Behind Lincoln's Assassination - 2) Lewis Powell
Updated: Jan 11
In the second segment of Behind Lincoln's Assassination, we switch to Booth's plot to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Lewis Powell was an instrumental force in the conspiracy to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, and later the plan to kill him. As a point of confusion, Lewis Powell has also been referred to by the last names Payne and Paine
Lewis Powell was born in 1844 in the state of Alabama. At the age of fifteen, his family moved to Florida. When hostilities began at the outbreak of the Civil War, Powell enlisted in the 2nd Florida Regiment in May 1861. When Lee's Confederate army attacked at the Battle of Gettysburg, Powell was wounded in the right wrist and taken prisoner.
Powell was transferred to Pennsylvania College, at the time being used as a prisoner of war hospital. Healing over the next few months under the assistance of a volunteer nurse, Margaret Branson, he was eventually transferred to a Baltimore, Maryland hospital. It was at this hospital he escaped just a week later on September 7. It is assumed his escape was successful with the help of Nurse Branson, whom it is believed became involved in a relationship with Powell.
Making his way to Virginia, he hid out with Confederate sympathizers and crossed paths with Mosby's Rangers (43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry). He spent a year serving with the Rangers, raiding and skirmishing, before eventually deserting the Virginia army in January 1865. It is believed that Powell met John Surratt then as both were staying in Baltimore at the time. Shortly after, he met John Wilkes Booth at Barnum's Hotel. This meeting is where Booth told Powell of his kidnapping plot and Powell joined the cause.
As Booth's trust in Powell grew, he was charged with more important tasks. Eventually moving to Washington D.C. where he lived at both the Surratt boarding house and at the Herndon House. With a number of failed kidnapping plans, Booth settled on a master impromptu plan when he discovered Lincoln was to attend a performance at Ford's Theatre. This plan switched from kidnapping to killing. Powell's part would be to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward the same night as Booth would kill Lincoln.
Approximately 10:30 p.m., Powell knocked on the door of the home of Secretary Seward. His ruse, to gain entry by the servant, was that he was bringing medicine for Seward. Seward had been severely injured a week before in a carriage accident. Asked to wait, Powell then pushed his way past the servant, making his way upstairs. He was met by Frederick, Seward's son at the second floor landing. Brought up short, Powell told Frederick he was delivering medicine. When Frederick asked for the medicine, Powell drew his revolver and fired. The weapon failed to go off and Powell slammed the gun against Frederick's head, dropping him to the floor.
Witnessing the assault, the servant raced out of the house, screaming for help. David Herold, saw the commotion from where he was waiting outside with the horses for their escape. His resolve waned and tying Powell's horse to a tree, he rode away from the house. Herold's job in Seward's attack was to lead the two men to a meeting place with Booth. A location that Powell was unfamiliar with. David Herold would later meet up with Booth in their escape.
Upstairs, Powell forced his way into Seward's room, brandishing a large knife. Inside the room with Seward were his daughter, Fanny, and Sergeant George Robinson, his army nurse. Robinson moved to bar Powell, who slashed the soldier across the forearm, dropping him. As Fanny rose, he punched her in the face, then jumped onto Seward who was in bed. Powell attacked Seward with the knife, slashing at his face and neck. Fortunately for Seward, his previous accident had him in a metal splint that covered much of his jaw and neck area. Most of Powell's blows that found a mark, though severe, were not fatal. The force of his attack caused both men to slip between the bed and wall, also hindering the attack.
The noise drew Augustus, Seward's other son, into the bedroom. He pulled Powell away from his father, helped by the now recovered Robinson. The two fought with Powell, Robinson receiving a stab wound to the chest, and Augustus receiving a slice through his scalp. Thinking he had killed Seward, and finding his position in jeopardy, he ran from the house screaming "I'm mad! I'm mad!", stabbing a state department messenger ho had just arrived. He panicked when he could not find Herold waiting for him, but found his horse tied to the tree and made his escape.
Part 3 will deal with the rest of Booth's plans to eliminate Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant.