On the first of 2022, I started back up with my daily On This Day (OTD) tweets over on my Twitter account, @LinConspirators. While I know it’s not the same as more regular postings here on the blog of in-depth research, with my busy work, life, and family responsibilities it’s been hard to find time to really research. Hopefully these collective tidbits from the last month will be enough to appease you all.
Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.
NOTE: After weeks of creating posts with multiple embedded tweets, this site’s homepage now tends to crash from trying to load all the different posts with all the different tweets at once. So, to help fix this, I’ve made it so that those viewing this post on the main page have to click the “Continue Reading” button below to load the full post with tweets. Even after you open the post in a separate page, it may still take awhile for the tweets to load completely. Using the Chrome browser seems to be the best way to view the tweets, but may still take a second to switch from just text to the whole tweet with pictures.
Lewis Thornton Powell, the man who attacked Secretary of State William Seward on April 14, 1865, is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Lincoln assassination story. He was known by the alias of Lewis Payne/Paine during his time with Booth and subsequent imprisonment. Such a mystery was this powerfully built young man that, when his true history was described by his lawyer during the closing days of the trial, even his fellow conspirators in the crime, “leaned forward, as if to catch every word.”
In 1993, historian Betty Ownsbey published the first full length biography of Lewis Powell titled, Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy. It was a monumental achievement with Betty uncovering a treasure trove of material on Powell including family stories that had been passed down by relatives. The consummate researcher, Betty released an updated Second Edition of her book in 2015 filled with even more details and fascinating insights. The study of the Lincoln assassination owes a lot to Betty Ownsbey and her tireless efforts bringing this mystery man to light.
Inspired by Betty’s work, I decided to do a deep dive into the pre-assassination life of Lewis Thornton Powell. I’ve previously written about Powell’s service and wounding at the Battle of Gettysburg, but I wanted to learn more about Powell’s life and movements from his birth up to his enlistment in the Confederate army. I was also interested in learning more about Powell’s parents and their activities in the aftermath of their son’s crime. Even with Betty’s book as a guide, tracing the Powell family is quite a difficult task, especially since she could only devote so much space to Lewis Powell’s non-Lincoln assassination activities. I’m exceeding grateful to the assistance I have received in my research from Betty Ownsbey, Eric Musgrove of Live Oak, Florida, Penny Baumgardner of the Florida Baptist Historical Society, and Mary Jo Martin of the Museum of Geneva (FL) History. What follows is what I believe to be to most detailed account of the Powell family’s movements during Lewis Powell’s early life and after his death. This account utilizes the amazing details from Betty’s book and elsewhere in order to help demystify a bit more of the history of the 21 year-old who was executed for conspiracy in Lincoln’s death.
The Family Tree
Before documenting Lewis Powell’s movements, I thought it might be helpful to put up a small family tree showing his parents and siblings.
Rev. George C. Powell, father of Lewis Powell
George Cader Powell (December 13, 1809 – November, 1881) and Patience Caroline Powell (April 23, 1811 – December 2, 1885) were married on March 23, 1830. Their children consisted of:
Elizabeth Miranda Powell (February 23, 1831 – after 1885)
Married (1st) Obediah Newman, brother of James M. Newman, on October 17, 1845. Obediah died April 9, 1864 in the Confederate army. Married (2nd) Henry L. Meeks. Date of death and place of burial unknown
Benjamin Franklin Powell (January 28, 1833 – June 9, 1859)
Married Sarah Ann Hooper on January 11, 1855. Died Appling County, Georgia. Place of burial unknown
Mary Ann Caroline Powell (April 16, 1835 – July 24, 1919)
Married James M. Newman, brother of Obediah Newman, on April 11, 1850. Buried in Penton, Alabama.
George Washington Powell (January 17, 1837 – June 8, 1923)
Married Susan Culpepper on January 4, 1857. Moved to Florida in 1858. Enlisted in the Confederate army on Sept. 18, 1861 in Hamilton County, Florida. On Sept 10, 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia he was wounded, by a shot through his left arm near the wrist breaking both bones and rendering the arm useless so far as labor was concerned. He also took a piece of shell into his right hip and leg which dislocated his hip and forever caused him great trouble in walking. George was sent home due to his wounds in October of 1864. He received his parole on May 17, 1865 in Florida. Buried near Brooksville, Florida.
William A. Powell (January 20, 1839 – June 28, 1839)
Place of burial unknown
Oliver H. Powell (April 23, 1840 – January 6, 1863)
Enlisted in the Confederate army on August 12, 1861 in Madison, Florida. Was at home sick in Florida starting on June 27, 1862. During his sick leave he married Hannah M. L. Campbell on Sept. 17, 1862. Oliver returned to duty around October, 1862. He suffered a “slight” leg wound on January 2, 1863 at the Battle of Stones River. Oliver died January 6, 1863 from “wounds” (possibly infection). Place of burial unknown but likely in “Confederate Circle” in Evergreen Cemetery, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Lydia M. Powell (February 10, 1842 – May 24, 1879)
Married William Slade, Jr. on August 5, 18?? (likely 1867). William Slade had enlisted in Lewis Powell’s company (Second Florida Infantry, Company I) on June 4, 1821 in Jasper, Florida. He was also wounded at Gettysburg by a gunshot wound but was not captured. He transferred to the 12th Georgia Infantry in early 1864 and was captured near Spotsylvania Court House on May 10, 1864. Slade was originally sent to the Union prison at Point Lookout, MD before being transferred to Elmira, NY. He was released from Elmira, June 27, 1865. Lydia likely died giving birth or complications arising from the birth of her son Mathew. Place of burial unknown.
Lewis Thornton Powell (April 22, 1844 – July 7, 1865)
Body buried in a mass grave in Rock Creek Cemetery Washington, D.C. in 1885. Skull buried in Geneva Cemetery, Geneva, Florida in 1994.
Angeline S. Powell (February 7, 1846 – December 23, 1924)
Married Daniel C. Hart, brother of Isaiah Hart, on Aug. 9, 1870. Buried in Fort Myers, Florida.
William T Powell (August 17, 1852 – June 6, 1853)
Burial place unknown
With the Powell family tree out of the way, let’s begin retracing the life of Lewis Powell
Springfield, Randolph County, Alabama April 22, 1844 – 1848 (birth to 4 years old)
Lewis Powell was born in Randolph County, Alabama near the community of Springfield on April 22, 1844. His parents, George Cader Powell and Patience Caroline Powell, were both Georgia natives who married in 1830 and moved to Randolph County in 1840. Lewis was the eighth of twelve children, only 10 of which survived into adulthood. George Powell was the assistant tax collector and later tax assessor for the county as well as being a farmer. George C. Powell was an enslaver, with the 1840 census records showing that he enslaved an adult man and an adult woman along with two young boys, possibly their children. From birth, therefore, Lewis Powell observed and participated in slavery firsthand.
Lewis Powell as an infant with his mother Patience Caroline Powell. From Betty Ownsbey’s book Alias “Paine”.
In 1847, George C. Powell was ordained as a Baptist preacher at Liberty Baptist Church in Russell (now Lee) County, about 50 miles away. Welcoming him into the ministry was Rev. Ruben Thornton for whom Lewis was belated given his middle name.
Green Hill, Stewart County, Georgia 1848 – 1856 (age 4 to 12)
In 1848, George C. Powell answered the call to become a minister at Beulah Baptist Church in the community of Green Hill, Stewart County, Georgia.
The Powells can be found in the 1850 census in Stewart County with George labeled as a Baptist Clergyman with $1,200 worth of real estate. Noticeably absent from the 1850 records is Rev. Powell’s name on any of the slave censuses for Stewart County. This would imply that he no longer enslaved the four people he was recorded as owning in 1840 when the family lived in Alabama. Rev. Powell is listed in an 1852 Baptist register as preaching at Beulah with a total congregation of 138 members.
In 1992, Betty Ownsbey, author the biography, Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy, interviewed Jewell Powell Fillmon, the granddaughter of Lewis’ older brother George W. Powell. Fillmon shared stories that had been passed down to her about her great uncle as a child which Ownsbey incorporated into her narrative. The following stories were said to have occurred at around the ages when the Powells were living in Green Hill:
“When Lewis was about 8 or 9 years of age, he and his younger sister, Angeline (“Annie”) went against their mother’s warnings and decided to go skinny-dipping in a pond on their father’s property. The children stripped down and, folding their clothing on the bank, splashed about in the water. When they emerged from their swim, they found a large black snake curled up on their clothing. Rather than disturb the reptile, the children ran naked down the road, much to the amusement of a passing neighbor. When they reached home, Lewis and his sister were admonished by their mother and told they would have to do additional chores for the next two weeks which would entail slopping the hogs and milking. Lewis made a deal with his sister, telling her he would slop the hogs if she would milk, and Lewis even offered to carry the milk pails for her. When time came to slop the hogs, Lewis fulfilled his part of the deal, but went into a sulk and climbing up into the Perch [his treehouse], refused to come down, leaving Annie to carry the heavy milk pails.
Lewis’ mother scolded him, telling him that ‘good boys do not try and deceive their sisters but strive to help them.’ The repentant little boy thereafter offered to do both the milking as well as slopping the hogs for the following two weeks.”
Lewis Powell at around the age of 12. From Betty Ownsbey’s book Alias “Paine”.
“Lewis had a pet mule which he raised and which followed him around like a dog. One morning, when Lewis was about twelve years old, he was playing outside by the back door and was attempting to do something with the animal when it kicked him. The injury was severe; resulting in a broken left jaw and a lost molar, and quite possibly a broken nose into the bargain. The unconscious child was quickly packed into the family wagon and driven to the nearest doctor. His mother was understandably upset and wanted his father to sell the mule. The Rev. Powell demurred, saying that to sell the mule would break Lewis’ heart. The boy loved his pet, and inasmuch as he raised and cared for him, Lewis should be allowed to keep him. It seems Lewis had been tickling the animal with a straw, while he and his sister Angeline giggled at watching its skin quiver. The mule tired of the play and thus kicked Lewis, prompting his father to remark that it was a, ‘dumb thing to do.’
The boy had acquired various pets, including dogs and kittens, as well as chickens, guinea hens, and a goat in addition to the mule. Lewis also had a tiny orphaned puppy which he had found and brought home to nurse, making a sugar tit out of a rag for the baby to suckle.”
Lewis Powell’s habit of caring for animals earned him the nickname of “Doc” from his sisters who described him as “a loveable, sweet, kind young boy.”
Worth County, Georgia Dec 1856 – Dec 1859 (age 12 – 15)
Starting on December 13, 1856, George Powell’s name can be found preaching on the records of the Fort Early Baptist Church, now known as Warwick First Baptist Church (pictured above). On July, 11, 1858, Powell and his family, including Lewis by name, were received officially into the Fort Early Baptist Church by letter. Also included in the list of members was “Nelson, Jr. property of Patience C. Powell” demonstrating that the Powells had returned to being enslavers (if they ever truly stopped).
The church records of September 10, 1859 show George Powell requesting a letter of dismissal for himself and his family which was granted. The last time George Powell’s name appears in the record is on December 9, 1859.
In speaking of his son Lewis during this time, Rev. Powell later recalled, “When 14 or 15 years of age would hold prayer meetings and could speak with ease and force he was very popular with all and seemed to be a great favorite with ladies.”
In 1963, Leon Prior, author of the article “Lewis Payne, Pawn of John Wilkes Booth”, interviewed Judson Theodosia Lennard and Helen M. Alderman, daughters of Lewis’ younger sister, Angeline Powell Lassiter. According to their memories of stories their mother had told them, Rev. George C. Powell “endorsed a note, but when his friend failed to meet his obligation, Powell was forced to sell his own plantation to pay off the debt. In 1859, following this financial disaster, Powell loaded his family and possessions into a wagon, pulled by four mules, and moved to Florida.”
Bellville, Hamilton County, Florida Dec 1859 – 1861 (age 15 – 16)
According to George Powell’s obituary, “in 1859 he moved to Florida and settled near Bellville, Hamilton County, Florida. Bellville was located just two miles south of the Florida / Georgia border between the modern day towns of Jennings and Pinetta, Florida. It was located near the Withlacoochee River and very little of the community remains today.
It is possible that Rev. Powell preached at a Baptist church in or around Bellville. There is a cemetery in the Bellville community of Hamilton County that is sometimes referred to as Bellville Baptist Cemetery. Among those buried in this cemetery is James Joseph Polhill whose grave is pictured below. James was the brother of a Florida State Senator named Augustus J. Polhill. The Polhills must have been acquainted with the Powells during their time in Bellville as State Senator Polhill once commented that Lewis Powell was, “not a surly, but a happy, boy, ‘full of fun and frolic.’”
The Powells are noticeably absent from the 1860 census. Their names are not to be found anywhere in the state of Florida or Georgia. The reason for this omission is unknown but it was not unusual for census takers back then to miss people for one reason or another. Their omission also prevents us from knowing for sure whether the Powells were still enslaving others, but there is some evidence that this was the case. During the trial of the conspirators, Lewis Powell’s defense attorney, William Doster, painted the scene of Powell’s life and stated, “At the breaking out of the war, but four years ago, the prisoner was a lad of sixteen, engaged in superintending his father’s plantation and a number of slaves.” Further evidence that the Powells returned to the role of enslavers during the pre-war years was the fact that in the 1870 census, after the abolition of slavery, the Powell household contained three Black members – Sarah, Martin, and Melinda Powell who acted as cook, farm laborer, and domestic servant, respectively. It seems likely that these three had been enslaved by the Powell family, hence the last names, and then stayed with them after emancipation.
Joshua Hoyet Frier was a resident of Clyattville, Lowndes County, Georgia – the county immediately north of Hamilton County on the Georgia side of the border. His father, Ryan Frier, was a Baptist minister and farmer much like George Powell. Starting in 1895, Frier wrote a journal of his reminiscences during the Civil War years which included his own service in the Confederate army. A transcription of these memoirs was donated to the Florida State Archives in 1961. Included in Frier’s manuscript is his account of having met and befriended Lewis Powell while the Powells lived in Hamilton County. Frier mistakenly places the following events in 1862, which is not possible since Powell was already in the Confederate army by 1862. It is likely the interaction between the two boys was 1860 or 61. The following are Frier’s reminiscences about Powell:
“It was in the early part of the year 1862 [sic] that by chance I happened to meet the boy Doc Powell, who afterwards became the man of unenviable fame; Lewis Paine, the attempted assassin of Secretary Seward. I was the bearer of a message to his father who lived at this time in Hamilton County, Florida. I had become acquainted with all the family, he excepted previous to my visit there. I had heard of him as a very indolent, and worthless boy; the black sheep of the flock, I had fancied him as a boy of my own size. His brother Oliver and I walked out to the barn to put away the horse I rode and found him asleep on the barn floor. Oliver aroused him, and when he was awakened he leered at us in a manner I shall never forget, and after rubbing his eyes awhile, the boy that was destined to figure so prominently in one of the most remarkable tragedies in this, or any age, looked me square in the face for the first time. I thought him one of the ugliest, and most repulsive looking boys I ever met… great coarse hair and a dull stupid countenance slow and awkward in movement. Such was my first impression of the boy who as a man became the pliant tool, of such a scoundrel as J. Wilkes Booth. Later on in the evening when I got better acquainted I found him remarkably good-natured. We wandered around a lake that evening and he pointed out his favorite fishing grounds to me, and told me fisherman stories which showed him to be a sportsman of the first-water. Among them was one that was of peculiar interest to me; he told me he had slipped off one Sunday morning with tackle for some sport and caught the Devil. He had a terrible fight to land him and when he finally succeeded, he came near biting off one of this fingers and walked right back into the water. I asked him how he farther identified the “Old Man” when he told me Uncle Green, an old Negro on the place, had told him the character of his game. From the description he gave of it I have since been able to make an alligator turtle out of it, one of the most vicious reptiles that was ever created. This one accomplished a reform that the fear of the rod never could; breaking a bad boy from fishing on Sunday.
Before the evening wore away Doc and I was great friends; all his repulsiveness had vanished, and it was with regret next morning that I parted with him. I exacted a promise from him to visit me at my home, and gave him a similar one in return, neither one of which was ever fulfilled. I never met him but once afterwards and that was purely accidental as he shortly afterwards joined Capt. Stewart’s Company of the 2 Fla. Regt., and I never heard from him but once, until his father got a letter from him after Lincoln’s assassination. His father endeavored to go to see him in Washington, but lack of funds prevented. The old man was the soul of honor, no stain rested on any of his family with the single exception of this boy, whose full name was Lewis Thornton Powell. The old man died a few years ago in Orange County in this state fill of years and honor.
It was circulated some years after Paine was hanged that the Elder Powell said he had yielded up his life in a good cause. This I am satisfied was an untruth; for while the entire family proved loyal to the South, Lewis excepted, (he having joined the United States Army at one time) they were to high toned and honorable to countenance assassination in any form.
His brother Oliver before mentioned died or was killed early in the war. While the oldest brother George is still living in this state. Such dear reader was my acquaintance with the man who for a given price attempted to take the life of Secretary Seward, and thereby coupled his name to one of the most atrocious crimes of modern times.
While Paine’s execution was deplored by his family, and their sympathetic friends it was generally acknowledged to be as just as such penalties ever is.
Of one thing, I and every other one is satisfied, that knew any thing of him; it is this; that he was incapable of conceiving or aiding in the origination of such a fiendish plot as this. And in acting his part he was simply clay in the moulder’s hands. It was his nature to be easily influenced for either good or evil, and persons who knew him well said, that any move or enterprise that had the element of danger in it, had a fascination for him that he was unable to resist.
It was said of the family that the fear of man was something they knew nothing of; Still they was peaceable in manners, and courteous to all, and a more law abiding citizen, or a better neighbor than his father never lived.”
It is possible that, in 1860 while residing in Bellville, Hamilton County, Florida, George C. Powell traveled about 175 miles south to Apopka in Orange County, Florida in order to establish the First Baptist Church of Apopka. A book titled, History of First Baptist Church, Apopka, Florida, in the collection of the First Baptist Church of Apopka states that:
“The church was first organized in 1860 with twenty-one charter members when Apopka was known as The Lodge. George K. Powell, who conducted the series of meetings, served as the first pastor and was followed in the pastorate by a Reverend Gandy. During the Reverend Gandy’s pastorate, dissension arose and the church eventually disbanded. There are no existing records of that first Baptist Church.”
It is unclear how long the Powells lived in Bellville, Hamilton County. There is evidence that they had moved before Lewis Powell enlisted in the Confederate army but they might have been living here in Bellville when Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861.
Live Oak Station, Suwannee County, Florida 1861 (age 16 – 17)
The exact date when the Powells moved to Live Oak is unclear. George C. Powell is first recorded as performing a marriage in Suwannee County in November of 1861, but it is likely that the family was living in the area for some time before he was asked to officiate a wedding.
In September of 1863, Rev. Powell sold away 200 acres of land just two miles north of town. Back then, the recording of deeds often only took place right before you wanted to sell the land away. As such, there is no accurate record of when Rev. Powell actually bought it. However, since Powell’s name does not appear on any earlier deed records in Suwannee County, we can make the justifiable assumption that the property Rev. Powell sold in 1863 was the same property the Powells resided on when they first moved to Live Oak. At the time of their move around 1861, Lewis was still at home.
Lewis Powell at age 16. From Betty Ownsbey’s book Alias “Paine”.
Further supporting the idea that the Powells were living in Live Oak and not Bellville in 1861 is an 1887 article, which stated that Powell, “went into his former county,” when he enlisted in the Confederate army. This enlistment occurred on May 30, 1861, when Powell was 17 years-old, younger than the mandatory age of 19. Powell traveled north from Live Oak in Suwannee County to Jasper, the county seat of his former home of Hamilton County. There Powell enlisted with Capt. Henry J. Stewart’s Hamilton Blues, Second Florida Infantry, Company I. In July of 1861, Powell was in Jacksonville, Florida with his regiment and he would never return home again.
According to a recalled interview with Rev. Powell, Lewis, “volunteered in Hamilton County under Captain Stewart, together with a friend, young [Samuel A] Mitchell, in the first company from the county, and made a good soldier.”
On March 10, 1887, Henry J. Stewart, Powell’s former captain, wrote a letter to the Sandersville, Georgia paper, The Herald & Georgian, in which he recalled Powell’s enlistment and service under his command:
“It was sometime in the spring of 1861, not long after the war commenced, that, with the Governor’s permission, I organized a company, being the first volunteers from Hamilton County. Soon after my company was organized, Rev. G. C. Powell, (a worthy, devout exemplary Christian minister of the Gospel, of the Missionary Baptist denomination,) came to me, accompanied by two young men apparently about 18 years of age, one of the young men was his son Lewis, the other, [Hardy] Dormany, who had been in his family probably for a number of years.
“Here Captain (said the Rev. gentleman) “are two young men who wish to enlist in your company, they are young, but brave boys and will doubtless render good service – one if my son, the other was partly raised with him. I have endeavored to raise my son in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Young Dormany has also had my best counsel, and they are both pious good boys, but I have some idea of a soldier’s life, they will find many temptations to beset them in camp, many vices to allure them from the paths of rectitude, and my son especially, is so confiding, that he will be easily led astray. Please Captain look after them closely, and throw around them as many safeguards as you possibly can, to protect and preserve their morals.” They were duly enrolled, and I promised to comply with the Preacher’s request as nearly as I possibly could. Having organized, and being under no special orders, my company was allowed to disperse and return to their homes, with instructions to each man, to hold himself in readiness to move at an hour’s notice. Several weeks elapsed without orders, but when least expected I received a peremptory order to report with my company to Gen. (then Major) Finegan on Aurelia Island, near Fernandina, within not more than three days from the time of receiving the order. My men were scattered about over the county from five to twenty miles off. Powell, Dormany, and a few others in that neighborhood, were fully 20 miles; I dispatched runners in every direction and succeeded in having notice served on each man; at the starting hour, upon the calling of the roll, there were but few absent; Powell was one of the absentees. Of each absentee, there was some one present who could account for his absence. When Powell’s name was called, some one who lived near or with him (Dormany perhaps) reported him sick, said he was in bed all day yesterday with a high fever; buy just as the company was about to move, some one remarked that Powell was in sight; I saw him coming and waited, yes, waited, and how little did I think I was waiting for a young man who was to assist, and not only to assist, but participate as one of the chief actors in so terrible a drama, as that of the assassination of the President of the United States and his cabinet officers; but it was even so. When he arrived, he came directly to me and said, “Captain, I got up from a sick bed this morning and walked here 20 miles, I could not bear to have the company leave me, and concluded to walk off the fever; I am here now, clear of fever, and ready for any emergency.”
It was just, I began to notice young Powell; a young man who could get up in the morning with a fever on him, walk 20 miles on a warm day, I concluded must have all the elements about to make a good soldier. As has been written of him, he was indeed, a fine specimen of manhood, tall and very erect, a fine open countenance, splendid face and eyes, with honesty and bravery depicted on every feature; in short, he was a handsome man. Upon arriving on Aurelia Island I found there, four or five other companies at the post. Major Finegan was often absent for days, and sometimes a week at a time; my commission being older than either of the others, I was usually left in command of the post during the Major’s absence; remembering the good man’s request, I took advantage of my authority on those occasions to prohibit the introduction of cards and liquor into the camp, my object being to protect and prevent the young men if possible and particularly young Powell from falling into bad habits; his education was rather limited, but her was remarkably intelligent and very quick to learn, all that was imposed upon him to learn. He soon mastered “Hardee’s tactics” and became quite an expert in the drill exercises; I liked him and paid him considerable attention, and in turn, he became strongly attached to me and often sought my companionship which I greatly encouraged, and with kindness I had him completely under my control, and so long as we remained in Florida (five or six weeks) he manifested no disposition to yield to any temptation, or to practice any bad habit, but my company was attached to a regiment and ordered to Virginia, and there, with so many soldiers surrounding, and so many changes of duty, it became impossible to follow up and look after the conduct of so many young men. He got to associating with evil disposed young men, and his father said, “he is so confiding,” he readily yielded to those in whom he confided as friends, and was easily led astray. Some six or eight months after, I was informed by Lewis had acquired the habit of gambling, the very vice of all others I tried to prevent; Lewis Powell was ever ready for duty, and a braver soldier never shouldered a musket, whenever there was a dangerous expedition, requiring but one man, I could always rely upon him to undertake it. To the most dangerous outposts on picket duty he was ever ready and willing to go. He knew no fear. I have seen him when shells were bursting over and around and bullets whizzing about like bees, and while others were dodging instinctively and showing signs of dread, he would be as cool and calm as he would have been in a shower of small hail stones; I feel certain that if I had ordered him to capture a cannon alone, he would have made an effort, although with a belief, that he would be shot to pieces in the effort. He never disobeyed an order, always complying cheerfully. I had occasion only once to punish him; he has misplaced his gun, and when suddenly and unexpectedly called into ranks, he fell in without his gun and marched half a day; my 1st Lieut. Was in command of the company on that day, and therefore I knew nothing about it, but the Col. Had been informed of the circumstance, and required me to have that man punished; the Col, was aware of my indisposition to punish my men and remarked, that unless I did it, he would punish him himself; I was also to report to him the punishment I imposed. The punishment was, that he be taken to the guard tent and delivered to the officer in charge with instructions that he be kept confined four days and nights and be made to mark time half hour each morning.
I reported to the Col. he seemed pleased, said he did not think it at all too severe, but I did, and so informed him with the further remark, that I intended to countermand the order. On the following morning I happened to pass by the guard tent, he was out in front of the tent marking time, with two soldiers standing by with fixed bayonets, he looked at me rather pitifully and smiled; I could not stand that, I returned immediately to my tent, and ordered the same officer who carried him there the evening before, to go forthwith and release him. He knew nothing of the Col’s. order to me, but supposed the punishment originated with me, yet, after being released he came to me as pleasantly as a child would have done to a parent who had punished it.
I had often heard him say (among his associates in camp) what he would do if he could only get to Washington City, and among other things, he would walk boldly into the White House and shoot the President, of course I regarded it as the idle talk of a foolish boy and paid no attention to it little dreaming that he would ever see Washington City.”
Hardy Dormany in his later years
The other soldier that Capt. Stewart mentions as having enlisted with Powell was Hardy S. Dormany. Records show that Powel and Dormany did enlist on the same date, May 30, 1861. Like Powell, Dormany was wounded and captured by the Union at the battle of Gettysburg. While Powell only received a slight gunshot wound to his right wrist, Dormany had his right arm amputated from his wound. Both men were eventually sent to West’s Buildings Hospital in Baltimore with Dormany recuperating and Powell acting as a nurse. In an 1880 interview with Rev. George Powell, recalled and published in 1887, the elder Powell stated that Lewis personally tended to a fellow comrade named Samuel A. Mitchell while in the hospital. While Mitchell was a member of Powell and Dormany’s company, he was not wounded at Gettysburg and was never sent to West’s Buildings Hospital. It may be that Lewis helped tend to Dormany rather than Mitchell.
Captain Stewart recalled that Rev. Powell took an active role in helping his son enlist. In a letter to Rev. Abram Gillette, the man who tended to Lewis at his execution, Rev. Powell makes it clear that he had not really approved of his son’s enlistment which might explain why he made such an effort to find a suitable captain to keep an eye on his boy. Rev. Powell wrote:
“Lewis left home to en-list in the War much against the wish of all the family. Previous to and up to the time of his leaving home he was very pious and consistent, was much respected by all of his associates and took great interest in the Young Mens Prayer Meeting and all other Religious Services. His favorite hymn he often sung to the family commencing: ‘Farewell, farewell to all below; My Saviour calls and I must go;’”
While many who had known Lewis Powell before the Civil War spoke of him in sympathetic tones, not all memories of Powell were positive. The author of an 1887 article wrote, “He was endowed with high health and athletic strength. Mr. Dan. McAlpin, the editor of Live Oak, [pictured below] once saw him get angry with his adversary in a game of quoits, and beat him with one of the irons. An illiterate neighbor once said to me, of the family, ‘They are all hot-headed.’”
Rev. George Powell and his family remained in Live Oak during the war. After September of 1863, when Rev. Powell sold his 200 acres north of town their exact whereabouts are not known but they likely rented some other property around Live Oak. In November of 1864, Rev. Powell bought 80 acres six miles south of town.
Powell property south of Live Oak Station
The Powells were living here when the assassination of Lincoln and the attack on Secretary of State Seward by their relative occurred. The government knew Lewis Powell under the alias Lewis Payne during most of his imprisonment and trial. It wasn’t until around May 21, 1865, two weeks into his trial, that Lewis finally confided to his own defense attorney, William Doster, his real name. Doster wrote in his memoirs that, “during the trial I wrote repeatedly to his father, but it was not until long after the trial and execution that I received,” a response. The mail was very slow in traveling from Washington to the isolated area of Florida where the Powells lived. For some perspective of how long it took a letter to reach them, a letter written to Rev. Powell from D.C. on September 12, 1865 did not reach him until early November. Knowing that traditional means of communication and summons would be too slow to help his client, William Doster requested the government’s assistance in retrieving Rev. Powell from Florida as a witness at the trial. He made a formal application for a summons for Rev. Powell on May 31st which the government said they were working on. On June 3rd, Doster requested that the defense not be closed until Rev. Powell had arrived. This application was largely ignored and, later, Doster agreed to close his case for Powell even before he had heard any word from Rev. Powell.
According to his response to William Doster, Rev. Powell did not receive Doster’s first letter until July 6:
“At the time your first letter reached me I was confined to my bed, and it was received only the day before the execution. I did not answer it, for I intended to come to Washington as soon as possible, and started as soon as I could travel. At Jacksonville I met the sad intelligence of his execution and returned home in sorrow, such as is not common for human hearts to bear.”
Newspaper reports contained the abstract that, “Lieut. R. C. Loveridge, provost marshal at Jacksonville, Fla., administered the oath to Payne’s father, George C. Powell, of Lawrence [sic] county, Fla., on the 18th [of July]. Mr. Powell had started for Washington, D.C. in response to a summons from his wretched son to visit him.”
Returning home with the news of their son’s death, Patience Powell, “was almost frantic with grief,” and, according to family tradition, she, “did not recover from the shock for over two years.”
Rev. Abram D. Gillette
After learning more of the particulars of his son’s demise through the newspapers, on August 21st, Rev. Powell wrote a letter to Rev. Abram D. Gillette, the man who had tended to Lewis on the gallows. Rev. Powell asked Rev. Gillette to give him, “a full statement of his confession in regard to the offense of which he was charged, and more especially would I be pleased to hear of his prospects for future life – for I assure you that he received all the moral training and advice it was possible to give, and I do hope that his future prospects were such as to insure an eternal felicity beyond the grave.”
While Rev. Powell was concerned with his son’s afterlife, the government was still trying to get information about the man they had executed. While William Doster had first requested the summons of Rev. Powell on May 31st, it was not until he gave his closing arguments on June 21st that he stated Lewis was Rev. Powell’s son. Sometime after this, word was sent through military channels to investigate this identity of “Payne”. On August 24th, just a few days after sending his first letter to Rev. Gillette, the Powells were visited by Capt. Adam C. Nutt who was commanding a station at Lake City, Florida about 26 miles away from Live Oak. While at the Powell home, Capt. Nutt procured a transcript of the Powell family bible showing the birth of Lewis Powell. Capt. Nutt also copied the text of the letter William Doster had sent to Rev. Powell requesting his presence at the trial. Lastly, Nutt obtained a daguerreotype photograph of a young Lewis Powell for use in positively identify “Payne” as Powell. In his report, Capt. Nutt wrote, “The Powell family is said to be poor but industrious and respectable. The father, George C. Powell, is a Baptist preacher, and is a man of decided, positive qualities, who controls his feelings and bears up well under misfortune. The mother [Patience C. Powell] is a woman of fine personal appearance, and of strong maternal feeling, and judging from what I saw, she suffered intense mental agony.”
