On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln became the first president of the United States to be assassinated. John Wilkes Booth, famous actor and assassin, is the first person to come to mind when we think about the death of the tall, top-hatted president. But Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger conspiracy, one that would attempt to overthrow the Union and bring victory to the nearly quashed Confederate cause.
Originally a more forgiving plan, Booth’s idea was to kidnap the president and give him release only when the imprisoned Confederate soldiers were allowed to return home. But war-related events and Booth’s fury over abolition and the situation with the prisoners of war caused the plot to become more sinister in nature. After hearing of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Booth’s thoughts turned to assassination. On April 14, 1865, upon learning that Lincoln would attend Our American Cousin at Ford’s theater later that night, Booth met with co-conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, and gave to them their murderous assignments.
Lewis Thornton Powell, alias Lewis Payne or Paine.
On April 14, around 10:00 p.m., Lewis Powell made his way to the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward with the intent to murder. He was accompanied by David Herold, who was to show him the way out of the city after Powell’s task was completed. Powell gained entry into the home by announcing that he had medicine for Seward, who had recently been in a carriage accident and had suffered broken bones and a concussion, from which he was still healing. Powell pistol-whipped Seward’s son, then forced his way into the bedroom and repeatedly stabbed Seward around the face and neck. Seward’s jaw splint was perhaps the only thing that saved him from death that night, deflecting the blade away from his jugular vein. Powell also injured another of Seward’s sons, Seward’s nurse, and then as he made his escape, a messenger who was just arriving at the house. He was able to hide out for three days, then had the unfortunate luck of returning to Mary Surratt’s boarding house at the exact moment that she was being arrested for her part in the assassination. Powell was also arrested.
Reportedly a simple-minded man who was easily led, David Herold probably got himself in over his head with his part in Booth’s scheme. He was instructed to act as Powell’s guide to and from the Seward home, but when he heard the screaming from within the house during the assassination attempt, he became frightened and fled without waiting for Powell. Booth, by this time, had already made his way across the bridge into Maryland, and Herold met with him there. The two then evaded arrest together, Herold helping the injured Booth along the way until the law caught up with them near Port Royal, Virginia, in the barn of of Richard Garrett. Booth was shot and killed, but Herold surrendered and was taken into custody.
At first entirely willing to join in the original kidnapping plot, Atzerodt’s feelings about the conspiracy changed when it became an assassination. He was assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House. Atzerodt booked the room above Johnson’s, but could not muster up the courage to kill the vice president. The pre-planned hour of 10:00 p.m. found Atzerodt at the hotel bar, drowning his nerves in drink. Atzerodt then left the hotel and spent the night wandering the streets of the city. The next day, after news of Lincoln’s assassination had circulated, suspicions about Atzerodt were roused when police heard that he had been asking about Johnson the day before. His room was searched and weapons were found. Atzerodt was arrested April 20th.
All three men were tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging, as was boarding house owner Mary Surratt. The execution was carried out on July 7, 1865.
This is only part of the story! Read records from the trials and learn about the other conspirators, witnesses and more in the Lincoln Assassination Papers.