“Preacher’s kid gone wild.” As I studied the unrepentant stare of the manacled young man in Alexander Gardener’s 1865 photograph, I wondered if anyone had ever used those words to describe Lewis Powell. Described as an introspective and quiet boy, he enlisted in the Confederate army at seventeen and was labeled “chivalrous, generous, and gallant” by his comrades. Barely four years later, he died a traitor’s death at the end of a hangman’s noose. His remains, originally buried at the site of his execution, found a final home many miles away, in the small town of Geneva, Florida.
At least, part of them did…
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I first heard of Lewis Thornton Powell, aka Paine, courtesy of Orlando Sentinel writer Joy Wallace Dickinson – and was quite surprised to learn that one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination was buried right under my nose. (Okay, a half-hour’s drive from my house.) But as time passed I gradually forgot the story, only recalling that Powell had, well, something to do with the President’s death, and that he was buried next to his father, or was it his mother?
Then I saw Robert Redford’s 2010 movie “The Conspirator,” which focused primarily on Mary Surratt’s still murky role in the President’s death, and visited the historic section of Savannah shortly thereafter…including a house where the attempt on Secretary of State William Seward’s life had been filmed…which brought Powell to mind once more. Yeah, he was that guy who stabbed the Secretary of State! And he’s buried in Geneva, which isn’t far, and I really should stop up there one of these days to visit the grave, ’cause it’s kind of famous…
There the matter rested until I heard of slain civil rights activist Harry Tyson Moore and decided to visit the Harry T. and Harriet V. Moore Cultural Complex in Mims, only a half-hour from Powell’s final resting place. Good, I thought. I’ll add a bit on Powell at the end of my blog post on Moore. Stop at both cemeteries. Make a nice little history field trip of the day. But the more I read about Lewis and the events surrounding his untimely demise, the more it became clear he should headline his own post.
The young man who “clumsily and unsuccessfully” attempted to end Secretary Seward’s life on the night of April 14, 1865 by stabbing him several times in the face and neck is something of an enigma. The outline of his early life seems normal enough: born in Alabama in 1844, the youngest son of eight surviving children, his family moved to Georgia upon his schoolteacher/farmer father’s ordination as a Baptist minister, and then to Live Oak, Florida. At seventeen, upon learning of the outbreak of the Civil War, Lewis enlisted as a private. His father would later say it was the last time he saw his son.
Wounded in the wrist at Gettysburg the following summer, Powell was captured by Union troops and taken to Gettysburg Hospital, where he formed some kind of relationship with volunteer nurse Margaret Branson. Transferred to a Baltimore hospital two months later, he escaped, probably with her help, within just a week, ending up in Virginia, where he joined the Confederate Cavalry unit known as Mosby’s Rangers. It is believed that he also became involved with the Confederate Secret Service during this time. Less than two years later, he would be back in Baltimore, claiming to have deserted his regiment and using the alias “Lewis Paine” when he signed the Oath of Allegiance to the Union.
Accounts differ as to how Lewis was introduced to actor John Wilkes Booth, but it was probably through John Surratt, whose mother, Mary, operated a Washington boardinghouse. Booth had formed a plan to kidnap the President as he attended a play, taking him to Richmond and holding him there in exchange for Confederate POWs. His plot was foiled by a change in Lincoln’s schedule, and soon the proposed kidnapping turned into an assassination conspiracy. While Booth carried out his role at Ford’s Theatre, Powell was to dispatch William Seward, who lay recovering at his home after being injured in a carriage accident.
But how did this Baptist preacher’s boy, raised in a moral household, come to be at the Seward home with a knife and revolver that April evening, where he fractured the skull of the Secretary’s son Frederick and slashed the forehead of his bodyguard before nearly killing – and permanently disfiguring – Seward? Was he brainwashed, as we would now put it, by the charismatic Booth? A hardened war veteran used to killing and seeing death? Insane? (Interestingly, he shouted “I’m mad! I’m mad!” several times either just before or just after the attack.) It’s impossible to know. The only reason Lewis is said to have given for his actions was, “I believed it was my duty.” He remained remarkably stoic, “like a statue,” throughout his trial and went calmly to the gallows, where the hangman, Christian Rath, wished him a quick death. The wish was not fulfilled. Lewis’s neck did not break and he struggled for about five minutes before meeting his final judgment.
Just over a week ago I stood in Geneva Cemetery, looking down at the graves of Powell and his mother, Patience Caroline. There isn’t much left of Lewis to visit, since only his skull lies there. What happened to the rest of his remains is unknown – unclaimed by family at the time of his death, they were moved more than once, and somehow Lewis’s cranium ended up in a collection of American Indian skulls at the Smithsonian. It remained there for almost a hundred years until its discovery and identification in 1991…and would perhaps be there still, if Powell’s great-niece, Helen Alderman, hadn’t learned of the family connection while in high school. In 1993, as his oldest living relative, she asked the Smithsonian to release his skull to her for burial. The museum granted her request the following year.
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Harry Tyson Moore and Lewis Thornton Powell – two very different men. Yet as I studied them, I couldn’t help noticing a few similarities. Both were born in the Deep South and at some point resided in Suwanee County, in towns not six miles apart. Both were nicknamed “Doc” in their boyhood – Moore for being a nearly straight-A student; Powell for his habit of caring for sick or injured animals. Both willingly risked death for their convictions and met violent ends as a result. Separated in death by nearly a century, today they lie not an hour apart.
Looking into the eyes of their long ago photographs, I see much the same intensity, though channeled in radically different ways. At their graves, I couldn’t help remembering Jane Eyre’s Shakespearean quote to Mrs. Fairfax in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel: “After life’s fitful fever they sleep well,” marveling that Powell’s headstone says nothing about the activities that led to his death. I paused for a minute beside Caroline Powell’s grave as well, wondering, a little whimsically, whether she had forgiven her wayward son by the time he was laid near her feet. Finally I got back in my car and headed for home.
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Want to find out more about Lewis Powell? Here are a few good places to start:
“An Awesome Talk With” Betty Ownsbey (interview by Barry Cauchon)
“Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination” (Roger J. Norton)
Special thanks to Michael W. Kauffman and Roger J. Norton for their assistance with parts of this post.