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Lewis Thornton Powell (April 22, 1844 – July 7, 1865), also known as Lewis Paine or Payne, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate United States Secretary of State William H. Seward, and was one of four people hanged for the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
Lewis Powell was born in Randolph County, Alabama on April 22, 1844 to a Baptist minister, George Cader, and his young wife Patience Caroline Powell. The youngest of nine children, he spent the first three years of his life in Randolph County before his father was ordained and the family moved to Stewart County, Georgia. Powell and his siblings were all educated by their father who was the school master at the school. In his early years, Lewis was described as quiet and introverted. He enjoyed reading and studying. An animal lover who took the liberty to nurse and care for sick and stray animals, he earned the nickname 'Doc'. When Lewis was 13, he was violently kicked in the face by the family's donkey, breaking his jaw. The break healed in a manner making his jaw more prominent on the left side of his face. After some years in Stewart County, the family moved to Worth County, then finally moving to Live Oak, Florida in 1859, when Lewis was 15.
Civil War service
On May 30, 1861 at age 17, Lewis left home and enlisted in the 2nd Florida Infantry, Company I in Jasper, Florida. Sometime in November, 1862, he was hospitalized for "sickness" at General Hospital #11 in Richmond, Virginia. 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 stayed at Pennsylvania College until September, when he was transferred to West Buildings Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. 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 Branson that Lewis was able to escape the hospital within a week of his arrival, fleeing to Alexandria, Virginia.
Back in Virginia, he located Colonel John Singleton Mosby and his cavalry in late fall 1863 and rode with the 43rd Battalion, Company B. After leaving the company, he returned to Baltimore on January 13, 1865, crossing the lines at Alexandria. Powell returned to the boarding house of Maggie Branson. During his time with the Rangers, in 1864, Powell became involved in the Confederate Secret Service. It was in Baltimore that he was arrested for severely beating a black servant at the Branson house. He was arrested and held in jail 2 days on charges of being a "spy". Required to sign an Oath of Allegiance, he did so, under the name Lewis Paine. It was also in Baltimore that he met fellow CSS operative John Surratt through a man named David Preston Parr, also with the CSS.
Lincoln assassination plot
On April 13, Booth, George Atzerodt and David Herold all met at Powell's room at a boarding house in Washington, where Booth assigned roles. Powell was to go to the home of Secretary of State William Seward and kill him, accompanied by Herold. Atzerodt would assassinate Vice President Johnson, and Booth, Abraham Lincoln.
After being escorted to the Seward residence by David Herold, Powell attempted to kill William Seward by breaking into his bedroom and stabbing him repeatedly on April 14, 1865, the same night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. 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. A jaw splint worn by Seward helped to save his life by deflecting the knife away from his jugular vein. He also injured Seward's two eldest sons, his assigned military nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson, and messenger Emerick Hansell, who arrived right as Powell was escaping. Another member of the conspiracy, George Atzerodt, failed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson, because he lost his nerve and got drunk.
After the attempt on Seward's life, Powell threw his bloody knife up into the gutter of the Seward house and fled on horseback. He discarded his light colored coat in a Washington suburb cemetery where he hid. At some point, the horse, purchased by John Wilkes Booth in December 1864, that Powell was riding either threw him or he fell off. The horse was later found near the Lincoln Branch Barracks, close to the Capitol. After hiding out 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 arrested and taken to the Navy Yard, where he was housed aboard the monitor USS Saugus.
Powell was tried under the name of "Payne" by a military tribunal. He was represented by William E. Doster, a Yale and Harvard graduate 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 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. He 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 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. His spiritual advisor, Rev. Gillette, thanked the guards for their good treatment of him while he was in prison, on his behalf. He 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." He 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 hoped by Rath. After the drop he struggled for life 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 with a broken neck. David Herold gave a brief shudder and urinated. George Atzerodt, whose neck did not break upon impact, also shuddered for several minutes before dying.
In January 1992, Powell's skull was discovered and stored at the Smithsonian Anthropology Department. Two years later the skull was re-interred with the rest of his remains at the Geneva Cemetery in Seminole County, Florida, next to the grave of his mother.
- "Private Lewis Thornton Powell (Paine), Company I, 2nd Florida Infantry". Civil War Florida. http://www.civilwarflorida.com/site/soldiers/soldier_detail.php?soldierREF=711. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
- Steers, Edward (2003). The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122775.
- New York Herald July 8, 1865
- Carlson, Charlie; Moran, Mark; Sceurman, Mark (2005). "Local Heroes and Villains". Weird Florida. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.. p. 97. ISBN 0760759456. http://books.google.com/books?id=LEVpJytFVYcC.
- Ownsbey, Betty J. Alias "Paine:" Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of Lincoln Conspiracy. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina, 1993.
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