by the screams of my sister, when I jumped out of bed and ran into my father's room. The gas in the room was turned down rather low, and I saw what appeared to be two men, one trying to hold the other at the foot of my father's bed. I seized by the clothes on his breast and shoved the person of whom I had hold to the door, with the intention of getting him out of the room. While I was pushing him, he struck me five or six times on the forehead and top of the head, and once on the left hand, with what I supposed to be a bottle or decanter that he had seized from the table. During this time he repeated, in an intense but not strong voice, the words "I'm mad, I'm mad!" On reaching the hall he gave a sudden turn, and sprang away from me, and disappeared down the stairs.

(4) Major H. W. Smith, testimony before the Military Tribunal (19th May, 1865)

I was in charge of the party that took possession of Mrs. Surratt’s house, 541 High Street, on the night of the 17th of April, and arrested Mrs. Surratt, Miss Surratt, Miss Fitzpatrick, and Miss Jenkins. When I went up the steps, and rang the bell of the house, Mrs. Surratt came to the window, and said "Is that you, Mr. Kirby?" The reply was that it was not Mr. Kirby, and to open the door. She opened the door, and I asked, "Are you Mrs. Surratt?" She said, "I am the widow of John H. Surratt." And I added, "The mother of John H. Surratt, jr.?" She replied, "I am." I then said, "I come to arrest you and all in your house, and take you for examination to General Augur’s headquarters." No inquiry whatever was made as to the cause of the arrest. While we were there, Powell came to the house. I questioned him in regard to his occupation, and what business he had at the house that time of night. He stated that was a laborer, and had come there to dig a gutter at the request of Mrs. Surratt. I went to the parlor door, and said, "Mrs. Surratt, will you step here a minute?" She came out, and I asked her, "Do you know this man, and did you hire him to come and dig a gutter for you?" She answered, raising her right hand, "Before God, sir, I do not know this man, and have never seen him, and I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me." Powell said nothing. I then placed him under arrest, and told him he was so suspicious a character that I should send him to Colonel Wells, at General Augur’s headquarters, for further examination. Powell was standing in full view of Mrs. Surratt, and within three paces of her, when she denied knowing him.

(5) Ben Pittman, The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (1865)

Powell is very tall, with an athletic, gladiatorial frame. He displayed a massive robustness of animal manhood in its most stalwart type. He had unflinching dark grey eyes, low forehead, massive jaws, compressed full lips, small nose with large nostrils, and stolid, remorseless expression.

(6) Captain Christian Rath, was placed in charge of the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold. He was later interviewed about his role in the event.

I was determined to get rope that would not break, for you know when a rope breaks at a hanging there is a time-worn maxim that the person intended to be hanged was innocent. The night before the execution I took the rope to my room and there made the nooses. I preserved the piece of rope intended for Mrs. Surratt for the last.

I had the graves for the four persons dug just beyond the scaffolding. I found some difficulty in having the work done, as the arsenal attaches were superstitious. I finally succeeded in getting soldiers to dig the holes but they were only three feet deep.

The hanging gave me a lot of trouble. I had read somewhere that when a person was hanged his tongue would protrude from his mouth. I did not want to see four tongues sticking out before me, so I went to the storehouse, got a new white shelter tent and made four hoods out of it. I tore strips of the tent to bind the legs of the victims.

(7) William Coxshall, a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps, was assigned the task of dropping the trapdoor on the left side of the gallows.

The prison door opened and the condemned came in. Mrs. Surratt was first, near fainting after a look at the gallows. She would have fallen had they not supported her. Herold was next. The young man was frightened to death. He trembled and shook and seemed on the verge of fainting. Atzerodt shuffled along in carpet slippers, a long white nightcap on his head. Under different circumstances, he would have been ridiculous.

With the exception of Powell, all were on the verge of collapse. They had to pass the open graves to reach the gallows steps and could gaze down into the shallow holes and even touch the crude pine boxes that were to receive them. Powell was as stolid as if he were a spectator instead of a principal. Herold wore a black hat until he reached the gallows. Powell was bareheaded, but he reached out and took a straw hat off the head of an officer. He wore it until they put the black bag on him. The condemned were led to the chairs and Captain Rath seated them. Mrs. Surratt and Powell were on our drop, Herold and Atzerodt on the other.

Umbrellas were raised above the woman and Hartranft, who read the warrants and findings. Then the clergy took over talking what seemed to me interminably. The strain was getting worse. I became nauseated, what with the heat and the waiting, and taking hold of the supporting post, I hung on and vomited. I felt a little better after that, but not too good.

Powell stood forward at the very front of the droop. Mrs. Surratt was barely past the break, as were the other two. Rath came down the steps and gave the signal. Mrs. Surratt shot down and I believed died instantly. Powell was a strong brute and died hard. It was enough to see these two without looking at the others, but they told us both died quickly.