Posts Tagged With: Powell

“Thus perished four…”

The day after the four conspirators were hanged, one soldier penned the following letter to his family back home in New York:

“Camp Stoneman  D.C.

July 8th 1865

Darlings at home

Before you receive this you will probably have read all about the execution of the conspirator’s at the Washington Penitentiary yesterday.  My regiment was on duty immediately in the yard and around the gallows.  Consequently I had a fine view of the preparation and the final execution of the criminals.  The yard was an enclosure by high brick walls and buildings of probably a half acre of ground.  The gallows was erected at one corner about 30 feet from a door which lead into it from the prison.  The platform was about ten feet high and the beam from which the ropes was suspended was about 10 feet above the platform.  That portion of the platform for 4 feet which was a sort of trap door hung upon hinges and supported by a single prop which was to be knocked out from under them by a sort of battering ram.  The prisoners were accompanied to the gallows by the officers in charge of the execution and their spiritual advisers.  Who in behalf of each thanked the officers and soldiers who had charge of them for this uniform kindness to them.  And after praying with them (and I never heard more eloquent and stirring appeals made to a throne of diving grace) they were caused to stand up on the fatal trap, where their arms were tightly tied behind them and their legs tied at the ankle and knees – the cap drawn over their face the rope adjusted and drawn tight around the neck the signal given and four unhappy victims were suspended in the air by the neck.  I stood very near on horse-back where I had a good opportunity to see every motion.  I did not discover the least motion of a single muscle on Mrs. Surratt – and but very slight on Atzerodt.  Payne and Harrold did not pass off so quickly.  Harrold showing signs of life for nearly five minutes and Payne for full seven minutes.  After hanging for the space of 20 or 30 minutes they were taken down, laid in rough boxes, and buried near the foot of the gallows.  Thus perished four of the greatest criminals our land has ever produced.  And my only regret is that the balance of the band had not shared the same fate.  It seemed hard indeed to see a person bearing the almost divine shape of woman lead out by men alone executed and laid away with none but the hands of rough soldiers to care for her.  I never before saw such picture of absolute despair and fear upon the face of a human being.  Mrs. Surratt was nearly unable to stand.  In fact Payne was the only one of the party that showed any signs of courage or manliness.  I see by the papers today that the clergymen who attended them express much hope that they passed from this to a better world.  If so, how much better than they to their intended victims whom they endeavored to send into the presence of their God with one moment’s preparation.  I hope it will be my fortune to witness the execution of Jeff. Davis, & then shall I, indeed, feel that the rebellion is crushed.  And when you hear any one say that Jeff. will never be hung, “that Andrew Johnson is President and that he is supported by officers who are good and true,” in such hands we are safe.  The day has come when we have in authority those who care more for their country than they do for themselves or party.  And I trust that it may be long before any others shall obtain the reins of Government and seek again to draw us down to ruin.

Then I have written you a good long letter, at least, a long one.  And shall have but very little room for anything else – though as tomorrow is Sunday I presume I shall write again.  I wrote you a good long love letter but a day or two ago, as I shall not mail this till evening perhaps I will write a little more before I send it.

Give my love to all the friends.  Kiss the dear children for me.  Good day to you and God bless you all.

Most affectionately,

S.D. Stiles”

The author of this account is Sampson D. Stiles who was a member of the New York Cavalry.  The photographic record does not show any soldiers on horseback as Stiles states he was, but it is know that General Hartranft requested cavalry members to report to him:

“Mil. Prison Wash. Arsenal

July 6th, 1865


I will require a Company of Cavalry in addition to the twenty sent me today.  Will you be kind enough to order them to report to me at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.  I will need them only during the day.

Very Respectfully – Your Obt. Servt. –

Bvt. Maj. Genl. Gov. Com’dr. M.P.

Colonel Taylor

A.A.G. –Dept.Wash.-”

So while we see no mounted soldiers in the execution photos, the request for Cavalry soldiers and the details in Stiles’ letter home gives the strong impression that he was there.

Sampson Stiles’ 1905 obituary in a Vermont paper

Stiles’ account comes from the James O. Hall research papers
The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators – Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft edited by Edward Steers and Harold Holzer

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George Robinson’s Grave

Just a quick post today as I’m still in the process of getting set up in my new Maryland residence.

