June 14, 1865

Wednesday, June 14, 1865

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Proceedings

Prior to the assembling of the court on this date, conspirator Lewis Powell was led from his cell into one of the two adjoining rooms of the court. There he was examined by a group of doctors in order to get a sense of his sanity. The court then convened at 12 o’clock.[1]

Present: All nine members of the military commission, the eight conspirators, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, Assistant Judge Advocates Bingham and Burnett, the recorders of the court, lawyers Frederick Aiken, William Doster, and Thomas Ewing.

Absent: Reverdy Johnson, John Clampitt, Walter Cox, and Frederick Stone.

Seating chart:

The prisoners were seated in the same manner as the day before.

General David Hunter, the president of the commission, stated that there were several physicians present who had made medical examinations of conspirator Lewis Powell and were eager to report on their findings. Hunter suggested that these witnesses be allowed to take the stand before the reading of yesterday’s proceedings. William Doster, Powell’s attorney, stated he was unaware the medical experts were present and that he wished to consult with them before they were produced as witnesses. This was agreed to and the reading of the prior day’s session was started as usual. However at 12:30, the reading of the record was halted by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt.[2] Holt suggested that the court take a recess so that Surgeon General Joseph Barnes could make an examination of Lewis Powell to assess his sanity. Unlike the other doctors, Barnes had not received an earlier subpoena because he had been out of the city but he had recently returned. The court took a recess to allow time for Barnes to examine Powell, reassembling at 2 o’clock after the lunch break.[3] Defense lawyers John Clampitt and Frederick Stone, who had been absent when the court opened, arrived before the afternoon session began.

William Doster, lawyer for Lewis Powell, announced that he now closed the case for his client and that he would not call any additional witnesses. Gen. David Hunter, the president of the commission, asked Doster if he intended to call the doctors who were present. Doster replied that he would not be calling them. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt replied that he would call them on the part of the prosecution.

Testimony began

Dr. James C. Hall, a Washington physician, was recalled by the prosecution after previously testifying for the defense the day before. Dr. Hall stated that he along with doctors Norris and Porter made an examination of Lewis Powell this morning before the court convened and then again during the break joined by Surgeon General Barnes. Dr. Hall stated that Powell responded to his questions a bit faster today than yesterday and that they were accurately the same as before. Dr. Hall gave his opinion that Powell did not demonstrate any signs of mental insanity. He reiterated his belief that Powell’s mind was weak and uncultivated but that he did not see signs of mental insanity. When asked about Powell’s moral sanity, Dr. Hall stated that Powell still thought assassination was justifiable but conceded that there are some whose minds and morals are such to allow them to think that assassination was justifiable and a duty.[4]

Dr. Basil Norris, a U.S. Army surgeon, testified for the prosecution that he did not believe that Lewis Powell was insane. Dr. Norris stated that there was nothing in Powell’s appearance, speech, or manner that indicated insanity. Powell’s reasoning facilities and judgement appeared good to the doctor. During cross-examination, Dr. Norris admitted that he was not really familiar with insanity cases and that made his conclusions based on his visits to institutions for the insane. William Doster asked Dr. Norris if the conduct of the Powell during his examination might not be merely a lucid interval of a madman. Dr. Norris responded that he believed there would still be some sign of madness that either he, or the other medical experts, would have noted. Doster asked in regards to monomaniacs who are insane about a particular topic and if such men might seem sane when discussing any topic other than the subject of their madness. Dr. Norris stated his belief that if Powell was a monomaniac, during the hour’s examination he would have certainly brought up the subject of his monomania, thus making his insanity obvious.[5]

Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, the Surgeon General of the Army, was recalled by the prosecution after previously testifying on May 19 and 20th. Dr. Barnes stated that he found no evidence of insanity on the part of Lewis Powell. Dr. Barnes stated that the strongest evidence of Powell’s sanity was his ability to reiterate the statements he made to Dr. Hall yesterday and to the other physicians before court opened. William Doster seemed to concede to the doctors’ consensus that Powell was not mentally insane, and so asked Dr. Barnes if Powell was not morally insane. Dr. Barnes replied that he believed Powell had passed the test for both. Undeterred, Doster had Dr. Barnes repeat what Powell said when asked about the crime of assassination. Dr. Barnes replied that Powell stated that assassination was justifiable under certain circumstances.[6]

