Lewis Powell was known to his family as a gentle, tender sort. So how did this introverted southern farmer become part of the plot that killed America's 16th president?
Lewis Thornton Powell, also known as Lewis Payne, was hanged in Washington, D.C. in 1865 for collaborating with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. While most casual history buffs are well aware of Booth’s actions, Powell’s contributions to the plot have gone largely unnoticed.
For one thing, Lincoln’s assassination was a part of a much larger endeavor than the murder of one man. Conspirators also planned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward that day on April 14, 1865.
According to The Washington Post, Powell was responsible for killing Seward and he nearly succeeded, too, when he all-but stabbed Seward to death in his own bed while the gunfire erupted in Ford Theatre.
But before his blood-lusty run at the nation’s leaders, Powell was but the tender Southern son of a Baptist minister. So how, exactly, did this gentle farmer-turned-soldier come to so disrupt his country at the cost of his own freedom — and life?
The Early Life Of Lewis Powell
Would-be assassin Lewis Powell was born in Randolph County, Alabama on April 23, 1844, to a Baptist minister named George Cader and his wife, Patience Caroline Powell. According to Betty J. Ownsbey’s Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Assassination, Powell was born into a family that would total 10 children by 1852.
George Cader Powell’s spiritual adviser, Reverend Dr. Abraham Dunn Gillette, described Powell as one “of cultivated mind.” That was likely so because the whole family was tasked to pitch in with farm work, as the patriarch decided to sell his slaves when he found religion.
The family’s financial troubles forced them to move all over the South from Stewart County, Georgia to Belleville in Hamilton County, Florida. He was kicked in the face by the family mule which broke his jaw. when it healed, the left side of his jaw appeared more prominent.
Young Powell was a natural introvert. His sisters remembered him as a “sweet, lovable, kind young boy” and they called him “Doc” for his tenderness towards animals. He was bookish initially keen on following in his father’s religious footsteps, but the Civil War had other plans for him.
Lewis Powell’s Role In The Civil War
Florida became the third state to leave the Union on Jan. 10, 1861. Powell was 16 and desperate to enlist. After turning 17 in April, he lied and told the Army he was 19. His father wasn’t pleased, but ultimately accepted his son’s decision.
By the time he was 20, Powell had participated in several major campaigns. Most notable were the siege of Yorktown and the battle of Williamsburg. Though he was present for the Battle of Fredericksburg, he was held in reserve.
Fellow servicemen recalled how Powell was “chivalrous, generous, and gallant” and “always keyed up for battle.” He also earned himself the nickname “Lewis the Terrible” for his prowess in combat.
But in 1862, Powell was injured and held in a military hospital in Richmond. There he met a young nurse, Margaret Branson, with whom he developed a relationship. She helped him to escape the hospital, by some accounts having smuggled him a Union Army uniform. He managed to reunite with his unit that November.
Tragically, his brother Oliver fell in battle at Murfreesboro in 1863 – one day before the battle ended. From there, Powell’s journey takes a sharp turn.
Enter John Wilkes Booth
Powell’s reaction to his brother’s death is unknown, though his decision to join up with Colonel Mosby and his confederate Rangers shortly thereafter might point to his rudderless state of mind. But while with the Confederate Calvary, Powell was likely introduced to some members of the Confederate Secret Service. He deserted the Rangers in January 1865, however. What he was looking for is unclear.
But it is clear to history what he found.
According to CBS News, Powell then traveled to Alexandria, Virginia where he pretended to be a civilian refugee. He eventually made it to Maryland where he stayed with the family of the nurse who had broken him out of the Richmond hospital.
While staying in the boarding house, Powell assaulted a black maid. According to a witness, Powell “threw her on the ground and stamped on her body, struck her on the forehead, and said he would kill her.” Powell was arrested and accused of being a Confederate spy, but charges were dropped after witnesses failed to appear and Powell played too young and too naive to understand his arrest.
Around this time, Powell was introduced to John Surratt, a slippery, coconspirator of John Wilkes Booth’s. Powell was introduced to John Wilkes Booth as the assassin was amassing loyal devotees for a plot to kidnap the President.
Booth’s plan was to ferry Lincoln across the Potomac and to take him into Confederate territory. From there the South could make demands previously laughable in premise in exchange for his release.
Of course, that never happened — but Booth’s more sinister alternative certainly did. It was April 1865 and the Civil War had come to an end.
Booth’s assassination plot had only just begun to take shape.
The Bungled Assassination Of The Secretary Of State
It’s unclear how and when exactly Powell became entrenched in Wilkes Booth’s assassination plan. But Wilkes Booth had nonetheless come to trust Powell enough that behind Surratt, considered him the foremost coconspirator in his new plot to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and President Abraham Lincoln.
Powell would take care of Seward, coconspirator George Atzerodt would see to Johnson, and Booth to Lincoln. Only Booth would succeed.
By all accounts, Powell’s assignment should have been easy enough. Seward was bedridden from a carriage accident nine days earlier and would likely pose little resistance. But Powell failed spectacularly and instead managed to wound eight people without killing Seward.
This included four of Seward’s children, a messenger, and a bodyguard.
