Highlights from the Museum: The Almost Assassins

Life-size figures of John Wilkes Booth and assassination conspirators Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, as well as some of their belongings, can be seen on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum. In this month’s Museum post, learn more about Powell and Atzerodt.

If all had gone according to plan, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices would have committed three murders on the evening of Abraham Lincoln’s shooting. Unknowingly, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward had become targets in the conspirators’ larger plan to cut off United States leadership at the head in the single night of April 14, 1865.

Secretary Seward, who had broken his jaw in a carriage accident only a few weeks earlier, was confined to his bed when a man named Lewis Powell arrived outside his home. Six-foot-one with dark hair, Powell had joined the Confederate army at age 17. After wounding his wrist at the Battle of Gettysburg, Powell was transported to a Prisoner of War hospital at Gettysburg College, but later escaped. His next pursuits led him to join John Mosby’s cavalry, to adopt the alias “Lewis Paine” and to assist the Confederate Secret Service (CSS).1 He soon became introduced to John Surratt, another CSS member who had contrived a plot with John Wilkes Booth to kidnap the president.

The abduction plot would require an accomplice to ferry the conspirators and president across the Potomac River. For this task, Surratt hired another man with whom he had become acquainted through the CSS. German-born George Atzerodt, shown at left/right, had experience smuggling Confederate Prisoners of War across local waterways, and accepted Surratt’s offer expecting a lucrative salary. For the next several weeks, Atzerodt would perform various tasks for Booth and Surratt, such as selling Booth’s horses around town.

Two hours before President Lincoln’s assassination, the conspirators convened to review their plans. This was the first time Atzerodt learned that Booth had changed the plan to abduct the president into a plan to murder.2 The conspirators instructed Atzerodt to take down Vice President Johnson in the Kirkwood House hotel at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, knowing he would have no incentive to refuse. The whole city had seen Atzerodt selling Booth’s horses for weeks, and someone would inevitably tie him to the crime.3

Lewis Powell had an assignment of his own. With David Herold as back-up, he now stood outside the door of Secretary Seward’s home on Lafayette Square, struggling to persuade a servant he was there to deliver medicine. Detecting suspicion, Powell warned Herold to go find Atzerodt and then pressed his way into the house. 3 As Powell ascended the stairs to Seward’s third floor bedroom, the commotion drew the attention of Seward’s son, Frederick. Frederick Seward confronted Powell, who clubbed the son unconscious with his .38 caliber Whitney revolver (shown above) after the weapon failed to fire. Panicking, Powell made his way to Secretary Seward’s room, where he stabbed Seward repeatedly until more witnesses came to the scene.

Powell made a run to escape, wildly slashing at people throughout the house and screaming, “I am mad! I am mad!” as he exited. Three days after, he was caught arriving at the Surratt boarding house with a pickaxe while detectives were interrogating John Surratt’s mother, Mary. Powell’s assassination attempt had failed. Seward’s neck brace from his broken jaw had shielded his carotid artery, saving his life.

Meanwhile, Herold rushed to the Kirkwood House to warn Atzerodt to abandon the mission. Atzerodt, however, was not in his room. 3 He had taken a seat and some drinks at the hotel bar earlier in the evening, attempting to calm his nerves.

It seemed that Powell’s and Atzerodt’s nights could not have been less similar. Powell’s savage attack would ultimately leave six victims stabbed and Frederick Seward in a coma with multiple skull fractures. Except to drunkenly wander the streets in search of a bed for the night, Atzerodt would never leave the bar. Later, investigators found the Bowie knife (shown above) stowed away between Atzerodt’s hotel bedsheets and mattress, unused and perhaps entirely forgotten.

At their trials, the differences in Powell’s and Atzerodt’s actions led their lawyer to claim equally dissimilar defenses. Attorney Captain William E. Doster attributed Powell’s crime to honorably unwavering loyalty to the Confederacy, arguing that, “We know now that slavery made him immoral, that war made him a murderer, and that necessity, revenge, and delusion made him an assassin.” On the other hand, Atzerodt must have been innocent, Doster attested, because Booth never would have trusted the ambitious task of killing the Vice President to such a “notorious coward”.4

Neither of these arguments saved the defendants from execution. Both men were hanged alongside David Herold and Mary Surratt at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1865.

Cait Reizman is the summer 2014 Exhibitions Intern at Ford’s Theatre. Also a student in the M.A. program in Museum Studies at the George Washington University, she specializes in museum exhibition development and digital technology.

Suggested Reading: 1. Ownsbey, Betty J. Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.

2. Weichmann, Louis J. A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and of the Conspiracy of 1865. Ed. Floyd E. Risvold. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

3. Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004.

4. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Compiled and arranged by Ben Pittman, Recorder to the Commission. New York: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865.