Dr. George L. Porter, an army surgeon on staff at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, testified that he had made twice daily inspections of Lewis Powell (and the other conspirators) since his arrival on April 30th. From those interactions and his recent examinations in company with the other doctors who testified before, Dr. Porter stated his belief that Powell was a sane man and responsible for his actions. William Doster asked Dr. Porter about Powell’s moral insanity with Porter replying that, before the law, moral insanity is not described and that a man is either insane or not insane. Still, Dr. Porter described that moral insanity was where a person was perverted on moral subjects. Dr. Porter described that Powell did not fit any of the physical symptoms associated with moral insanity. Doster inquired about Dr. Porter’s experience in diagnosing other cases of insanity to which Dr. Porter replied he had discovered a few. When Doster asked for specific cases, General Hunter of the commission objected, stating that it had nothing to do with the case. Doster countered that he wanted to ensure the man who appeared as an expert had the necessary experience. The prosecution stated that Dr. Porter had been designated and requested by Doster himself, which Doster denied. Assistant Judge Advocate Bingham implied that Doster had designated Dr. Porter but that they both knew why he did not call him as a witness. Doster maintained that he had never requested Dr. Porter and Bingham somewhat apologized. This ended Doster’s questioning of Dr. Porter.[7]

Assistant Judge Advocate John Bingham then presented into evidence a certified copy of the oath of office signed by Andrew Johnson on April 15, 1865, when he ascended to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s death. Bingham also presented a certified copy of the Senate resolution approving the appointment of William Seward to the office of Secretary of State along with a signed commission of the fact by Abraham Lincoln. Both of these documents were entered into evidence without objection.[8] These documents, along with the prior ones regarding the lawful election of Abraham Lincoln, were to legally establish that those targeted for assassination on April 14th were officials of the United States government.

The documents regarding the ascension of Andrew Johnson to the Presidency and the appointment of William Seward to Secretary of State were entered into evidence as Exhibits 91 and 92.

At this point, the reading of yesterday’s testimony, which had been interrupted at 12:30 pm so that Dr. Barnes could examine Lewis Powell, was resumed and completed at around 2:50 pm[9]

Judge Advocate General Holt announced that the government still had a few witnesses that they wished to call but that none of them were present today. Holt insisted that their testimonies had to do with the larger conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and would not affect the conspirators now on trial. He therefore proposed that since all of the defense attorneys had closed their cases, arrangements should now be made regarding when the defense attorneys would present their closing arguments.[10] Frederick Aiken replied that it was the wish of the defense to have the prosecution complete all of their testimony before closing arguments began. Aiken stated his belief that Reverdy Johnson, his long absent co-consul, would be present tomorrow to present his argument against the jurisdiction of the commission. If he did not come, Aiken stated that his other co-consul, Mr. Clampitt would read Johnson’s argument. However, Aiken honestly noted that Reverdy Johnson’s handwriting, “was about as bad as any handwriting could well be” and that if Mr. Clampitt was to read it, “it would require some little time to make it out.”[11]

A signed letter showing Reverdy Johnson’s terrible handwriting

Aiken stated that he believed he would be ready to give the closing argument on behalf of Mrs. Surratt’s case on Monday, June 19th. General Lew Wallace of the commission stated that if Reverdy Johnson’s argument against the jurisdiction of the court was already complete, then the court should hear it now and that further delay was unnecessary. The court room was then cleared of the reporters and visitors to deliberate over the matter.[12]

In closed session the court decided that Reverdy Johnson’s argument was to be read on Friday, whether by Johnson himself or by John Clampitt. Frederick Stone, lawyer for David Herold, would also present his closing argument for his client on Friday. Frederick Aiken would be given until Monday when he would present on Mary Surratt and the remaining attorneys had until next Wednesday to present their closing arguments. The court denied Aiken’s request that the government finish all of their witnesses first.[13]

Thomas Ewing then presented a written application on behalf of the defense which requested the Judge Advocate General to give an opening statement before the defense presented their closing arguments. Ewing wanted Holt to clarify specific parts of the charge against the conspirators as he wanted to know which parts of the charge applied to which conspirator. In addition, Ewing questioned the language of the charge which used terms like, “traitorously murdering” which was a crime he did not know the punishment for since there was no legal definition of “traitorously murdering”. Ewing held that the defendants had a Constitutional right to know what crimes they were accused of and that the charge as written did not provide that.