Rev. Powell also recalled this visit of soldiers when interviewed in 1880, “Officers also were sent to my home in Florida, who said they wanted photographs or pictures of him that they might identify him. I was kindly treated by them, and told they would not molest me if I did not obstruct them in the work they had to perform.” According to the same author who interviewed Rev. Powell in 1880 and published his memory of it in 1887, “We learned from others that the Yankee soldiers that visited him found him in his farm, and upon their wishing to see letters or papers from Lewis, they were bluffed by the readiness of Mr. Powell to be searched.”
By September 30th, Rev. Powell had received another letter from William Doster and so he decided to write Doster back with the following:
“Dear Sir: On my return home some days since, I found your very welcome letter, which brought me some interesting items in reference to my unfortunate and lamented son. Be assured, sir, that your kindness both to him and myself are highly appreciated…As to his early history, he was born in the State of Alabama, April 22, 1844 (I see by a statement of his that he was mistaken by one year in his age). In the twelfth year of age he made a profession of religion, and from that time he lived a pious lie up to the time of his enlistment. He was soon ordered to Virginia. From that time forward I know nothing of him only by letter. He was always kind and tendered hearted, yet determined in all his undertakings. He was much esteemed by all who knew him, and bid fair for usefulness in Church and State. Please accept the warmest thanks of myself and family for the services rendered the unfortunate youth.”
By November 7th, Rev. Powell received a response from Rev. Abram Gillette regarding the manner in which Lewis’ soul was prepared for death. Rev. Powell penned his own reply, thanking Rev. Gillette and asking him to pass on thanks to Major Thomas Eckert for his kindness and goodwill towards Lewis during his imprisonment. Rev. Powell asked Rev. Gillette to write again with any more details regarding his son and noted, “We will regard it as a special favor if you will please forward those article you stated that Lewis left.” In a postscript, Rev. Powell asked Rev. Gillette if he might check with the military authorities regarding a former neighbor of his from Hamilton County, John F. Butler. Butler had enlisted with the 18th Georgia Battalion. Rev. Powell noted that Butler had been wounded and taken prisoner by the Union but that his wife had not heard anything since. According to war records, John F. Butler received a gunshot wound to the right thigh fracturing a bone on April 6, 1865 at Sailor’s Creek, VA. On April 14th, as Lewis Powell was attacking Secretary Seward, Butler was taken prisoner. On April 16th he had been steamed up to Washington, D.C. and was being treated in Carver Hospital. On June 27th, John F. Butler died from “exhaustion” (likely infection) as a result of his wound. He was buried in the Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery.
For reasons not known, Rev. Gillette did not respond to Rev. Powell’s letter of November 7, 1865. On March 4, 1866, Rev. Powell addressed another letter to him stating:
“I rec’d yours of the 12th Sept. some time in November last and immediately answered it and have been most anxiously awaiting a reply but as yet I have not heard from you the reason why I am at a loss to imagine.
You stated that my son left his Bible, autograph and other articles with you also a few articles with some money which was in the hands of the Asst. Secty of War.
In my last I requested you to please forward these article to me but as they have not as yet arrived I presume something has occurred to prevent your compliance with my request or perhaps you have not received my letter. I hope my dear sir you will please get the articles from the Secty of War and send them with the articles you have by express to me. Make them in as small a package as possible and direct to me at Live Oak station, Penn. & Geo. Rail Road, Florida. Also please inform me if it possible I would be permitted to get & remove the remains of my son from Washington D.C. to my home in Florida and if so would I be safe in so doing and what would be the best plan to remove him.
I would not make any effort to remove his remains unless it was perfectly agreeable with the Government Authorities.
You will please accept the sincere thanks of myself and family for your past kindness as we shall ever be under a great debt of gratitude to you that can never efface from our memories and you will confer a lasting favor by complying with the above request at your earliest possible convenience and any other information you may be pleased to give will be thankfully received.”
According to family tradition, the Powells did eventually receive Lewis’ personal effects but they were later destroyed in a house fire in the 1920s. However, they were not allowed to retrieve their son’s body in the years immediately following his execution. By the time the bodies of the execution conspirators were released in 1869, the Powells had moved from Live Oak Station and apparently never learned they could claim their relative. It was not until 1994 that Lewis Powell’s skull was returned to descendants of his siblings and buried alongside the grave of his mother in Geneva, Seminole County, Florida. To explain why that became his final burial place, we will continue to track the movements of his parents Rev. George and Patience Powell.
We don’t know when, exactly, the Powells left Live Oak, Florida for good. Rev. Powell’s last marriage record in Suwannee County was on September 3, 1866, so their departure likely occurred between that date and 1867.
Bradford County, Florida (now Union County) 1866 – December, 1867
According to George Powell’s 1881 obituary, he, “preached for Providence church, Bradford county, one year at least, during which a number were added to the church, five of whom became ministers.” Still located in Lake Butler, Florida today is the Old Providence Baptist Church which was established in 1833.
Southern Shore of Lake Jesup, Orange County, Florida (known today as the town of Oviedo, Seminole County, Florida) December, 1867 – 1872
In December of 1867, Rev. George Powell acquired 160 acres of land in what was then Orange County (now Seminole County), Florida on the southern banks of Lake Jesup. The area was called Lake Jesup Settlement originally but gained the name of Oviedo once a post office was established. Rev. Powell’s land contained the approximate area of downtown Oviedo that is currently bounded by Broadway St., Magnolia St., N. Lake Jesup Ave., and Division Street.
On September 28, 1869, Rev. Powell founded the Orange Grove Baptist Church, later known as the First Baptist Church of Oviedo, and known today as CrossLife Church:
“The first service was held under a brush arbor near the old W. H. Luther home on Lake Jesup Avenue. Rev. W. G. [sic] Powell was the minster in charge of the first meeting and helped organize it. He served several years as Pastor, just how long, records fail to state. Rev. Powell travelled in a one-horse wagon to Tampa, Clearwater and other distant places carrying the Gospel where most needed.”
The 1870 census (pictured below) shows George, Patience, and their youngest daughter Ann Hazeltine Judson Powell living together in Orange County. Sarah, Martin, and Melinda “Powell”, who were likely formerly enslaved by the family, had made the move to Oviedo as well and were enumerated with the household. The next door neighbor of the Powells was George Washington Powell, the only male son to survive the Civil War.
On March 5, 1871, Rev. Powell re-established a Baptist church Orlando, Florida, some 18 miles southwest of Oviedo:
“A few early settlers of the Baptist faith around 1856 met in private homes for worship but in 1858 the Rev. Miller of Apopka came and organized a church of 12 members. During the Civil War this church was given up, but on March 5, 1871, Brother G. C. Powell of Oviedo organized the Bethel Baptist Church of Orlando with nine men and nine women as members. Their first meetings were held in the old court house, but after the free school building was built in 1872 meetings were held there once each month.”
Interestingly, both of these two churches founded by Rev. Powell, have grown to mega-church sizes over the last 150 years. CrossLife Church (the former Orange Grove Baptist Church), boasts two campuses and 5,000 members while The First Baptist Church Orlando (the former Bethel Baptist Church of Orlando) is one of the largest churches in Central Florida with around 14,000 members, a church campus of 130 acres, and an auditorium that seats 4,400 people.
It appears that, after establishing the Bethel Baptist Church of Orlando in 1871, Rev. Powell stayed in town, acting as its pastor and looking for land in the area. It’s likely that Patience Powell remained on their Oviedo property until a big move in 1872.
Orange (now Lake) County, Florida 1872 – 1881
On May 3, 1872, Rev. George and Patience Powell bought 5,426 acres of land in Orange (now Lake) County for $1,500. This large piece of land became a home for multiple Powell family members. Rev. and Mrs. Powell were initially joined on the land by their only surviving son, George W. Powell and his family along with their daughter Angeline and her husband William Lassiter. After Lassiter and Angeline moved away, their daughter Lydia and her husband William Slade moved onto the land.
In the early 1910s, many years after the property had been sold away from the Powell family, a case concerning the proper ownership of the land made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A party from Spain was suing Wilson Cypress Co., a lumber company, for logging the old Powell land. The party from Spain asserted that the land was theirs based on an old colonial grant that had been given to one of their ancestors. The logging company disputed this claim, stating that they had purchased the property legally from the prior, rightful owners. As a result of this dispute, an investigation was undertaken to determine the history of the land. In 1900, depositions were made of William Lassiter and William Slade, both of whom were sons-in-law of Rev. Powell and had lived on the property at one time or another. In 1909, the two men were called to once again give testimony. Through their testimonies, entered into evidence when the case reached the Supreme Court, we get a great deal of detail regarding the land and its use.
According to William P. Lassiter, he and his wife Angeline Powell moved on the property in March of 1872, before Rev. Powell officially bought the place. At that time the only Powells living there were the Rev. and Mrs. Powell along with George W. Powell and his family. In 1900, William P. Lassiter described their work setting up the property:
“In 1872, in the spring, we moved on to this grant; George C. Powell, who was my father-in-law, I married his daughter Angeline S. Powell that was, she is now living with me here, bought this property from William Mills, getting a deed from him; I think we moved to the property just before we got the deed; everything done was done under George C. Powell who had the title to this land; we first built a shelter, then went to work on the mill timbers, getting the timbers from the grant, probably within a quarter of a mile from the mill site; we cleared up three little farms, there was three families of us; after we built the mill it was run, it was a saw mill, grist mill and cotton gin mill; the saw mill was run regularly, we sawed pine timber, cutting it from off this grant; I was familiar with the boundaries of this grant. I chopped most of the logs and done some of the hauling to the mill; the lumber was sold generally round in the neighborhood and we shipped some of it to Sanford, Florida; these farms were regularly cultivated each year I was there; Mr. Powell and his son George, my brother-in-law, stayed on the grant after I moved away in 187, and continued to cultivate and improve their places on the grant; Mr. Powell leased the mill from time to time while he owned this property to different persons, up to the time he sold and conveyed the grant except such parts of it as he had conveyed to other parties, to Henry S. Sanford; I was an eye-witness to the whole of the matters and was a partner in the business.”
In 1909, William Lassiter largely repeated his testimony from nine years earlier with a few added details. The following text has been truncated from the full question and answer format:
“[We] built us a shack on the north side of the mill pond – you might say north of the spring; it was nothing then but the springs. And we built it out of palmetto, right close down, fifty or a hundred yards from the swamp… After we got there we made improvements, cleared up some land, planted sweet potatoes, garden stuff, a few orange trees. And that summer  we went to work on the mill, getting out the mill timbers. Of course, we had to fix to have something to eat before we went to work on that – we had to live as we went along. And that summer we got out the mill timbers and built the mill. We built a dam, built a mill house and a mill dam. We had a saw and grist mill and two gins…for ginning cotton…and a grist mill to grind corn or wheat or oats or anything. I think that we got it to running some time the next year , along in the latter part of the summer. I know we got the gins to running for the fall’s cotton crop, and we got the grist mill running in the summer time, some time. [In 1873] we planted sweet potatoes, peas, watermelons, cabbages, turnips, a little corn…[The mill] was operated as a saw mill…We sold [the lumber] around there through the country, and shipped some of it here to Sanford…[The east half of the land] is swamp…The western half, towards the south-west…is pine, pine timber and rolling pine land…My brother-in-law, George [W] Powell, had a hammock clearing right close to his house. He settled right on the edge of the hammock, and then cleared him up a field in the hammock [Note: A hammock is a stand of hardwood trees that grow in little islands of elevated land among wetlands where they otherwise could not grow]…On this hammock land…he planted Irish potatoes, peas, beans, cabbages, and he put some orange trees on it…I couldn’t say how many trees he planted out, because I moved away from there in ’73, in the latter part of ’73. But he had somewhere between fifty and a hundred, I suppose, planted out – maybe not so many…[Our farms were located] somewhere in the neighborhood of a mile from the [southern] boundary line…There was one of them on one side of the mill stream and two of them on the north side…Mine and George W. Powell’s were on the north side…A brother-in-law of mine [William Slade]…went there in ’73…pretty soon after I left…He ran the mill – sawed the timber…He lived on the old man’s place…They lived there together in the same house…We lived in the log house we built, George C. Powell lived in the log house on the south side of the creek…We had oxen and some mules and horses…We had chickens; of course they run around the house, the premises.”
William Slade, another son-in-law to Rev. George Powell and a man who was in the same Florida Infantry company as Lewis Powell during the Civil War, gave the following deposition in 1900:
“In 1874 I bought an interest in the milling business carried on on this grant, and moved there with my family; I knew that he, Powell, built the mill, for there was nothing on there when he went up there; when I first went there Mr. Powell hired me to run the mill for him, and in the fall I bought the mill and forty acres of this land, and a half interest in all the timber on the grant, and went to work cutting it up into lumber; I bought of Mr. Powell; before I come he had deeded part of said grant lands to his son, George W. Powell and William P. Lassiter, and they had built and made improvements on the grant and were in actual possession of the whole of said grant; I cut the timer as I needed it of pine, hickory, poplar and cedar from the land as needed in the mill… I was there on this grant in said mill business as above stated from early in 1874 until 1880, when I sold my interest in the mill and grant lumber to George W. Powell; I lived close to this property thereafter until February, 1899.”
In 1909, William Slade expanded on his memories of the property:
“George C. Powell…was a minster of the Gospel…He was my father-in-law…I married his daughter… [He went onto the property] in January or February [of 1872]…He built a mill on it…He built some houses there first, I suppose: I wasn’t there when they were built, but I saw them there. He built a house on the south side of the spring run, and then his son built one on the north side of the spring run…Then W. P. Lassiter built a house over there, or the old man had it done – I don’t know about that…They cleared up a little and cultivated it. The old man didn’t clear a great deal, because he was waiting to build this mill…First I went up there, to the best of my memory now, some time in ’73, I think – let’s see – about the spring of ’74…The old man got me to up there to build a house for him, and afterwards hired me to run the mill, and I run the mill…I bought or had an interest in the ninth section of timber, and the mill site, and I lived there on the place. I lived in the old man’s house there until I taken up a homestead and worked at the mill… [George W. Powell had an orange grove] right around his house. There wasn’t any grove there to amount to anything, sir. George C. Powell had a grove down at the little house that I built for him, but never amounted to anything… [I] continued to run the mill and cut timber off this grant…until ’81 or ’82, the first part of ’82 or the latter part of ’81…[I was] still cutting when the old man moved away…I turned the mill over to George [W] Powell. I sold to George W. Powell, and turned it over to him, and he was running it…I suppose he sold [the property] to Sanford, in fact, I know he sold to Sanford. He sold it to Sanford, but whether him or the old man made the trade I don’t know anything about that, but my understanding was that the old man turned over his papers just before he died, to George W. Powell, and George W. Powell made the sale to Sanford…[When] running the mill there…the people generally come from the neighborhood and have their corn ground at the mill…The cotton was ginned for the people all through the country…[The mill] was burned down; most all the mills get burned down, in that country; it was burned down, I think it was, sometime between 1880 and ’90, I think it was burned down…after I quit running it…[and] the old man was done gone, sir, he was dead…[The whole property] was a little more than two miles north and south and a little more than four miles east and west…Section sixteen had a log house on it: section nine had two log houses on it, besides this little frame house I built. And the mill was on the ninth section…I suppose George [W.] Powell had about three or four acres probably, then, and I suppose Lassiter had about the same…Old man Powell never permanently left there until some time in ’81 or ’82, but he used to go backwards and forwards to Lake Harney, and around where his children were, and stay with them for awhile”
While running cutting lumber and running his mill on his large property was George C. Powell’s business venture during this time, he still continued to preach the gospel and establish churches when he could. His time as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Orlando was short lived. He had established the church in March of 1871 but, “he was strict in his discipline and had some of the members turned out for non-attendance. The church became tired of his strict discipline and in October 1872 they called Rev. A. C. Tindall as pastor.” Rev. Powell’s dismissal from Bethel Baptist Church gave him more time to work on his farm and mill.
In April of 1875, back in the Powells’ former home of Lake Jesup Settlement (soon to be renamed Oviedo), a new church was established on land that had previously been owned by the Rev. Powell. It was called Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and it was founded in part by Martin Powell, one of the three formerly enslaved members of the Powell household who had moved with them from Live Oak to Lake Jesup. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church was the first church established to serve the growing Black population in the area.
A few months later, on August 15, 1875, Rev. Powell founded the Lake Harney Baptist Church which is now known as the First Baptist Church of Geneva, Florida. There was no church building during Rev. Powell’s time there with the congregation meeting in private homes. It is likely that two of the homes that the congregation met in belonged to his daughters. In 1870, the Powells’ two youngest daughters, Minerva and Ann Hazeltine Judson Powell married two brothers named Isaiah and Daniel Hart. Both couples established homes near Lake Harney (Geneva), Florida. As was noted in the 1909 testimony of William Slade, Rev. Powell, “used to go backwards and forwards to Lake Harney, and around where his children were, and stay with them for awhile.” The 1880 census confirms this as Rev. and Mrs. Powell are enumerated as living with Minerva and Isaiah Hart, with Ann and Daniel Hart living next door. In September of 1880, a new reverend from Oviedo was called as pastor of the Lake Harney Baptist Church and so it appears that Rev. and Mrs. Powell moved back to their 5,000 acre property north of Orlando.
Despite, Rev. Powell’s attempt to make his mill a successful one, it appears that financial misfortunes plagued him. According to another witness’ testimony in 1909, “I understand that [George C. Powell] was heavily in debt to the Sanford store for advances for raising cotton.” William Lassiter had also testified that his father-in-law, “had mortgaged [the property] to Sanford, and he turned it over to Sanford.” The Sanford referred to by these men was Henry Shelton Sanford, a wealthy businessman from Connecticut who had invested heavily in land in Florida. The town of Sanford, Florida, just to the east of the Powell land and mill, had been founded and financed by the wealthy northerner. On October 27, 1881, Rev. and Mrs. Powell “sold” their 5,426 acres to Henry Sanford for $1. Involved in that transaction was Henry L. Meeks, the second husband of their daughter Elizabeth Miranda Powell, with whom the elderly couple was living with at the time.
A month later, in November of 1881, Rev. George Cader Powell died at the age of 71. His obituary in the Florida Baptist Annual spoke glowingly of the devoted missionary who spread the gospel across three states. No mention was made of his misguided son who had contributed to Lincoln’s assassination. Rev. George Powell died at the home of his daughter Elizabeth Miranda Powell and her second husband Henry L. Meeks near Apopka, Florida. Unfortunately, we do not know where he was buried.
After the death of her husband, Patience Powell continued to live with her children. In the 1885 Florida Census, Mrs. Powell can be found living with her daughter Angeline and her husband William Lassiter. They lived right next door to Ann Hazeltine Judson Powell and her husband Daniel Hart near Geneva, Florida. There is a lot of erroneous information out there regarding when Mrs. Powell died. Some of her descendants believed that Mrs. Powell preceded her husband in death, but her presence on the 1885 Florida Census proves this to be incorrect. FindAGrave and Ancestry Family Trees give 1904 as her year of death, but provide no supporting evidence. Luckily, while researching this piece, I was furnished with an obituary from the Florida Baptist Historical Society. The January 14, 1886 issue of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper gives the following obituary:
“At Lake Harney, Orange county, Florida, on the 2nd day of December, 1885, Sister Caroline Powell fell asleep in Jesus, aged 75 years. She was born in Jones county, Georgia, and united with the Baptist Church at the age of 17. She married Elder G. C. Powell, our dear elder brother in the ministry, who preceded her to the better land nearly five years ago. Before he died they had lived to see the fiftieth return of their wedding day. She was to him a helper in the gospel, aiding and comforting him in his labor of love, her desire to glorify God, and her longing for the salvation of souls were supreme.”
Patience Caroline Powell was buried at Geneva Cemetery. Her grave reads:
“In Memory of
Wife of George
Born Apr. 23, 1811”
The omission of a death date and the more modern appearance of her headstone, makes it appear that this stone was put in at a later date by descendants who were unsure about certain details. Geneva Cemetery would also be the final resting place of Minerva Powell and her husband Isaiah Hart, with Minerva dying in 1904. This is likely where the year 1904 somehow got erroneously connected with Mrs. Powell.
It wasn’t until almost 109 years after Mrs. Powell’s death that she was reunited with her son Lewis. In 1994, the skull of Lewis Powell was interred beside the grave of his mother in Geneva Cemetery. For more on that fascinating story, read this post and then this one.
Thus ends our journey into the early life of Lewis Thornton Powell and the post assassination life of his parents. What mostly remains today to mark the existence of Lewis, Rev. George, and Patience Powell are pieces of land, graves, and churches. In July of 2020, I took a trip to Alabama, Georgia, and Florida to visit some of these sites. Here are the addresses and/or GPS coordinates for the different places and people that have been covered in this piece.
Birthplace of Lewis Powell in Randolph County, Alabama:
“Rev. Powell is listed as having owned 40 acres in Section 7, Township 21S, Range 12E [Note: should be 13E], which would put the property near the present-day County Road 79 or County Road 710 in the Springfield community.”
The lot shaded in yellow on the image above marks a 39.8 acre plot of land located in the Springfield community of Randolph County. This is the likely birthplace of Lewis Powell. While the land is private property, the blue pin marks where this plot meets the public road, from which one could see the land without trespassing. The GPS coordinates for the blue marker are: 33.201987, -85.330071.
Liberty Baptist Church in Lee County, Alabama
This is the church where George C. Powell was ordained as a minister in 1847. The address of the church is 2701 W Point Pkwy, Opelika, AL 36804. The GPS coordinates are: 32.675667, -85.325172. The church is located on the same site as it was in the 1840s but the current building dates to 1972.
Grave of Mary Ann Caroline Powell in LaFayette, Chambers County, Alabama
Mary Ann Caroline Powell was Lewis Powell’s older sister. She married James M. Newman in 1850 and lived with the Powell family for a time in Stewart County, Georgia. By 1855 she and her husband moved back to Alabama where they lived out the rest of their lives. Mary Ann Caroline Powell Newman died in 1919 and is buried in Rock Springs Baptist Church Cemetery. The address for the cemetery is 2408 County Road 62, La Fayette, AL 36862 and the GPS coordinates for her grave are 32.954257, -85.457772.
Site of Beulah Baptist Church in Stewart County, Georgia
In 1848, Rev. Powell moved his family to the community of Green Hill in Stewart County, Georgia and took up the pastorate at Beulah Baptist Church.
“Beulah Baptist Church Cemetery – Green Hill Community
Church was organized in 1839, dissolved about 1885; building sold about 1910 to Davis Brothers. Church stood northwest of cemetery in beautiful grove of moss-covered trees. Wire fence with iron posts placed around large cemetery in about 1910 under supervision of Mr. Will Davis. Mr. Clark Prather of Columbus was one of the contributors to the fund to place the fence.”
The GPS coordinates for the Beulah Baptist Church cemetery where the church once stood are: 32.207229, -84.753594. I attempted to visit the site of Beulah church during my trip but was stymied by poor weather and a lack of four wheel drive.
First Baptist Church of Warwick in Worth County, Georgia
Rev. Powell preached here from December of 1856 to 1859 when it was known as Fort Early Baptist Church. The names of the Powell family, including Lewis Powell, can be found on its member rolls. The address of the church is 139 Magnolia St SE, Warwick, GA 31796. The GPS coordinates for the church are: 31.828483, -83.919961. While the current church building is on the older side, it does not appear to be old enough to have been the same building the Powells attended.
Bellville Baptist Cemetery in Hamilton County, Florida
Bellville was once a thriving community but nothing really remains of the place the Powell family first settled in Florida. There still stands a small cemetery sometimes referred to as Bellville Baptist Cemetery. Where the church building connected to the cemetery once stood is unknown at this time, but it can be assumed that the Powells at the very least attended it. Buried in Bellville Baptist Cemetery is James Joseph Polhill the brother of Florida State Senator Augustus J. Polhill who commented that Lewis Powell was, “full of fun and frolic.” The GPS coordinates for the Bellville Baptist Cemetery are: 30.600696, -83.254167.
Henry J. Stewart’s Grave in Jasper, Hamilton County, Florida
Lewis Powell enlisted into Capt. Henry J. Stewart’s “Hamilton Blues” on May 30, 1861. Stewart later wrote about his memories of Powell during his time in the Blues. Stewart died in 1898 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Jasper, Florida. The address for the cemetery entrance is 699 8th St SW, Jasper, FL 32052 and the GPS coordinates for Capt. Stewart’s grave are 30.512516, -82.955443.
Powell land north of Live Oak in Suwannee County, Florida
The Powell family occupied 200 acres of land just north of Live Oak Station until September of 1863. Lewis Powell was likely living here when he traveled to Jasper to enlist in the Confederacy, never to return. Below is a map highlighting the former Powell property.
The property can be best seen from the point where 119th Rd. takes a 90 degree turn to the west. The approximate address for this point is 7330 119th Rd, Live Oak, FL 32060 while the GPS coordinates would be 30.323093, -82.992267.
Powell land south of Live Oak in Suwannee County, Florida
Powell property south of Live Oak Station
In November of 1864, Rev. Powell purchased 80 acres, six miles south of Live Oak Station. The family was living here when news of Lincoln’s assassination reached them. Below is a map showing this Powell property.
The address for this property is 12182 128th St, Live Oak, FL 32060 with the GPS coordinates being 30.219520, -82.998692, but this is private land. The closest one could get to the property is likely from where 128th St. crosses State Highway 249 which is located at 30.217401, -82.988039.
Old Providence Baptist Church in Lake Butler, Union County, Florida
According to George Powell’s 1881 obituary, he, “preached for Providence church, Bradford county, one year at least, during which a number were added to the church, five of whom became ministers.” Still located in Lake Butler, Florida today is the Old Providence Baptist Church which was established in 1833. While the church building located here is newer, the organization is the same church where Rev. Powell preached. The address of the church is 9316 NW County Rd 245, Lake Butler, FL 32054 and the GPS coordinates are 30.014194, -82.558749.
Property and Churches in Oviedo, Seminole County, Florida
In December of 1867, Rev. Powell bought 160 acres in what is now downtown Oviedo. The approximate boundaries of his land are highlighted on the image below.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in the lower right hand corner of Rev. Powell’s property was established in 1875 by Martin Powell, a man formerly enslaved by Rev. Powell. Martin and his family stayed with the Powells after the end of slavery and moved with them to the Lake Jesup Settlement. The address of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church (pictured below) is 311 E Broadway St, Oviedo, FL 32765 and the GPS coordinates are 28.670702, -81.203558.
The current CrossLife Church to the west of Antioch was known as the First Baptist Church of Oviedo until 2015. In 1869, Rev. Powell founded this church under the name Orange Grove Baptist Church. The address of CrossLife Church is 45 W Broadway St, Oviedo, FL 32765 and the GPS coordinates are 28.671116, -81.210250.
Powell land grant in Seminole Springs, Lake County, Florida
The 5,426 acre plot of land Rev. Powell purchased for $1,500 was located in what is now the Seminole Springs area of Lake County, Florida. The grant was about four miles long and two miles wide. The map below shows the size and location of the property.
The land is privately owned but the blue pin on the image above marks Seminole Springs Cemetery, a cemetery that was built on the Powell land after they had sold it. The GPS coordinates for the entrance of this cemetery on the public road are 28.847164, -81.527759.
First Baptist Church of Geneva in Seminole County, Florida
In August of 1875, Rev. Powell founded the Lake Harney Baptist Church which is called First Baptist Geneva today. The church did not have a building during the time Rev. Powell was the pastor but a structure was erected near the cemetery not long after he left. The congregation experienced several moves over the years to various church buildings. The church’s current building at 325 1st St, Geneva, FL 32732 was built in 1985 but across 1st street remains the building that had been used from 1927 until the new one was built. The old church building (pictured above) has a sign bearing “First Baptist Church, 1875, Geneva, Florida” above it even though that building did not exist them. The GPS coordinates for the 1927 – 1985 church building are 28.740096, -81.115542.
Geneva Cemetery in Geneva, Seminole County, Florida
Geneva Cemetery is the final resting place of Patience Caroline Powell, her daughter Minerva Powell Hart, and the skull of her son, Lewis Thornton Powell. The address of the cemetery is Cemetery Rd, Geneva, FL 32732. The GPS coordinates of the approximate area where the Powells and Lewis Powell’s skull are buried are 28.736501, -81.107610.
George W. Powell’s grave near Brooksville, Hernando County, Florida
George Washington Powell. From Betty Ownsbey’s book Alias “Paine”.
George Washington Powell was the only surviving brother of Lewis Powell. Despite being wounded in the war, George Powell lived a full life later becoming a judge in Florida. He died in 1923 at the age of 86. He is buried in a cemetery sometimes called the, “Old Spring Hill”, “Ayers”, of “Confederate” Cemetery located near 8580 Fort Dade Ave, Brooksville, FL 34601. Now there is a cemetery at this address called Spring Hill Cemetery, however this still remaining cemetery is a Black cemetery and George was not buried there. Right across Fort Dade Avenue, near the entrance to Spring Hill Cemetery is where Powell and a few others are buried. Their cemetery is in bad shape and incredibly overgrown. It is unknown at this time if George has a stone that is still visible in the area. There is a stone for his son, George Oliver Powell, but this one is knocked over and slightly buried. I made an unsuccessful search for any stones as can be seen in the video below.
Hardy Dormany’s grave in Zephyrhills, Pasco County, Florida
Hardy Dormany was a friend of Lewis Powell’s you enlisted with him on the same date. The men were together all the way through until after Gettysburg where both were wounded. While Powell’s wound was fairly slight, Dormany’s right arm had to be amputated and he was sent home for the rest of the war. Dormany is buried in Geiger Cemetery in Zephyrhills. The address for the cemetery is 5200 Geiger Cemetery Rd, Zephyrhills, FL 33541. The GPS coordinates for Hardy Dormany’s grave in the cemetery are approximately 28.234200, -82.226097.
Joshua H. Frier’s grave in Plant City, Hillsborough County, Florida
Joshua Frier was a native of Georgia who lived not far from the Powells when the family was residing in Bellville, Hamilton County, Florida. In his later memoirs Frier recounted meeting Lewis Powell in the years before the war. Frier is buried in Shiloh Cemetery in Plant City. The cemetery is sort of crammed into a residential area today. The address for the cemetery is 378 E Terrace Dr, Plant City, FL 33563 and the approximate GPS coordinates for Joshua Frier’s grave are 28.041383, -82.119247.
William Slade’s grave in Kissimmee, Osceola County, Florida
William Slade enlisted in the same company as Lewis Powell at the start of the Civil War. Slade was with Powell at Gettysburg when Powell was captured. Slade avoided capture then but was later captured himself in 1864. After the Civil War, Slade married Powell’s sister, Lydia, and lived on Rev. Powell’s 5,000 acre property running his mill. Slade died in 1909 and is was buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Kissimmee. The approximate GPS coordinates for William Slade’s grave in the cemetery are 28.179388, -81.438960.
Angeline Powell and William Lassiter’s graves in Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County, Florida
Angeline Powell was the closest younger sibling to Lewis Powell and some of the family stories about him growing up involve Angeline. She married William P. Lassiter and the pair lived on Rev. Powell’s 5,000 acre piece of land in Lake County. William Lassiter died in 1912 and Angeline died in 1924 and were buried in Riverview Memorial Park. The address for the cemetery is 1109 N US Highway 1, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County, Florida, 34950 and the GPS coordinates for the cemetery are 27.460034, -80.328895. I did not visit the Lassiter graves during my trip.
“Ann” Hazeltine Judson Powell’s grave in Fort Myers, Lee County, Florida
Ann Hazeltine Judson Powell was Lewis Powell’s youngest surviving sibling. She married Daniel Hart and for a time lived in Geneva, Florida. She died in 1921 and is buried in Fort Myers Cemetery in Block 2, Lot 12. The address for the cemetery is 3200 Michigan Ave, Fort Myers, FL 33916 and the GPS coordinates for the cemetery entrance are 26.648319, -81.849259. I did not visit this grave during my trip.
Though I have already published a post today about the 155th anniversary of the execution of the four condemned conspirators in the death of Abraham Lincoln, I have another quick one to mark the occasion. Over the last three days I have been in Florida visiting sites connected to conspirator Lewis Powell. Someday in the near future, I will be publishing a very long post all about Lewis Powell’s early life and the post-assassination lives of his parents here in Florida complete with images I have taken during this trip. In the meantime, I wanted to share with you all a video I shot today at Lewis Powell’s grave in Geneva, Florida. In the video, I read accounts of the execution on this day and discuss the post-execution wanderings of Lewis Powell’s skull. I hope you enjoy it.
Throughout May and June of 2020, I am publishing a day by day chronology of the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. This includes almost daily posts announcing the release of what happened at the conspiracy trial 155 years ago. For more information about the creation of this project please click here.
On select Thursdays we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
NOTE: I know today isn’t Thursday. I’ve been swamped with getting ready for the new school year to begin and though I tried to get this out yesterday, I found I had to do a bit more research. Rather than wait another week to post it, I figured I’d just post it tonight instead. So enjoy this Friday edition of Grave Thursday.
Mary Van Tyne, whose maiden name was Ricard, was originally born in England. We know she had moved to the United States by 1833 for it was during that year that she married Dr. John P. Van Tyne in Maryland. By 1840, the pair had relocated to Washington City and quickly began building their family. By 1850, Mary and John were the parents of at least 5 children. In February of 1851, John Van Tyne died at the age of 44, leaving Mary a widow. She supported her family financially by working as a seamstress and dressmaker. As time went on, Mrs. Van Tyne even advertised her talents as a seamstress.
In 1857, Mary’s only remaining son, Charles, died at the age of 21. In the 1860 census, Mary Van Tyne is shown as a widow, working as a dressmaker with her four daughters: Mary, Kate, Florida, and Ellen.
During the Civil War, the population of D.C. boomed. Many homeowners made supplemental incomes by renting out rooms. Conspirator Mary Surratt would follow this route after relocating from her Maryland tavern to her D.C. town home. Mrs. Van Tyne, likewise started to rent out rooms and advertised her spaces in the D.C. papers.
In February of 1865, two men took up Mrs. Van Tyne’s offer of lodging and began renting one of her rooms. Their names were Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen and, unbeknownst to Mrs. Van Tyne, they were taking part in John Wilkes Booth’s plan to abduct President Lincoln.
While Mrs. Van Tyne did not have a lot of contact with her new boarders, she did get to know a few things about them. For instance, Mr. O’Laughlen told her that he was also known as McLaughlin, and that if she should receive any mail addressed as such that it should come to him. Once, when cleaning their room, she came upon a pistol but didn’t think much of it and merely placed it in a bureau drawer for safe keeping. Often, the two men would leave and go to Baltimore on a Saturday and not return to the city until Monday or Tuesday.
The two men were also frequently visited by a handsome man. The man would call at all times of day looking for the men and leaving messages for them. Finally, Mrs. Van Tyne inquired with her boarders about who the handsome man was. They informed her that he was John Wilkes Booth, the popular actor. Once, Mrs. Van Tyne overhead something among the men about business and she later asked Arnold what business they were in. Arnold replied that the three men were in the oil business together in Pennsylvania. Booth was a common visitor and often appeared to keep her boarders out late. Mr. Arnold and O’Laughlen had a night key which allowed them to come and go as they pleased. Since they were sleeping in a back bedroom on the first floor, she did not always know whether they were home or not.
Finally, on March 18th, Arnold and O’Laughlen told Mrs. Van Tyne that they were going to be leaving for good on Monday the 20th. They were off to the Pennsylvania oil fields, they told her. They mentioned that while they were anxious to leave that very night, Booth was performing at Ford’s Theatre and they wanted to see him. Mrs. Van Tyne expressed her own desire to see Booth perform. Grateful for the lodging Mrs. Van Tyne had given them, O’Laughlen gave Mrs. Van Tyne three complimentary tickets for Booth’s performance in The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre that night.
Mary Van Tyne neither heard from nor saw Mr. Arnold or Mr. O’Laughlen after they left on March 20th. After the assassination of Lincoln, the identities and movements of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators were traced. On May 5th, Mrs. Van Tyne was interviewed by Baltimore provost marshal, James McPhail. McPhail and his men were largely responsible for hunting down Arnold and O’Laughlen. Mrs. Van Tyne told all that she knew about the two men who stayed in her home.
Ten days later, Mrs. Van Tyne was among the first to be called to the witness stand at the trial of the conspirators. She testified about Booth’s common visitations to her home in search of Arnold and O’Laughlen. She was also asked to identify a picture of Booth as the man she saw. While she identified it, she also made the observation that the photograph presented to her was a poor likeness of the man and did not truly capture how handsome Booth was. After providing her testimony for the day, Mrs. Van Tyne returned home and back into obscurity.
Mary Van Tyne continued to live in Washington, D.C.. By 1870, she moved out of her D street boardinghouse and began living with her daughter, Florida, who had married a man named Friebus. She would live with her daughter and son-in-law for the rest of her life. On December 18, 1886, Mary Van Tyne died of “valvular disease of [the] heart”. Her age at death is difficult to determine. Her obituary stated that she was “in her eighty-first year.” Her burial records give her an age of “80 years” and “5 months” at time of death. The census records did not really help the matter. Unlike many census records where women miraculously age less than a decade in the ten years span between censuses, Mrs. Van Tyne actually managed to age more than ten years between the 1860 and 1870 census. The 1850 and 1860 census records give her birth at about 1812 which would make her about 74 at her death. The 1870 and 1880 censuses give her birth at about 1806 which puts her back up at 80.
Upon her death, Mrs. Van Tyne was interred in Section P, Lot 202, Site 5 in D.C.’s Glenwood Cemetery. If Mrs. Van Tyne was marked with a gravestone upon her death, it no longer stands. Her burial lot is only marked by the gravestone of her daughter, Florida Friebus nee Van Tyne, who died in 1915.
“More is probably known about the people who were at work in Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, and about the topography of the theatre itself than of any other house in the world. We know the names, habits, and duties of every actor, stagehand, ticket-taker, box-office man, and usher*, and we know who many of the audience were.”
This quote comes from the doctoral dissertation of John Ford Sollers, the grandson of Ford’s Theatre owner, John T. Ford. While Sollers’ claim wasn’t quite true when he wrote it in 1962, thanks to modern scholarship, we now really do know a lot about the actors and stagehands of Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, despite the wealth of information historians have discovered, we still have one blind spot in our knowledge of the inner workings of the theater that night. This blind spot was even acknowledged by Sollers in his day, forcing him to add a footnote after the word “usher” in the quote above. The footnote attached to it admitted that:
“Unless further information has been found, we do not know the names or even the number of the orchestra”
Music was a crucial part of the theater experience in the Civil War era. Even during non-musical performances (like the comedic play Our American Cousin) an overture and entr’acte music were expected by audiences. Theaters were houses of entertainment and an orchestra was part of what you paid for when you bought your ticket. We know that Ford’s Theatre had an orchestra. We know that President’s Lincoln’s party, arriving late to the theater, was greeted by that orchestra. But how much do we really know about the musicians who played that fateful night?
The big challenge when it comes to determining the identities of the orchestra members at Ford’s Theatre, is that we lack any sort of list from the period. When John Ford Sollers was writing his dissertation about his grandfather, he had access to documents that had belonged to John T. Ford and even he could not come up with the names of any members of the orchestra aside from its director. Over the past week, with the assistance of fellow researcher Rich Smyth, I have assembled a partial list of those who were said to have been in the orchestra the night Lincoln was killed. The evidence supporting their attendance is, overall, extremely weak and varies greatly from man to man. Every name must be taken with a grain of salt and, aside from William Withers, we cannot guarantee that any of these men were actually present. With that being said, what follows is the list of the possible Ford’s Theatre orchestra members on April 14, 1865:
William Withers – orchestra director
George M. Arth – double bass
Scipione Grillo – baritone horn
Louis Weber – bass
William Musgrif – cello
Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin
Henry Donch – clarinet
Reuben Withers – drums
Henry Steckelberg – cello
Isaac S. Bradley – violin
Salvadore Petrola – cornet
Joseph A. Arth – drums
Paul S. Schnieder – possibly violin or trumpet
Samuel Crossley – violin
Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells
Below you will find little biographies of each man and the evidence we have about their presence at Ford’s Theatre. I’ve placed them in an order that arranges them from more likely to have been at Ford’s to less likely to have been at Ford’s. Judge the evidence for yourself as we explore the boys in the band.
William “Billy” Withers, Jr. – orchestra director
In 1862, when John T. Ford first remodeled the Tenth Street Baptist Church and opened it up as Ford’s Atheneum, he hired a musician named Eugene Fenelon to be his orchestra director. As director, Fenelon not only conducted the orchestra on a nightly basis, but was also tasked with the duty of recruiting and hiring musicians to ensure that Ford would have an ample sized band each night. In this capacity, Fenelon recruited local D.C. musicians. Fenelon remained as Ford’s orchestra director until a fire struck Ford’s Atheneum in December of 1862. The loss was a hefty one for John Ford at about $20,000. Consumed in the fire was a bulk of the orchestra’s instruments and music. While Fenelon stayed in D.C. during the process of rebuilding that followed, when the new theatrical season opened in the fall of 1863, Fenelon took a job as the orchestra leader of the recently opened New York Theatre in NYC. Ford was then tasked with finding a new orchestra leader for his new theater. He chose to put his faith in a 27 year-old violinst and Union veteran, William “Billy” Withers, Jr.
Withers was from a musical family and, at the beginning of the war, he and his father and brothers had joined the Union army and served as members of a regimental band. The bands provided music during marching and aided with the morale of the men. In the late summer of 1862, however, Congress passed a law abolishing regimental bands, feeling that the service had been abused by non-musical men trying to avoid regular duty and that the bands were not worth the cost during war time. Though Withers stayed on for some time after the dissolution of his band and acted as a medic, he was eventually discharged. Withers excitedly took up John T. Ford’s offer to be his new band leader. When the new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, Withers’ orchestra, and his experience playing patriotic music was complimented.
“The music under the leadership of Prof. Wm. Withers was highly pleasing, and the execution of the national airs gave a spice to the entertainment, which was fully appreciated.”
Ford’s Theatre had always had a healthy competition with their Washington rival, Leonard Grover’s National Theatre. As the two leading theaters in the city, the press abounded in making comparisons between the two houses. One way the theaters rivaled each other was with their orchestras. While a normal theater orchestra at the time would contain about ten musicians on a nightly basis, both Ford’s and Grover’s began advertising that their orchestras had been “augmented” to include more musicians. It appears that Withers continued to augment the orchestra during his tenure and found his growing of the band to be a point of pride. “Our orchestra under the Brilliant Leader Prof. William Withers, Jr. is considered second to no theatre South of New York,” proclaimed one Ford’s Theatre advertisement. Another highlighted the fact that the orchestra, “has lately been increased and numbers now nearly a Quarter of a Hundred first class Instruments,” and that it had been, “lately largely augmented and is now unsurpassed in numerical and artistic strength.” Billy Withers was a great asset to Ford during his first theatrical season. In addition to his duties as conductor of the orchestra, Withers would occasionally volunteer his services as a solo violinist for special occasions.
Theatrical seasons ended during the hot months, which left many musicians without jobs during the summer. Without the steady (albeit small) income from the theaters, musicians had to make their own arrangements. During this time, many teamed up with other musicians to play small concerts in music halls. With his connections, Withers was able to rent out bigger venues. During the summer of 1864, Withers and his orchestra played concerts at both Grover’s and Ford’s theaters. On July 10, 1864, Withers presented a “Concert of Sacred Music” at Ford’s during for which he brought in two vocalists and, “forty musicians of the best talent in the city, forming an array of talent such has never before appeared jointly in Washington.” The concert was well received and the proceeds helped the D.C. music scene make it through the lean summer.
When the 1864-65 theatrical season opened in the fall, Withers was rehired by Ford to be his orchestra director. The season started without a hitch but, in January of 1865, Withers experienced some unaccustomed criticism of his orchestra in the press. In comparing the two main D.C. theaters, a reviewer from the National Intelligencer stated that, “In some respects, Mr. Ford has done better. His theater has been uniformly dignified, and he has succeeded in procuring a different class of stars from those played by his competitor…but his stock company has not by any means been all that it should be, and his orchestra needs improvement.” It appears that, perhaps due to this critique, Withers began the process of augmenting the Ford’s Theatre orchestra again. His attention on the theater orchestra was a bit distracted however, as Withers was chosen to provide some of the music for President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration ball. He entered into a contract in which he would be paid $1,000 for forty pieces of music. Withers not only used the local talent at his disposal but also brought in musicians from New York. After the inauguration was over, it’s likely that a few of these musicians from New York were hired by Withers to augment the Ford’s Theatre band.
As much as John T. Ford liked being the best, he and Leonard Grover had realized the costly arms race that dueling orchestras would cause them. It appears that some time over the last two years, the two theater owners had come to an mutual understanding regarding the size of their orchestras. Rather than continuing in attempting to one-up each other, they had put an unknown limit on each other in order to keep the houses equal. When Withers began increasing the size of the orchestra in early 1865, Ford objected, fearing it would break the truce with Grover. On April 2, 1865, Ford wrote a letter to his stage manager, John B. Wright:
“Respecting the orchestra I have promised and wish to keep my word to make my orchestra the same number that Grover has in his – will you notify Withers that for the rest of the season, I wish it reduced. The necessity of this I will explain and stisfy you – If Grover wants Withers – he can go – O can easily supply his place. Let us have the same Instruments that Grover has – my honor is pledged to this.”
Rather than run off to Grover’s National Theatre, as Ford thought might occur, William Withers stayed at Ford’s Theatre and likely reduced his orchestra as ordered.
In addition to being a band leader and talented violinist, Withers also composed music. He wrote several polkas and instrumental pieces which were sold by local music shops. Another piece that he composed that he had not published was a song called “Honor to Our Soldiers”.
With the Civil War coming to an end in April of 1865, Withers was looking for a chance to perform his own patriotic air, which featured vocalists. He had arranged for a quartet of vocalists to perform the song on the evening of April 15th. However, during the morning rehearsal for Our American Cousin on April 14th, Withers heard the news that the Lincolns, possibly joined by the Grants, were coming to the show that night. Performing his song in front of the President and General Grant would make for a much better debut and so he decided to perform the piece that night instead. Not having time to arrange for formal vocalists for that night, Withers was forced to rely on the talent around him. Withers tapped three of his coworkers to sing solos in the song: May Hart, Henry B. Phillips, and George M. Arth. May Hart was a new member of the Ford’s Theatre stock company having been recently transferred from the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. She was performing the minor role of Georgina that night. H. B. Phillips was the acting manager at Ford’s and it was his job to improve the quality of the stock actors. Phillips is credited as having written the lyrics for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. George Arth was actually a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra who is discussed later. In addition to these soloists, lead actress Laura Keene said she and other members of her company would be happy to sing along as back up.
As we know, the Lincoln party did not arrive at the theater on time. Knowing they were on their way, Withers was given instructions to play a longer than average overture in hopes they would appear. After 15 minutes elapsed without the Presidential party, the play began without them. When the Lincolns, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris did make their appearance, the play was halted and Withers and his orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief”. This was followed by a rendition of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” as the Lincolns and their guests took their seats in the Presidential box. With that, the play went on.
Withers was initially promised that the performance of his song would occur during the intermission between the first and second acts. However, when the intermission came, he was told by stage manger John Wright that Laura Keene was not prepared to perform during this break and that the orchestra should play his normal intermission music instead. Though slightly annoyed, Withers was assured the song would be performed during the next act break. When the second act break came, however, Withers was once again informed that Laura Keene was not ready. When the third act began, Withers made his way out of the orchestra pit by means of the passageway that led under the stage. He was miffed that his song had been delayed twice. He made his way up one of the two trapdoors on either side of the stage and went to converse with John Wright backstage. Wright said that Withers should plan to perform the song at the conclusion of the play and that Laura Keene had already sent word to the Presidential party to please remain after the curtain fell. Angry at Wright, Withers spied Ford’s stock actress Jeannie Gourlay also backstage and went over to talk with her. It while was Withers was conversing quietly with Jeannie Gourlay about his troubles that the shot rang out.
What occurred next has been well documented. After shooting the President and slashing away Major Rathbone with his knife, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the Presidential box onto the stage. The only actor on stage at the time, Harry Hawk, turned and ran out of Booth’s path. Upon reaching the backstage, it was William Withers and Jeannie Gourlay who stood in the way of Booth’s exit.
“Let me pass!” Booth yelled as he slashed at Withers with his knife, cutting his coat in two places. Booth pushed past Withers and Gourlay, made his exit out the back door, and escaped on horseback into the Washington streets. Withers’ backstage encounter with Booth became a well known part of the assassination story and up until his death in 1916, the orchestra leader never passed up an opportunity to tell his tale. As far as evidence goes, William Withers’ attendance at Ford’s Theatre that night is airtight and even his slashed coat is on display in the Ford’s Theatre museum.
Like William Withers, George Arth came from a musical family. At least two of his brothers and his cousin were active in the D.C. music scene. In August of 1861, George Arth joined the U.S. Marine Band, known as The President’s Own band. Arth could play many instruments, but his role in the Marine Band was that of a bass drummer. With the Marine Band, Arth would perform at important events around Washington, often for the President or other dignitaries. The job wasn’t full time, however, and many members of the Marine Band had other jobs in the city as music teachers or as theater orchestra members. In 1864, while Laura Keene was renting out and appearing at the Washington Theatre in D.C., she hired George Arth to be her orchestra director for the engagement. The job was temporary, however, and when she left the city, George Arth went back to being just an ordinary orchestra member at Ford’s Theatre.
Arth must have had a good singing voice since, as pointed out earlier, he was one of the Ford’s employees that Withers pegged to help him in the singing of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”. While we do not have any record of Arth’s whereabouts during the assassination, we can safely assume he was somewhere on the premises preparing for the song when the shot rang out.
An additional piece of evidence we have that places George Arth at Ford’s that night is a letter he wrote in the days following the assassination. After Lincoln was shot, the theater was shut down and subsequently guarded. Members of the Ford’s Theatre staff were brought in for questions and some were arrested. On a normal night, it was typical for the musicians to leave their instruments in the theater, especially when they were engaged to play the next day. While Arth likely assumed that the next night’s performance at Ford’s Theatre wasn’t going to occur, in the chaos that ensued after Lincoln was shot he was apparently unable to retrieve his own instrument. Unlike some of the other musicians who may have carried their instruments out of Ford’s with them, Arth played the largest bowed instrument in the orchestra, a double bass. After the government locked down Ford’s and started guarding it, no one was able to take anything out of the premises.
On April 21st, Arth wrote a letter to the general in charge of the guard detail asking for permission to retrieve his trapped instrument.
I beg of you to grant me a permit to enter Fords Theatre & bring from it mu double bass viol & bow belonging to me & used by me as one of the orchestra at said theatre – as it is very necessary to me in my profession & I am suffering for its use.
I am humbly your servant
George M. Arth”
Arth’s request was approved and he was allowed to retrieve his double bass. Arth remained in D.C. after the war and continued working as musician. He died in 1886 at the age of 48 from consumption and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.
Scipione Grillo – baritone horn
A native from Italy, Scipione Grillo became a naturalized citizen in 1860. He originally made his home in Brooklyn, New York where he offered his services as a music teacher. By 1861, however, he had relocated his wife and kids to Washington and in July he joined the Marine Band. In addition to being a musician Grillo was a bit of a businessman. When John T. Ford rebuilt his theater after the 1862 fire, he devoted space on the first floor just south of the theater lobby to the creation of a tavern. As part of his property, Ford could lease it out for a profit and provide an easily accessible place for patrons to get drinks between acts. The tavern space was eventually leased by two Marine Band members, Peter Taltavul and Scipione Grillo, who co-owned the venture. They called their establishment the Star Saloon after the theatrical stars who would patronize it. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Taltavul’s time on duty and he acted as barkeep to the thirsty theater-goers. Taltavul has become famous for pouring John Wilkes Booth his last drink before the actor assassinated Lincoln.
Scipione Grillo’s partnership in the Star Saloon is often overlooked because he was spending that night in the orchestra instead of serving Booth. While Grillo was required to attend the trial of the conspirators during the entire month of May in 1865, he was never called to testify about his acquaintanceship with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. It wasn’t until two years later, at the trial of John Surratt, that Grillo took the stand to state what he knew. During his routine questioning, Grillo was asked about whether he saw anyone out on the pavement of Ford’s during the show. He replied:
“No, sir. I was not out of the place myself. I was in the orchestra between the first and second acts; but in the third act we had nothing to do, (being always dismissed after the curtain is down,) and so I went out and went inside of my place.”
Grillo also stated that he was still inside of the Star Saloon when the assassination occurred. So, while he did not witness the assassination firsthand, he was among the members of the orchestra that night. Since it was part of the Ford’s Theatre building, the Star Saloon was also closed by the government, which ended Taltavul and Grillo’s business together.
Scipione Grillo appears to fall off of the map after his 1867 testimony. I have not been able to find any trace of him after that, but it is possible he, his wife, and children traveled back to Italy to live.
Louis Weber – bass
Louis Weber had been born in Baltimore in 1834 but his family moved to D.C. when he was four years old. He became a member of the U.S. Marine Band and played at the inauguration ceremonies for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. He was an active member of the Marine Band for 25 years.
In the same manner as George Arth, the evidence pointing to Weber being a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra was the return of his instrument by the government. While Weber’s original request does not seem to have survived, on April 28th, Col Henry Burnett (later one of the prosecutors at the trial of the conspirators) sent a telegram off to the general in charge of the Ford’s Theatre guards ordering him to, “send to this office, one bass violin the property of Louis Weber”. This order was fulfilled and later that same day, Louis Weber signed a receipt for his bass.
Weber lived out the remainder of his life in Washington. He died in 1910 from a stroke and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.
William Musgrif – cello
William Musgrif was born in England in 1812. After immigrating to America he settled in New York. As a musician, Musgrif was skilled in both the violin and the cello, but seems to have preferred the cello best. In 1842, Musgrif and his cello became founding members of the newly established New York Philharmonic. As part of the Philharmonic, Musgrif mentored younger players in the cello. By 1860, he, along with his wife and son, had moved to D.C. where he offered his skills as a music teacher. Musgrif was also the conductor for his own group in D.C. called the Mozart Society.
The evidence that William Musgrif also moonlighted as a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra comes from yet another letter written in the days after Lincoln assassination. William Withers had already written once and received a portion of his instruments that had been left at Ford’s that night, but he had not received all of them In May of 1865, Withers penned another letter asking for permission to get the “balance of my things” which included “sleigh bells, triangle, harmonica”. He also requested, “one instument, violocella, for Mr. Musgrive [sic]”
These items were inspected and then delivered to Withers. On May 7th, Withers signed a form stating her had received, “a lot of sleigh bells, a triangle, harmonica, and violincella being properties left at Fords Theatre on the night of the Assassination of President Lincoln.” Withers signed for both himself “and Mr. Musgive [sic]”.
William Musgrif continued to live in D.C. in the few years following the assassination. In 1868, an unfortunate incident caused Musgrif to make the acquaintance of another person who had been at Ford’s on April 14th. On February 19th, Musgrif was in the billiard room of the National Hotel observing a man named William Rogers, who was drunk. When Musgrif attempted to take the billiard balls away from the drunkard, Rogers “hit him over one of the eyes.” A police officer was summoned, arrested Rogers and proceeded to take down the 56 year old musician’s sworn statement. That responding police officer was none other that Officer John F. Parker, the man history has condemned for allegedly leaving Abraham Lincoln unguarded on the night of his assassination.
By the mid 1870s, William Musgrif had moved out to Colorado with his son. It is likely he died and was buried there.
Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin
Chris Arth was the cousin of George M. Arth, the would be soloist for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. His 1901 obituary, which is also one of the pieces of evidence for his presence at Ford’s Theatre, gives a good description of his life.
In addition to this obituary’s claim that Chris Arth was a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, there is also a 1925 article from a D.C. correspondent known as the Rambler which supports the idea. I’ve briefly touched on the Rambler before. His real name was John Harry Shannon and he wrote for the Evening Star newspaper from 1912 to 1927. His stories involved local interest pieces and often involved him travelling around Washington talking to old timers. In an article he wrote about the history of D.C.’s music scene, the Rambler included a letter that was written to him by John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union. You’ll notice that in the obituary above it states that Chris Arth was a member of the same union during his lifetime. Birdsell compliments the Rambler’s work and then poses a challenge to him:
“In this connection it may be possible that, during the course of your researches for the preparation of these writings, you may acquire a complete roster of the orchestra which played at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was shot. I have had inquiry for this from several sources. The first came from somewhere in California. I communicated with the Oldroyd Museum, and while they did not possess this information, they expressed a desire to acquire it.”
After this, Birdsell proceeds to give the list of names he has been able to determine.
“To date the partial roster, which I have is as follows: Leader, William Withers; violin, Chris Arth, sr.; bass, George Arth; clarinet, Henry Donch; cornet, Salvatore Petrola.”
After this list Birdsell makes the final statement that since the average orchestras at the time consisted of 10 instruments he believes he is only half complete. Birdsell was likely unaware of Ford’s and Grover’s mutually agreed upon augmented orchestras which were no doubt larger than ten musicians.
If we trust his obituary and Birdsell’s list, then Chris Arth, cousin of George Arth, was in the orchestra at Lincoln’s assassination.
Henry Donch – clarinet
Henry Donch was a native of Germany who moved to the United States in 1854. He lived in Baltimore and was also a member of the Annapolis Naval Academy Band before he moved to Washington. Donch joined the U.S. Marine Band in August of 1864.
The evidence for Donch’s presence at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot is the same as Chris Arth’s: the Birdsell list and his obituary:
An second obituary for Donch provided an additional detail regarding his alleged presence at Ford’s:
“Mr. Donch was a member of the orchestra at Ford’s Theater on the night Lincoln was shot. Mr. Donch, who was facing the assassin as he leaped from the box, always declared that Booth never uttered the phrase, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis,’ which is attributed to him.”
While the general consensus is that Booth did, in fact, utter the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannis” after shooting the President, Donch’s contrary claim does not, by itself, prove him to be a liar. The eyewitness accounts from Ford’s vary widely and it’s possible that, in the confusion, Donch truly did not hear or remember Booth stating these words.
Coincidentally, Henry Donch would observe another Presidential assassin, though this time during the period after his crime. After Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield, Henry Donch was selected at one of the grand jury members in his trial.
Reuben Withers – drums
Reuben Withers was the younger brother of Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers. Reuben had joined the same regimental band as his brothers and father at the start of the Civil War, but similarly was sent back home when such bands were disbanded. He joined the ranks of his brother’s brass band and, it appears, the Ford’s Theatre orchestra.
In his older years, William Withers suffered from paralysis and was cared for by Reuben. The two elderly men shared a home and business together in the Bronx. Even in his paralysis, reporters came to hear the story of William Withers being stabbed by Booth on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In at least interview, Reuben recounted his own remembrances of the night of April 14th:
“The President was a little late coming in. We had played the overture and the curtain was just going up when we saw him enter the stage box. Brother William immediately started us playing ‘Hail to the Cheif,’ then ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and there was a lot of cheering. Everybody was feeling good and happy…
After we had played the overture I left the theatre to catch the 9.20 train for Zanesville, O., and so I missed the actual scene of the great tragedy. I had been offered a better position to play in the band of Bailey’s circus, and I had fixed that night of April 14, 1865, as the time of my leaving Washington…”
Was Reuben Withers truly in the orchestra that night? After years of hearing his brother tell his tale, perhaps he just wanted to include himself in the narrative. Or perhaps he did tell the truth and left the theater before the crime occurred. We may never really know. Reuben Withers preceded his brother in death, dying in 1913. The house and business the Withers brothers owned still stands, albeit a bit modified, at 4433 White Plains Road in the Bronx.
Henry Steckelberg – cello
Henry Steckelberg was born in 1834 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1858 residing at first in New York. When the Civil War broke out he, like the Witherses, joined a regimental band in New York. After returning to civilian life, Steckelberg made his way to Washington and can be found in the 1864 D.C. directory listed as “musician”.
When Steckelberg died in 1917, his obituary stated that, “On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination he was playing at Ford’s Theater. The orchestra was having an intermission when the tragedy occurred.”
An additional piece of evidence comes from the Steckelberg family. The genesis for this entire post was an email from Steckelberg’s great granddaughter asking if a list of the orchestra members existed. She told me about her family’s belief that her great grandfather played that night and that the family still owns Steckelberg’s treasured cello that he, assumingly, used. In addition, she was kind enough to send along a letter, written by Henry Steckelberg’s sister-in-law which supplemented his obituary. The relevant part of the letter states:
“On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he [Steckelberg] was playing in the regular orchestra in Ford’s Theater. The assassin was a regular hanger on around the theater and he (Booth) often played cards with the orchestra members in the rehearsal room below the orchestra pit. His presence in the theater caused no notice. Booth was unemployed at the time, very jealous of his successful brother. He had no personal animosity toward Lincoln but wished to do something to draw attention to himself.”
It’s hard to tell if the writer of this letter was using knowledge she had obtained from Steckelberg or merely adding her own embellishments and beliefs about the Lincoln assassination story to the basic Steckelberg obituary. The latter part of the paragraph is entirely opinion and the former contains one factual error: there was no rehearsal room “below the orchestra pit” at Ford’s Theatre as the pit was the lowest you could get.
While there isn’t much to go on regarding Henry Steckelberg, his obituary does recount that the orchestra was on break during (and therefore didn’t witness) Lincoln’s assassination which is in line with what Scipione Grillo testified to in 1867. It’s possible that Henry Steckelberg was there after all.
Isaac S. Bradley – violin
Isaac S. Bradley was born in 1840 in New York. During the Civil War, Bradley joined the Union army where he served as a bugler in the 10th New York Cavalry. Bradley was discharged from the service on November 20, 1865. By 1868 he had moved to Dayton, Ohio where he married and started a family. He lived in Dayton for the remainder of his days, becoming a photographer. Bradley died on July 10, 1904.
While I have yet to find any period documentation of Bradley’s presence at Ford’s Theatre during his lifetime, in 1960, his elderly daughter Clara Forster was interviewed by a newspaper in her home of Anderson, Indiana. She stated that during her father’s military service he, “fell victim to a rheumatic ailment that hospitalized him for some time in Washington,” and that he, “was ready to accept the offer to play in the orchestra at Ford’s Theater in Washington because he had with him his own Amati violin…”
With her father’s antique violin in her hand, Mrs. Forster then recounted the story her father had told her of that night:
“We were playing very softly when suddenly a messenger came and told us to play louder. We had heard a shot and someone running across the stage above, but we thought nothing of it.
So we played louder, not knowing of the tragedy that had occurred overhead; not knowing that our beloved Abe Lincoln had been shot.”
The article went on to state that “the order to play more loudly was given in an effort to offset commotion caused by the shooting and to avert panic in the audience.” It’s important to note that Mrs. Forster’s account is in contradiction to the testimony of Scipione Grillo who made it clear that the orchestra was not on duty during the assassination.
Mrs. Forster was very proud of her father’s heirloom violin and described it in detail:
“Mr. Bradley was second violinist in the orchestra, playing with four other young soldiers who had served in the Civil War…
[The violin] had been given to him when he was about 10 or 11 years old. It had been acquired by his grandfather from the Cremonesis family in Italy, reported to have taught the famed Antonius Stradivarius the art of producing priceless violins.
Mr. Bradley was told that the instrument purchased by his grandfather, who served in the Revolutionary War, was made in 1637. A certificate inside the violin bears that date and the name of the maker.
Mrs. Forster reports that her brother, the late Frank Bradley, had the violin in his possession for some time and about 1914 refused an offer of $20,000 for it. During the past few years, Mrs. Forster made her home in Milwaukee, where a concert violinist and teacher became interested in the Amati violin and wrote an article about it for a national music publication. One of the amazing facts was that its owner had carried it with him through much of the Civil War and that it had not been damaged.”