During a brief site seeing trip I took with two of my family members who helped me make the move from Illinois, we visited Arlington National Cemetery. I have been there before, but every time I visit it I am still humbled by the white, uniformed acres of sacrifice before me.

One grave related to the Lincoln assassination in Arlington belongs to George Foster Robinson.


On April 14th, 1865, Robinson was an army private tending to Secretary of State William Seward after the latter suffered a carriage accident. When Lewis Powell slashed his way into Seward’s bed chamber, it was largely Robinson who discharged him. He was credited as saving the Secretary’s life and was given many accolades. Robinson would receive Powell’s knife as a memento, be presented with a gold congressional medal and $5,000, and, 100 years later, a mountain in Alaska was named after him for saving the man who later purchased the territory of Alaska from Russia.

Today he rests in Arlington next to his wife Roxinda Aurora:


The Robinsons are located just a stone’s throw from Bobby and Teddy Kennedy’s graves. In the background of the pictures you can see the large white fence that currently shields Teddy Kennedy’s grave. So next time you’re at Arlington make the minor detour into the section in front of the Kennedy brother’s and pay your respects to a true Civil War hero: George Foster Robinson.



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A Sketch of Seward’s Assassin

“Looking again to the right, and omitting the alternate guard, we come to one of the most remarkable faces of the group – a face which, once seen, may never be forgotten; on whose moral stature is readily determined by his face.  This man is clothed sparingly.  He is in his shirt sleeves – a sort of steel mixed woolen shirt; his pantaloons dark blue cloth; his neck bare and shirt collar unbuttoned.  He is fully six feet high; slender body; angular form; square and narrow across the shoulders; hollow breast; hair black, straight and irregularly cut and hanging indifferently about his forehead, which is rather low and narrow.  Blue eyes, large, staring, and at times wild, returning your look steadily and unflinchingly.  Square face; jaw irregular; nose turned at the top but expanding abruptly at the nostrils; thin lips, and slightly twisted; mouth curved unsymmetrically a little to the left of the middle line of the face; a wild, savage-looking man, bearing no culture or refinement – the most perfect type of the ingrained hardened criminal…” – Milwaukee Sentinel (05/16/1865)

For the time being all I can manage to post is this self created montage of Lewis Powell and a description of him from a period newspaper account. Of course Powell’s biographer, Betty Ownsbey, is the best source for information on Lewis Powell and happily discusses him on Roger Norton’s Lincoln Discussion Symposium.

I, myself, have been busy preparing for an upcoming move out of my home state of Illinois to the great state Maryland.  I recently got a new teaching job in Maryland and I am very excited about being closer to the history that I love.

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I watched them lead him out the door,
As he exited his cell.
I followed them, as he had asked,
To give his last farewell.

“A boy” I thought of him at first,
When I was called to pray,
But with death’s knocking out in the yard,
I saw a man today.

While saddened by his coming death,
He confessed to me his crime:
“I helped a man who killed a man.
Where will I spend all time?”

I said I could not answer him,
To God he must appeal.
We sat there in redemptive prayer,
And begged his soul to heal.

So while his frame may falter,
During these, his last grains of life,
On the gallows he’ll stand, with his clenched hands,
A man, adverse to strife.

Fictional poem from the perspective of Rev. Dr. Mark Olds, David Herold’s spiritual advisor on the scaffold.

Justified or not, four individuals paid the ultimate price for their involvement with John Wilkes Booth.  Those saved from execution faced their own mortality when they heard the drops fall and would carry the stigma of their association for the rest of their lives.  Lincoln’s assassination killed not only the President and the innocence of our nation, but also the lives of the misguided supporters who knew not what they were doing.

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On this date: April 17th, 1865

Lewis Powell was arrested at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse on H street.  After wandering around D.C. since the night of the assassination, Powell had the dreadfully unlucky timing of showing up at Mrs. Surratt’s just as detectives were searching the place with orders to arrest the household.  When attempting to explain his arrival at the house at such a late hour, he claimed he had been hired by Mrs. Surratt to dig a gutter.  Even with a pick axe in hand and a torn off sleeve as a cap, his ruse was unconvincing and he was arrested.

From a friend, with thanks.

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