Judge Advocate General Holt dismissed this legal play by Ewing, stating that if the defense lawyer did not already understand the charge and detailed case against his client by now, there is nothing he could say to make it better understood at this point. Still, he reiterated for the court that the general charge against all of the conspirators was that of conspiracy that led to the death of Abraham Lincoln, the attempt on Seward, and the failed on Andrew Johnson. Holt chastised Ewing for feigning ignorance on the law of conspiracy which held conspirators culpable for the actions of Booth and other parties. While Holt did not directly address Ewing’s point about “traitorously murdering”, he implied that the defense lawyer knew full well what the punishment for murder could be.

Ewing refused to back down, pleading confusion and continuing to insist that the crimes charged against the different conspirators be enumerated and clarified. Holt replied that he could not explain it in better terms than he had already done. Gen. Kautz, of the commission, responded that such an application for clarification should have been made when the charge and specification was first read. Ewing noted that by the time he had acquired his clients, the charge and specification had already been pleaded to and witnesses were being taken. He insisted that his application for clarification was in good faith and that he was “unable to know in what code or system of laws the crimes of ‘traitorously murdering’, ‘traitorously lying in wait”, ‘traitorously assaulting with intent to kill’ are defined and their punishments provided.” Holt responded that since the conspirators had allegedly acted in aid of the Confederacy during a time of war, their crimes were done traitorously and that the specification for each conspirator enumerated the additional acts for which they were individually held culpable for below the general charge of conspiracy.

This debate continued on for some time more with both Ewing and Holt rehashing their same points. Both Assistant Judge Advocates John Bingham and Henry Burnett entered the fray in support of Holt. Ewing continued to express his confusion and press his request that it be made clear how many distinct crimes his clients were charged with. Wanting to end the matter, General Lew Wallace, the only lawyer on the commission, stated that since it was the request of Ewing that Judge Advocate Holt make an opening statement the commission would now deliberate on the matter. Unsurprisingly, the commission denied Ewing’s request and so the debate was ended.[14]

The court then re-opened its doors allowed the reporters to enter. The court announced that it would adjourn until Friday, when Reverdy Johnson’s argument on the jurisdiction of the court would be heard.[15] With that, the court adjourned at around 4 o’clock.[16]


Recollections

From General Kautz’ diary:

“The commission met and took evidence of the Surgeons with reference to the sanity of Payne. They all agreed that there was no ground for suspecting insanity. The Court was cleared to discuss matters in relation to the Arguments of the Council & then adjourned to meet on Friday next.”[17]

General Doster, lawyer to Lewis Powell, recalled in his later memoirs his attempt at defending his client through an insanity defense:

“His mind seemed of the lowest order, very little above the brute, and his moral faculties equally low. On hearing the narrative, I immediately concluded that the only thing possible to be done on his behalf was to let the court know all that I knew about his mental and moral nature and his previous education. This, by the rules of evidence which were strictly enforced against the prisoners, but relaxed in favor of the prosecution, could only be done under the plea of insanity, which was accordingly adopted. Under the plea of not guilty, I had no recourse except to show that he was not the man Seward’s negro took him to be, and I could not show that. Even under the plea of insanity I could not let the court talk to the prisoner, and find out for itself what a phenomenon he was. That was to be done by experts. He could not remember for a long time what State or County he was born in or how old he was. Dr. Nichols was called, examined him, and gave me to understand that he had grave doubts of the prisoner’s sanity. Just as he was about to testify on that point a messenger arrived stating that his wife was on the point of death. She died, and his testimony could not be had. This was a great blow.

Dr. Hall, another eminent physician of Washington, who was the first doctor called in to see Mr. Lincoln after he was shot, also examined him. He also testified that he had doubts about the soundness of his mind. All agreed that his physical system was greatly deranged. It is singular, however, that all the army surgeons who were examined swore the other way, and the prosecution knew better than to call civilians who made insanity a specialty. I have never entertained a doubt myself, that the man was not what is termed compos mentis, i.e., a person of average understanding but in that respect a dwarf. Either this or he played his part very well to the end. Neither have I any doubt that before a civil tribunal where the court would have waited until I received my witnesses from Florida (which this court would not do) and could have inquired into his previous conduct the physicians would have declared him not an accountable being, on account of his utter dullness, and inability to decide between right and wrong.

General Harris, a physician, one of the members of the commission, before I thought of this plea, suggested to me that a person constipated as Payne was well known to be, must be entirely out of order, and that this was a general accompanying symptom of the early stages of insanity. After the plea was made public Miss Anna Surratt (the daughter of the prisoner, Mrs. Surratt) assured me that Payne’s conduct at their house was that of a perfect fool, and her belief was that he had not his five senses. She grew hysterical, however, every time I brought her to the stand and I am not sure but her acquaintance with him would have only injured his case — as far as it was injurable.

When I first offered my testimony of insanity, Bingham, in a violent manner, as was his custom, would have it that I must lay the foundation of insanity first. I claimed that the prosecution had done that already in showing the circumstances of his arrest, when he appeared, flimsily disguised, saying, “I’m mad! I’m mad!” and the like. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, who was sitting by my side at the time, remarked that Bingham’s position was wrong, and it would be a shame if the commission ruled me out. But they did. In addition to the physicians I had early summoned Mrs. and Miss Bronson of Baltimore, at whose house he had stayed, in the hope of learning something about him. They were so frightened that nothing could be got from them except that he had nearly beaten the servant to death, because she did not clear out his room. Otherwise they said he had behaved himself with extreme quietness, scarcely ever saying anything.

In this way the commission heard everything that I knew that could be of advantage to him, — some things not so favorable. One of the detectives in charge of Payne told me I should call him, — he could swear he was crazy. I did so, and he swore Payne said “they were tracking him pretty close.” I dispensed with further detective testimony.”[18]


Newspaper Descriptions

Lewis Powell

“Payne almost immediately on entering the dock took his seat on the step where the prisoner’s [sic] rest their feet, and was thus screened from view behind the dock rail, much to the disappointment of curious spectators.”[19]


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[1] John F. Hartranft, The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft, ed. Edward Steers, Jr. and Harold Holzer (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 123.
[2] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
[3] William C. Edwards, ed., The Lincoln Assassination – The Court Transcripts (Self-published: Google Books, 2012), 1176.
[4] Edwards, Court Transcripts, 1176 – 1177.
[5] Ibid., 1177 – 1178.
[6] Ibid., 1179.
[7] Ibid., 1179 – 1182.
[8] Ibid., 1182.
[9] Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
[10] Edwards, Court Transcripts, 1182.
[11] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
[12] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
[13] Edwards, Court Transcripts, 1182.
[14] Ibid., 1182 – 1188.
[15] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
[16] Hartranft, Letterbook, 123.
[17] August V. Kautz, June 14, 1865 diary entry (Unpublished diary: Library of Congress, August V. Kautz Papers).
[18] William E. Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 265 – 268.
[19] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 14, 1865, 2.
The drawing of the conspirators as they were seated on the prisoners’ dock on this day was created by artist and historian Jackie Roche.

2 Comments

2 thoughts on “June 14, 1865

  1. Pingback: The Trial Today: June 14 | BoothieBarn

  2. Richard Sloan

    Assuming that the trial “is” now over, except for the closing arguments, I would like to again say thank you for making me us eyewitnesses to the proceedings in such a concise way. Your selection of quotations was superb. I would like to know if any of the examinations of Powell in the adjoining room were taken down by any one of the gov’t’s own stenographers. (If not, why not?!) If not, at least we have the words of those who examined him, both in their testimony and i their reminiscences. I don’t think anyone besides Betty Ownsbey has ever done a real study of him. I’l have to get her book from my shelf to see if she “recreated” any of those examinations of him. I think a drama about this enigmatic character is in order. I would also love to see Betty do her great photo shopping and give him the close haircut he was given! Kudos again, Dave!

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