Mrs. Forster appears to be the only source that her father was in Washington and a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that night. She was apparently quite convincing though, especially with her father’s violin as a witness. In the 1960s, when the National Park Service was preparing a historic structures report about Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Forster wrote a letter to George Olszewski, the National Capital Region’s chief historian. Olszewski was convinced enough by Mrs. Forster’s letter that he included Isaac S. Bradley’s name in his partial list of orchestra members.
Salvadore Petrola – cornet
Salvadore Petrola, a native of Italy, came to the United States in 1855 when he was 20 years old. A talented cornet player, Petrola joined the U.S. Marine Band in September of 1861 and remained a member for the maximum time allowed, 30 years. As a band member in the 1880s, Petrola was the assistant conductor of the band, second only to its leader, John Philip Sousa. Petrola assisted Sousa in arranging music for the band and served as its primary cornet soloist for many years.
Despite a lengthy search, the only concrete evidence that I have been able to find to support the idea that Petrola was in the orchestra at Ford’s is the list of names John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union, provided to the Rambler in 1925.
One additional fact could be taken as, perhaps, circumstantial evidence in favor of Petrola’s presence, however. The only instrumental solos contained on William Withers’ handwritten copy of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”, is for a cornet. In fact, the cornet gets three solos over the course of the song.
Is it possible that William Withers wrote so many solos for his cornet player because he was working with very talented, Salvadore Petrola? We’ll never know.
Joseph A. Arth – drums
Joseph Arth was the younger brother of Ford’s double bass player, George M. Arth. Like his brother and cousin, Chris Arth, Joseph was a member of the U.S. Marine Band. Like Salvadore Petrola, Joseph stayed in the Marine Band for 30 years.
Our only evidence for Joseph Arth’s presence at Ford’s Theatre comes from his wife’s obituary from 1940. Joseph married Henrietta Scala, the daughter of one time Marine Band leader, Francis Scala. Upon Henrietta’s death at 90 years of age, the newspapers highlighted that she was both the daughter and wife of noted Marine Band musicians. In referencing her husband, the obituary stated:
“She was the widow of Joseph A. Arth, drummer with the band during the same period. Files of The [Evening] Star report that Joseph Arth was the drummer in the pit at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was assassinated.”
It’s not much to go on, but perhaps Joseph was playing alongside his older brother George in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that fateful night.
A pair of drumsticks in the Ford’s Theatre collection. These are said to have been present on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Could they have been used by Reuben Withers or Joseph Arth?
Paul S. Schneider – possibly violin or trumpet
Paul Schneider was born in Germany in 1844 and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the Civil War he joined the Union army under the alias Ernst Gravenhorst. He served as a bugler for the 5th U.S. Artillery from January of 1863 until December of 1865. In the 1870s, Schneider moved to Memphis, Tennessee, initially working as a musician in the New Memphis Theatre before becoming a music teacher. In 1882/3, Schneider became the second director of the Christian Brothers Band, the oldest high school band still in existence. As director of the band, Schneider and his students performed at important events including playing for President Grover Cleveland in 1887 when he visited Tennessee. In 1892, Schneider was succeeded as director by one of his former students, but remained in Memphis and involved in the musical life of the city. He died in 1912.
I have been unable to determine the source of the claim that Paul Schneider was a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It appears to have come after his lifetime but is not well documented. In 2011, Patrick Bolton, the current leader of the Christian Brothers Band, published his doctoral thesis about the history of the band. The dissertation contains a large amount of information about each band leader and the growth of the band over time. While it gives a great biography of Paul Schneider, the information about his connection to Ford’s Theatre is limited:
“Schneider was also known for his skills as a violinist and performed in touring orchestras around the country, including one that performed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. On the evening of April 14, 1865 he has been placed in this historic theatre performing Hail to the Chief for President Abraham Lincoln before the fateful performance of the play, ‘Our American Cousin.'”
Bolton was a good researcher, but it appears that even he had difficulty in finding evidence for this claim. His phrasing of “he has been placed” demonstrates a degree of uncertainty. Likewise, the best reference Bolton could find to support this idea was from a 1993 newspaper article about the Christian Brothers Band which merely mentioned that Schneider had been a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra without any supporting evidence.
Without additional, period evidence, I have some serious doubts that Paul Schneider was present at Ford’s. However, the idea that one of their band leaders was a part of such a historic event is a point of pride to the Christian Brothers Band. When the band traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014, they even presented a picture of Professor Schneider to Ford’s Theatre.
Samuel Crossley – violin
Unfortunately, despite best efforts, I have been unable to find any verifiable information about Samuel Crossley aside from the story I am going to recount. In 1991, the National Park Service received a donation to the Ford’s Theatre collection in the form of this violin.
The violin was said to have been played at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. A label inside the violin identified its previous owner, a Union soldier by the name of Samuel Crossley.
On February 11, 2009, at the grand re-opening ceremony for the newly remodeled Ford’s Theatre museum, noted violinist Joshua Bell played the song, “My Lord, What a Morning” on the Crossley violin. In the audience were President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Though I haven’t been able to find a recording of that performance, in videos of the President’s remarks, Bell can be seen in the background holding the Crossley violin.
More information about Samuel Crossley (and the provenance behind his violin) is needed.
Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells
Luke Hubbard was born in 1848 in Onondaga County, New York. In 1863, Hubbard attemptted to join the Union army but was rejected on account of being under the age limited (he was only 15 at the time). Not one to be deterred, Hubbard waited a year and then enlisted again, this time claiming he was 18 years old. Records verify that Hubbard served as a private in Company B of the 22nd New York Cavalry from July 1864 until he was discharged from service on October 18, 1865. Years later, Luke Hubbard claimed that an unexpected series of events during his tour of service caused him to not only be present at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but an acting member of the orchestra.
The following comes from two sources, an account that Hubbard gave during his lifetime and his subsequent obituary.
“That fall  I was taken ill with fever and removed to Carver hospital in Washington. After I recovered, instead of being returned to my regiment and probably largely because of my youth as well as being in a weakened state, I was given a position in the Carver hospital band. In the army I had been a bugler. This hospital band furnished the music at Ford’s theater on the memorable night. I was playing the triangles and sat at the end of the orchestra under the box occupied by the presidential party…”
“The actor, John Wilkes Booth, was well known by the president, and when he was not in the piece being presented or when Booth was off the stage for a time, or between acts, he would often call on President Lincoln in his box, when both would witness the performance together, or sit and chat in the most friendly manner, so that he had no trouble gaining access to the box on the night of the conspiracy.”
“Many people have claimed that Booth said this or that when he jumped to the stage from the box, but with thirteen pieces playing at the time. I don’t think he could have been heard had he uttered any remark…
In a moment Mrs. Lincoln appeared at the edge of the box, waved her handkerchief to the leader of the orchestra, who raised his bow, a signal for the music to cease. Mrs. Lincoln was then heard to say, ‘The president has been shot.’
The members of the orchestra meanwhile not understanding the scene before them, saw Booth drag himself across the stage holding in one hand the revolver which had done its fatal work, and in the other grasped a knife for use in case the other weapon failed. As the door at the rear of the stage opened, the orchestra members who sprang to the stage saw two pair of arms sieze [sic] the injured man, the last that was seen of him. When the door was reached it was found to be locked on the outside, and by the time they reached the street through another exit the theater was surrounded by a cordon of soldier, and they were obliged to give their names and business at the theater that night.”
“Mr. Hubbard was the third man to climb over the footlights and rush to the back of the stage, but the door was locked on the outside.”
Ironically, one of the most detailed accounts we have from a person who claimed to have been in the orchestra at Ford’s Theatre is also the least factual and least reliable. Very little of what Hubbard recounted is accurate. The orchestra was not playing when the shot rang out. Booth dropped the derringer pistol he used on Lincoln in the box and therefore did not have it on the stage with him. No one grabbed the injured Booth and pulled him out the rear door of Ford’s. The back door of Ford’s was not found to be locked from the outside after Booth passed through it. And perhaps the most egregious (and somewhat laughable) error of them all: John Wilkes Booth was not a friend of Lincoln’s nor did he often join the President in his theater box to “chat”.
As entertaining as it is, it’s probably safe to dismiss Hubbard’s account entirely. Still, it’s interesting that the instruments Hubbard claimed to have played that night, the triangle and bells, were two of the instruments William Withers asked permission to retrieve after the assassination.
The stage of Ford’s Theatre taken in the days after Lincoln’s assassination. The orchestra pit with music stands and sheet music still in place can be seen at the bottom of the image.
Compared with the stars who graced the stages of Victorian era theaters, the lives of theater orchestra members were without glamour or fame. While equally talented in their own specific roles, many of the men who provided crucial musical accompaniment led quiet and largely uncelebrated lives.
The names listed above are only possible members of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, with some having much better evidence than others. We only know them because either they chose during their lifetime or their friends and family chose after death, to connect their names with one of the most notable events in our history. This desire to be remembered and connected to such important events leads some people to exaggerate or outright lie. On the reverse, however, it is possible that there were members who did not wish to have their whole musical careers boiled down to a single, traumatic night. How many orchestra members witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, but never talked about it publicly?
As time goes on, additional people who are claimed to have been in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra will no doubt be found. When that happens, we must judge the reliability of their evidence just like the names above. If you stumble across a new name, I encourage you to add a comment to this post so that others may evaluate the evidence.
The exact identities of those playing at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, will never be known for certainty. Just like in 1925 and 1962, we still do not have a reliable count of how many musicians were even there, and we likely never will.
Known and unknown, the orchestra members of Ford’s Theatre, under the direction of William Withers, have the distinction of having played the last music President Abraham Lincoln ever heard.
The Bel Air Academy was one of the earliest institutions of learning that the future assassin of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, attended. Founded in 1811, the Academy, which was also known as the Harford County Academy, was one of many private institutions that existed in the 1800’s well before centralized school districts were the norm. The Academy catered mainly to the education of the locals in Harford County, but also advertised itself as a suitable boarding school for out of town pupils.
The exact date of John Wilkes Booth’s attendance of the Bel Air Academy is not known with exact certainty, but it appears to have started in about 1846, when Booth was eight years old. John Wilkes was joined at the school by his younger brother, Joseph, who was a little less than two years his junior.
In 1848, the Bel Air Academy received a new principal who also served as teacher. His name was Edwin Arnold. A native of Canada, Dr. Arnold was the son of Rev. Oliver Arnold, an Anglican pastor and Indian teacher in New Brunswick. Edwin Arnold was also ordained in the Anglican faith but resigned from the pastorate after eight years in order to devote his full time to teaching. Prior to becoming the principal of the Bel Air Academy, Dr. Arnold had served schools in New Brunswick; Freehold, New Jersey; Bordentown, New Jersey; Easton, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. When Dr. Arnold was chosen to lead the Bel Air Academy, he was highly spoken of by all his former schools. Edwin Arnold moved himself and his family next to the Bel Air Academy building. The principal’s son, Edwin, Jr. joined the school as one of his father’s pupils.
Edwin Arnold provided the students at the Academy a classical education based on the English tradition. The days were spent reading, memorizing, reciting, and learning the lessons of classic works of literature. For an extra fee, students could also receive instruction in the French language taught by another teacher whom Dr. Arnold hired for the purpose. Dr. Arnold was also fond of arithmetic, writing and publishing his own book on its proper instruction called Arithmetical Questions, a new plan, intended to answer the double purpose of arithmetical instruction and miscellaneous information. With the help of his colleague, the book was also available in French.
At the time of Dr. Arnold’s arrival at the school, and likely in the time preceding it, John Wilkes Booth was known as one of the school’s “day scholars”. This meant that, everyday, John Wilkes rode his horse from the family farm outside of Bel Air into town for school. Joseph Booth, on the other hand, lived with and lodged with Edwin Arnold and his family. Such accommodations cost more money, but Dr. Arnold highlighted the benefits of one-on-one after hours instruction and continual access to his library to student boarders. It appears that Mary Ann and Junius Booth decided that it was their youngest son, Joseph, who would make better use of such an arrangement as opposed to their less educationally inclined son, John Wilkes.
One of the Booths’ fellow students at the Bel Air Academy was a boy by the name of George Y. Maynadier. In the years that followed, Maynadier became an important figure in Harford County. As a young lawyer he was elected state’s attorney for the county from 1862 to 1867. In 1871, he was made a Harford County judge. Maynadier did another stint as state’s attorney from 1879 to 1887 and in his later retirement from civic duty, though he was still a lawyer, Maynadier was one of the editors for the local Bel Air newspaper, the Southern Aegis.
In 1902, as part of his editorial duties for the Aegis, Maynadier wrote an article about his time at the Bel Air Academy with the Booth brothers. Titled “Additional Reminiscences of the Booth Family”, George Maynadier’s account gives us our only glimpse into the Booths’ time at the Bel Air Academy. In the article he describes the differences between the two brothers:
“…John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth, as I said, were both pupils of Dr. Arnold at the Bel Air Academy for the five [sic] years or a large portion of that time during which the writer attended that school. John Wilkes was by no means considered a studious boy – or as one inclined to take advantage to the full of his educational opportunities. Joseph A. was much more naturally that way inclined, that is, was much more studious. The two were very little alike in appearance – John Wilkes being much the handsomer in his face and figure. The clear cut lineaments of his face with slightly acquiline nose and altogether magnetic expression of countenance was such as once seen could never be forgotten or mistaken for anyone else. Joseph was a lighter complexion, of slender build, as the expression is, and of all together different shape of features and expression…John Wilkes was by no means deficient in intelligence and brains (very much in fact the other way), but was not “bookish”, which is all I mean, when I say he was not as a boy devoted to his studies…”
Maynadier’s description of John Wilkes as a less than studious boy is backed up by Asia Booth’s own notes on her brother. “He had to plod,” Asia wrote, “His was not a quickly receptive mind.”
In his narrative, Maynadier recalled a booze filled party that he, the Booth brothers, and even the principal’s son, Edwin Arnold, Jr., took part in at the close of a spring session. This event likely occurred in the spring of 1849.
“I well remember a school boy incident in which the brothers, John Wilkes and Joseph figured and which if I am not mistaken, the president of the Board of County Commissioners and others of my contemporaries of the Academy in the regime of Dr. Arnold, now resident hereabout, can recall as well as myself. A debating club had existed for a long time at that institution and thereby in the way of dues etc. a fund of some size, comparatively, had accumulated. As the spring of the year and short evenings were approaching, and we had concluded to suspend the club at least for a while, the question arose what to do with our money. It was soon resolved that we would “blow it in” in a grand “blow out” at our last meeting, prior to suspending altogether. Accordingly, the day scholars procured to be prepared at home and brought with them sundry cakes and confections and so forth, and Hughey Rogers, barkeeper at the Harford House, was seduced by the larger boys (some of them in fact young men) into making divers pitchers of hot stuff (it was cold weather) or cogent quality. So on the night in questions, the matter having been carefully concealed from Dr. Arnold, the affair came off. The Doctor’s son, one of the good boys of the school, had been taken into our plans in order to insure his secrecy, as we well knew he otherwise would “blow” on us if he found it out. The Booth boys, I remember, were among the chief promoters and leaders in the affair, although they were most efficiently seconded and encouraged by others fully as much inclined for mischief and a “good time” as themselves. Well, it is only necessary to say, that after partaking of the refreshments provided, including Hughey Rogers’ “hot stuff,” which was freely imbibed, pandemonium broke loose at the old Academy and continued loose until midnight. Card playing and shouting (it would be a misnomer to say singing) of songs interspersed with blood curdling yells and whoops such as only boys can emit, made up the bulk of the proceedings on the festive occasion. This was Friday night and you can imagine our consternation on the following Monday morning, when on the assembling if school we learned from his own lips that we had been visited, unknown to ourselves, by the venerable Dr. Arnold himself. He had expected something and made a personal inspection and fairly caught us all in crimine delicto. The only thing that saved us from being expelled was that so many were engaged in the affair, equally guilty, that expulsion as a punishment would have broken up the school. We received, however, such a lecture as made us thoroughly ashamed of our conduct…”
For reference, at the assumed time that this rambunctious party of boys occurred John Wilkes Booth, George Maynadier, and Joseph Booth were 11, 10, and 9 years-old, respectively. While Dr. Arnold did not expel any of the party participants (the inclusion of his own 8 year-old son caused difficulty in that), the spring session of 1849 proved to be John Wilkes Booth’s last at the Bel Air Academy. In the fall of 1849, John Wilkes Booth was sent by his parents to the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland. It appears, however, that Joseph Booth stayed on at the Bel Air Academy with Dr. Arnold for a couple more years before the brothers were reunited in school together at St. Timothy’s Hall in Catonsville, Maryland in 1852.