Powell arrived at Seward’s around 10.13 p.m. on April 14. The New York Herald described Powell as “a tall, well-dressed man” who claimed to be delivering the Secretary’s medicine. Powell’s coconspirator, David Herold, waited outside.
When Powell was refused entry into the Secretary’s home, however, all hell broke loose.
Pushing past the servant, he bolted for the third floor and encountered Frederick Seward, the Secretary’s son and Assistant Secretary of State. He tried to shoot him, but his gun misfired. Powell pistol-whipped and fractured his skull instead.
By this point, Lincoln had already been fatally shot.
Powell then ran into Augustus Seward, yet another son of the Secretary’s, whom he stabbed to advance further down the hall. Finally, he made his way into the master bedroom.
Hearing the stark sounds of violence emanating from the house, Herold tied Powell’s horse to a tree and escaped on his own steed.
Bedridden, Seward had multiple people at his side: bodyguard Sergeant George Robinson, a male nurse, and daughter Fanny. Every single one was caught by surprise and terribly injured.
After squabbling with Robinson and stabbing the male nurse in the lungs, Powell stabbed Seward in the neck and chest but failed to strike a fatal blow because Seward was wearing a wooden splint on his neck and jaw following his accident, and was protected from Powell’s knife. The victim’s eldest son, Major William Seward, Jr., rushed in and was met with a dagger in his side.
The room, splattered in blood and the injured, convinced Powell that he’d accomplished his task and he bolted for the exit screaming “I’m mad! I’m mad!” In another blunder, Powell ran into State Department messenger Emerick Hansell but managed to stab him in the back as well and escaped.
Getting on his one-eyed horse and galloping off into the night, it was one of the last moments of freedom Powell ever had.
The Arrest And Trial Of Lewis Powell
After aimlessly wandering the streets of Washington, Powell headed to co-conspirator Mary Surratt’s home on April 17. It was the worst thing he could’ve done, as she was being questioned by police when he arrived. They were both arrested.
Everyone, including Seward, recovered from their injuries wrought by Powell. Andrew Johnson also survived because his assigned assassin, Atzerodt, decided to get drunk instead of murder the VP. Booth was the only conspirator who succeeded, though he was eventually cornered in a Virginia barn and killed.
His coconspirators would have to face trial — and four of them death by hanging.
The six-week trial saw Powell surprisingly stoic and calm. Described as the “Mystery Man” and “Payne the Mysterious” in the papers, he never cracked under pressure. According to James L. Swanson and Daniel Weinberg’s Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution, reporter Benjamin Perley Poore described Powell as follows:
“Lewis Payne was the observed of all observers, as he sat motionless and imperturbed, defiantly returning each gaze at his remarkable face and person. He was very tall, with an athletic, gladiatorial frame; the tight knit shirt which was his upper garment disclosing the massive robustness of his animal manhood. Neither intellect nor intelligence was discernible in his unflinching dark gray eyes, low forehead, massive jaws, compressed full lips, small nose with large nostrils, and stolid, remorseless, expression.”
The 21-year-old was represented by former Washington provost marshal Colonel William E. Doster, whose defense was rooted in arguing for leniency as Powell’s victim didn’t die, and attempting to garner sympathy by inaccurately describing Powell’s childhood.
It was all for naught, of course. Four of the conspirators — Lewis Powell, David Herold, Mary Surratt, and George Atzerodt (who failed to kill Vice President Johnson) — were sentenced to death by hanging.
Three others were sentenced to life in prison, while an eighth received a six-year term behind bars.
Powell’s Bungled Suicide And Restless Afterlife
Powell tried to kill himself by beating his head against his cell walls after which he was fitted with “an irremovable cap, well wadded.” The government strictly prohibited the conspirators from having any visitors, though photographer Alexander Gardner was allowed entry.
“He was photographed…standing in various ways, with and without wrist irons and modeling the coat and hat that he allegedly wore the night he attacked Secretary of State Seward.” – Swanson, James L. and Daniel Weinberg, Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution
On July 7, 1865, the time had come for Surrat, Atzerodt, Herold, and Powell to face the music. Led to the gallows at Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C., they had their heads covered in white bags and nooses tied around their necks.
Their bodies were buried in wooden gun crates outside the prison walls with a small fence erected around the plot. In 1867, they were exhumed in secret and reburied underneath the same warehouse under which Booth was buried.
In 1869, all bodies except Powell’s were released to their families. A few years later, his corpse was exhumed again and buried in the Holmead Cemetery in Dupont Circle, Washington. It was exhumed yet again in 1884 as the cemetery prepared for closure.
In 1885, Powell’s skull was given to the U.S. Army Medical Museum while the rest of his remains were buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. Labeled as specimen number 2244, or “skull of a white male,” the museum gifted it to the Smithsonian in 1898.
Nearly a century later in 1992, the Smithsonian encountered 2244 while assessing items for potential repatriation to Native American tribes. Experts noticed the broken jaw, and that the item was labeled under “Payne,” and realized what they had on hand.
Two years later, Powell’s skull was returned to his family descendants, who buried it next to Powell’s mother in Geneva, Florida.
After learning about Lincoln Assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell, take a look at the photo of an 11th generation Lincoln. Then, learn 33 interesting Abraham Lincoln facts you never knew about Honest Abe.