The Bel Air Academy building (with later additions) still stands today.
Dr. Arnold continued as the head of the Bel Air Academy until either 1853 or 1854. In November of 1854, he became the principal of Elkton Academy, which was located about 30 miles east of Bel Air. Coincidentally, in the fall of 1854, Asia Booth wrote a note to her friend Jean Anderson stating that, “Joe goes to school in Elkton, Cecil County”. It appears that Joseph Booth was, for a time, returned to the tutelage of Dr. Arnold.
While John Wilkes Booth had ended his formal education in 1853, he was still seen from time to time around Bel Air. Even after he started his stage career, Wilkes returned to his former hometown. He spent most of the summer of 1861 in isolation in Bel Air, renting a hotel room and memorizing plays. In his article, Maynadier recalled a run in with Booth during this time.
“I remember on one occasion whilst a party of us younger men were gathered on the upper porch of the dwelling house now occupied as a store by Mr. C. C. Rouse, sometime in the sixties [likely 1861], discussing politics and what not, on a July afternoon, when everything seemed to be in repose and quiet prevailed all around, we were suddenly startled by a terrific explosion and crash as if a mine had been sprung in our midst. On leaping to our feet, it was discovered that Mr. John Wilkes Booth had espied our assemblage from the porch of the adjoining hotel, and procuring all the ‘torpedoes’ left over from the fourth of July, had hurled them in our midst to enjoy the effect of the explosion.”
It appears that Booth couldn’t help playing a trick on his old Bel Air Academy chums.
Dr. Arnold, meanwhile, had departed the Elkton Academy in April of 1856 and traveled to the north Baltimore suburb of Mount Washington, where he had set up his own school, the Rugby Institute. The start of the Civil War greatly reduced the number of enrolled pupils and Arnold was forced to close the Institute down in August of 1861. During the war, Dr. Arnold and his family took up residence in Calvert County in Southern Maryland where he became a farmer. At war’s end he resumed his career as a teacher, heading up the Salisbury Institute on Maryland’s eastern shore while his family stayed in Calvert County. Dr. Arnold’s daughter died in 1869, and the 64 year-old teacher ended his educational career that same year. The one time teacher of John Wilkes Booth died at his Calvert County home on March 11, 1874 and was buried next to his daughter.
In his 1902 article about the Booth brothers, George Maynadier included a cryptic note about another of their Bel Air Academy peers. Giving only initials, Maynadier recalled one of the bullies at the school who was acquainted with John Wilkes and who, in the days after Lincoln’s assassination, ended his own life under mysterious circumstances:
“But my paper is drawing out too long – One other matter which may or may not be authentic, I will set down here and then close these meager additions to the already voluminous Booth reminiscences. At the time when John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth were pupils at the Academy, there lived in Bel Air a family by the name of L— (I do not for obvious reasons mention the name.) The eldest son, about the age of John Wilkes Booth, was also a pupil at the Academy and intimate with the latter. He was likewise the most notorious of all the boys and young men at school or in the village, as the ringleader of everything desperate and reckless. In those days I was afraid of him, as all the smaller boys were, who often, ‘tasted his quality’ in the shape of a cuff on the head or a punch in the ribs and so forth – consequently, it may be, that he was not so desperate and bad as I thought him to be, but simply reckless and thoughtless of consequences. However, sometime prior to or during the first years of the war, he left Bel Air and removed to Baltimore or Washington, I do not remember which, and turned up at the latter place as an attache, in the medical or drug division of some of the departments of the army. –And here comes the story.- It will be remembered that immediately on the occurance of the assassination, strict lines were drawn and no one was suffered to leave the City unless by special permit. G—– L—, it was said made an effort within a day or two after the tragedy, to get through the lines. He failed and on being repulsed several times, returned and matters in his case culminated by his TAKING HIS OWN LIFE, for what reason, no one apparently knew. This matter was given no prominence that I ever observed, at the time, nor have I heard it commented on to any extent since – But it was, if true, a curious coincidence, that an old schoolmate and intimate associate of former days of John Wilkes Booth, and of the character of man of L—, should have acted as above stated if indeed the matter is true as I have heard it. ‘I tell the tale as ‘twas told to me,’ is all the comment I have to make…”
The name of the schoolmate whom Maynadier refused to provide the full name of was George B. Love. In addition, his recollection of the events regarding Love’s death are correct and George Love did commit suicide after being captured trying to cross the Union lines out of Washington after the assassination of Lincoln.
George Love’s story is a fascinating one that I would love (no pun intended) to tell you. However, as I was working on this blog post I discovered that fellow researcher and author Susan Higginbotham had already beaten me to the punch. Unbeknownst to each other, we were both researching Love’s story at the same time. Susan had visited Love’s grave in Baltimore Cemetery and when I emailed her today asking for permission to use her photo of his grave in this blog post, she informed me of the similar path we had been taking. So, rather than telling you the story of George Love here, you’re all going to have to wait a month until Susan’s article titled, “The Strange, Sad Case of George B. Love” is published in the August 2018 edition of the Surratt Courier. Susan has done a marvelous job delving into Love’s life and mysterious death. If you’re not already a member of the Surratt Society, sign up today so that you won’t miss out on getting Susan’s excellent article.
The old Bel Air Academy building, the place where George Maynadier, George Love, Joseph and John Wilkes Booth, and many others received their early education still stands in Bel Air. Now offices for a law firm and others, a small historic plaque above the door gives the name of what this building once was. For about three years, John Wilkes Booth plodded through classical literature and arithmetic here. Perhaps if he had spent less time at play and more time at his studies, these walls could have changed the course of history.
On select Thursdays we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
The Spangler Family
Burial Location: Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
In 1865, Ford’s Theatre carpenter and scene-shifter Edman Spangler was put on trial for his alleged participation in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Edman Spangler had known the actor John Wilkes Booth for several years and was one of the carpenters who assisted in the construction of the Booth family home, Tudor Hall, in Harford County, Maryland. Spangler’s friendship with Booth, his pro-Confederate sympathies during the war, and the fact that Booth often asked favors of Spangler (including the request for Spangler to hold his horse on the night of April 14th) caused Edman to be tried alongside the others who were involved in Booth’s plot against the government. In the end, the government could not prove that Spangler had any foreknowledge of the assassination plot but he was still found guilty of, “having feloniously and traitorously aided and abetted J. Wilkes Booth in making his escape.” For this, Edman Spangler received a sentence of 6 years in prison at Fort Jefferson.
Prior to his friendship with John Wilkes Booth, however, Edman Spangler had been born and raised in York, Pennsylvania. Edman’s family had been in York since his great grandfather, Baltzer Spangler* immigrated to the area from present day Germany in 1732. Baltzer was one of four Spangler brothers who established homes in the York area around this time. In 1760, Baltzer built a two-story brick mansion on what was then the outskirts of York.
The Baltzer Spangler House circa 1904
After Baltzer’s death in 1770, this home was inherited by one of his sons, George Spangler, who was Edman Spangler’s great great uncle. The home stayed in the family until the 1840s when it was sold. By 1850, the home had been transformed into a school run by a British veteran of the War of 1812 named Charles Henry Bland. The school was known as Sherwood’s School and also colloquially as Bland’s Academy. Clarence Cobb, a former student who attended the academy in the former Spangler home later recalled that, “Bland’s boys learned but little and were taught less. There was no system, no regular course of study, nor recitation. Bland’s school failed utterly, at the last. The old gentleman secured employment thereafter, as a steward, at Fairfax Seminary, Va., back of Alexandria. I am informed that he lived to a great age. He believed in corporal punishment and plenty of it. Perhaps his extensive exercise as a whipping-master was the cause of his health, vigor and activity. He never whipped me as I think I may say I was a good boy, but, I thought, he used to whale the bad boys for fun.”
When giving his reminiscences of Bland’s Academy in 1916, Cobb also recalled one of his former classmates at the time.
“John Wilkes Booth, whom we always called Jack, attended school there for only a few weeks in 1853.”
Cobb is the only source we have that John Wilkes Booth spent time at Bland’s Academy. We do know from period sources that Cobb was a classmate of Booth’s when the two boys both attended the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland together from 1849 – 1852. Cobb gives a vivid description of Booth as a student while at the Milton Academy but doesn’t say anything specific about his time at Bland’s. If John Wilkes Booth did attend school in York it would have been in the fall of 1853 and also would have represented the end of his formal educational career. In his authoritative volume, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, researcher Art Loux stated that Booth “may have” attended Bland’s Academy, perfectly demonstrating the lack of supporting evidence. So, while it has not been proven with certainty, it is still somewhat eerie that a young John Wilkes Booth may have been educated, albeit briefly, in a home built by the ancestor of a future conspirator.
Sadly, the Baltzer Spangler house, home to the short-lived Bland’s Academy, no longer stands today. Instead, the 400 block of Prospect St. in York is the site of rowhouses.
Drive by of the former site of Bland’s Academy, about 420 Prospect Street, York, PA
Another son of Baltzer Spangler who inherited some of the property around the Spangler home was Edman Spangler’s grandfather, John Spangler. John and his wife, Margaret Beard, were the parents of eight children before John’s death in 1796. In the 1890s, when a Spangler genealogist was working on a book about his ancestors, he found an extraordinary relic among John Spangler’s belongings:
“In the old and handsome family Bible of John Spengler, was found by the writer a letter in German, alleged to have been written by God Himself and delivered by an angel at Madgeburg, Germany in 1783. It exempted the possessors from lightning, fire and water. A century ago it made a profound impression.”
The letter discovered in John Spangler’s bible was a fairly common document in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities at the time. Called a himmelsbrief or “heaven’s letter”, these papers were a mixture of Christian scripture and magic, claiming to ward off misfortune as long as the owners abided by the moral covenants instructed by the letter. In essence, these letters were an early form of chain letters with a healthy dose of Christian teachings to make them popular. The Madgeburg letter found in John Spangler’s bible was one of the most common versions of himmelsbrief. You can read more about these interesting chain letters here.
The second of John and Margaret Spangler’s children was William Spangler. William was born on September 21, 1785. He likely spent quite a bit of time in the old Baltzer Spangler home owned by his nearby neighbors and cousins. Around 1814, William married a woman named Anna Maria and they began their family together. They would have at least 5 children between the years of 1815 – 1825. The youngest of their children was Edman Spangler, born on August 10, 1825. Less than six months later, on February 12, 1826, Anna Maria Spangler died, leaving William a widower with several young children. To help support his young family, William Spangler became the sheriff of York County in 1827. He served a three year term which ended in 1830. William married again that same year. His new wife was named Sarah “Sally” Spangler. Sarah was a widow herself having been previously married to William’s first cousin once removed. She fulfilled the much needed role of mother to the Spangler children, including Edman. William and Sarah had one child of their own, Maria Jane, who was born in 1834.
As perhaps a harbinger of the misfortune to befall the Spangler family and the nation a few years later, Edman’s older brother Theodore Spangler died on April 15, 1852 at the age of 36. Thirteen years later would see the death of President Lincoln on the same date.
The news of Lincoln’s assassination spread quickly and, in a short while, the Spangler family in York began reading of their son and sibling’s name in connection with the great crime. William Spangler, now an old man of 79 years, wrote a letter to his son asking him to explain the circumstances he found himself in. Below is William Spangler’s letter to Edman with his numerous misspellings and complete lack of punctuation unaltered:
Dear Son This is to let you no that we are all in good Heath except my selfe I am Getting worse in my leg and Arm I can Scarcily do aney Work but I thank my God That my Bodey heath is Good I have no particulars to wright Onley this that our Family is in grate distres That your name is mentiond In So maney papers About you In this murder of the Chief President now if you Will gratfy us to hear of you The truth of the matter and The reason of your name in Almost everey paper in the Countrey You can certainly Let me no the truth about The Matter I expected A Letter from you as you might have reconsiled our Family much by Sending us the truth of all you no About it there is so much About it in the Nues that We cannot no the truth And as the[re] is So much Suspicen I dont want to wrigh More than I want to no wat you no about it if you Wright and think that your Letter is or may bee Suspicious Take it to the post office and Let it bee red by some of the Members of the post office My hand is so lame that I can scarceley hold the pen Dear Son Do answer this Imediatley From your Affecinate father God bee with you Wm Spangler”
What response, if any, Edman composed to his father is not known. In the end, William and the rest of the Spanglers in York read about the conspiracy trial and Edman’s subsequent six year prison sentence to Fort Jefferson.
Despite his advanced age, William Spangler lived long enough to see his son’s release from prison in March of 1869. Spangler, Dr. Mudd, and Samuel Arnold each received a pardon from outgoing President Andrew Johnson. The forth conspirator sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson, Michael O’Laughlen, had died of a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1867. Spangler returned home but it’s not clear if he went to York. Shortly after his release he was right back at work as a theater carpenter for John T. Ford. A staunch believer in his employee’s innocence, Ford had bankrolled Spangler’s defense at the conspiracy trial and the efforts to get him released from prison. Likely out of appreciation, Spangler went to work at Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore.
On July 7, 1873, Edman Spangler’s step-mother, Sarah Spangler, died in York at the age of 80. It is unknown if Edman attended her funeral. In September of 1873, the Holliday Street Theatre suffered a devastating fire which destroyed the building. When that happened, Spangler retired from the theater scene and bid goodbye to John T. Ford. Rather than making his way north to York, Spangler headed south to the farm of Dr. Mudd in Charles County, Maryland. Though strangers to each other prior to Lincoln’s death, the two had become friends during their shared imprisonment. Dr. Mudd welcomed Spangler into his home with open arms and even gave Spangler his own piece of land to live on and work. On February 7, 1875, at the age of 49, Edman Spangler died at the Mudd farm . On February 9th, he was buried by the Mudd family at the original St. Peter’s Cemetery.
William Spangler actually outlived his infamous son, but only by a few months. The elder Spangler died on October 28, 1875 at the age of 90. In 1882, Maria Spangler, the daughter of William and Sarah and half-sister of Edman Spangler, died and was buried with her parents.
Today, there are four Spangler gravestones standing in Section S, Lot 236 of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, all of whom are related to conspirator Edman Spangler.
Graves of John and Margaret Spangler, Edman Spangler’s grandfather and grandmother.
Grave of Maria Jane Spangler, half-sister of Edman Spangler
Grave of William and Sarah Spangler, Edman’s father and stepmother
There may be other Spangler relatives buried in the same plot as those pictured above such as Edman Spangler’s biological mother and his brother who died on April 15, 1852. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, a fire destroyed a large chunk of the records at Prospect Hill Cemetery. If additional Spanglers are buried in this plot unmarked, they are known only to God now.
In the end, it’s a bit unfortunate that Edman Spangler is buried so far away from the rest of his kin. York was such a big part of his family’s story and Prospect Hill Cemetery is filled with many more of his cousins, uncles, and aunts. Yet Edman Spangler lies in a small rural cemetery far away from any member of his family. Sent to prison for his alleged involvement in Lincoln’s death, it appears that, in at least one way, Edman Spangler never really came home.
Want to come heckle LincolnConspirators.com author Dave Taylor in person? Here are some of my public speaking engagements planned for the future. NOTE: These upcoming speeches may be cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Date: TBD Saturday(s) in 2023 Location: Surratt House Museum (9118 Brandywine Road, Clinton, MD 20735) Time: 7:00 am – 7:00 pm Speech: John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Bus Tour Description: Dave is one of the narrators for the Surratt Society’s John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour. The 12 hour bus tour documents the escape of the assassin through Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Information on how to register can be found here: http://www.surrattmuseum.org/booth-escape-tour Cost: $85