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Alias "Paine": The Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy

Betty J. Ownsbey (1993; rpt. 2005)


All during the sensational six-week trial which followed, Powell had shown a stoicism that defied all explanation. Even his death warrant was received by him without emotion, and he would walk to his premature death with a Spartan display that awed a nation. (1)

Having been brought up under a strong religious influence, Lewis Powell was sensitive, intense, and thoughtfully reserved in nature, very much an introvert. He had learned to whittle at an early age and was highly proficient at carving various whistles and toys out of wood. An animal lover, he was always bringing strays home and caring for the injured ones about the farm, earning him the nickname of "Doc" from his sisters. The nickname stuck. (7)

While working the valley with three separate detachments, one of Mosby's men killed a young Federal picket during a slight skirmish. The slain soldier's commanding officer, none other than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer, ordered the homes of five innocent families in the area burned to avenge the picket's death.
In retaliation for these atrocities, a group of Mosby's men clashed with a detail of Federals and caught them in the process of burning a house. The resulting fray culminated in the death of eighteen Union soldiers. More than likely, Powell was one of the vengeful Rangers. (24)

So far as can be determined, this was the only time Booth and all of his men were together for a meeting. Arnold and O'Laughlen were there along with Atzerodt and Herold, and finally Surratt and Powell sauntered in. Powell went by the nickname of "Mosby" within the group in deference to his service with Mosby's elite outfit, leaving one once again with the impression that he had been dispatched from Mosby's group to work as an agent in the kidnapping plot. (57)

"Do you know this man? Did you hire him to dig a ditch for you?" Smith looked inquiringly at the bonneted and shawled widow.
Raising her hands, Mrs. Surratt avowed: "Before God, I do not know this man; I have never seen him. I did not hire him to dig a ditch!" This positive and basically inaccurate assertion would cause Mrs. Surrat's life to be forfeited on the gallows. (92-3)

Eckert remembered another photography session on board the monitor a few days later on April 27. Powell, sullen and silent, decided to foil photographer Alexander Gardner. Whenever the photographer would remove the lens cap from the camera, Powell would respond with a vigorous head shaking—the results of which would produce a blurred unrecognizable image. Enraged, the provost marshal in charge, Col. H. H. Wells, provost marshal of defenses south of the Potomac, struck Powell's arm with his sword or cane. The burly Eckert stepped up at once and reprimanded the officer for his unwarranted action. Powell thanked Eckert and said that that was the first sympathetic word he had heard since his arrest. The picture taking session came to an abrupt halt. (103)

Powell was confined in the chain locker, and although he showed a wonderful fortitude, far beyond what might be expected of a twenty-year-old, even one who had braved four years on the battlefield, the effects of his solitary entombment within the monitor began to strain his nerves to the breaking point. But there was yet another nightmare he was to be subjected to—a blackness far more terrifying than the monitor's darkened hold:
April 22, 1865
Commander J. B. Montgomery
Commandant, Navy Yard
Washington, DC
The Secretary of War requests that the prisoners on board the iron clads belonging to his department shall have for better security against conversation, a canvas bag put over the head of each and tied around the neck with a hole for proper breathing and eating, but not for seeing—and that Payne be secured to prevent self destruction.
G. V. Fox
Marine Sergeant Peddicord was responsible for placing the hoods on the prisoners, and although all of those thus subjected to this inhumane cruelty were "affected," Peddicord remembered that Powell actually wept: "Even stalwart Payne, who never said a word before, asked me, 'What is that for?' I replied that I was there to obey orders, not to answer questions; and as I forced the hood down ... I noticed a tear start and roll down his cheek. These hoods had small openings at the nose for breathing and were raised a bit during their meals.”
One is left with the impression that the hooding punishment, not much different from being buried alive, had turned Powell into a frightened, dejected youth—a person tottering on the edge of insanity. Although he would exhibit a devil-may-care attitude while on trial, his imperturbability in the prisoner's dock may have been pure bravado. (104-5)

Powell sat stiffly and glared at the faces that glared back. The court watched Powell, his movements, the stubborn, proud lift of his chin. There was something about the man that engaged the imagination—an obstinate dignity, a proud and military bearing that was not discernible in any of the others. Call it what you would—dignity, good breeding, brazenness—it immediately focused one's attention on him. This, combined with the fact that he was obviously the youngest prisoner in the dock, made him the most dramatically interesting person of the eight. (119)

By this time, the nation was beginning to understand that the name "Paine" or "Payne" was an assumed misnomer. “Who and what this man Payne is, is the great mystery of the day. There have been various reports concerning him and his antecedents, but it is believed that all are lost concerning him; and it is doubtful if his real name is Payne.” Even his attorney, William E. Doster, was puzzled as to who his mysterious client really was. Powell would say nothing and would just lean his head back against the wall in the prisoner's dock, staring at the crowds. Doster could get nothing whatsoever out of him. (123)

All eyes were again upon the star prisoner as he tried on the gray frock coat and overcoat, The brown felt slouch hat was handed to him, and he placed it on his thick glossy hair, turning it at a jaunty angle over his eye. Now he faced the court, cheeks tinged in a slight blush, his lip curled in a bashful dimpled smile. The court was awed in its fascination with the enigmatic prisoner. The ladies in the courtroom were thrilled with his handsomeness. Slowly Lewis turned and faced the witness. Young Bell shook his head. "Oh, he knows me right well! If he has confessed to everything, you can ask him if I am not the one that let him in!" This homely assertion caused the court to rock with laughter—and Powell gave in to the humor, joining his laughter with that of the court. The spectators were stunned to see him laugh. (124)

As soon as Powell's courtroom demeanor and his appearance appeared in the papers, ladies were clamoring at the doors to see him. Each day, more and more women filled the courtroom eager to get a look at the boyish would-be assassin. Their comments and chattering embarrassed Powell, and the more determined of them would sometimes press close against the dock railing before court convened: "As the prisoners were brought in, the spectators pushed forward as usual, and the ladies especially crowded with such eagerness about the bar of the dock uttering lively ejaculations at the time as Payne entered that he visibly lost countenance for the moment, blushing like a girl." (126)

Powell anxiously inquired about the condition of Fred Seward, whom he had pistol-whipped, and, when told that his victim was progressing from his wounds, expressed remorse over having hurt the young man and stated that he owed him an apology. Powell reportedly suffered anguish over this pistol whipping. Doster was somewhat puzzled. (127)

Powell continued to agonize over Mrs. Surratt, telling Reverend Gillette: "She, at least, does not deserve to die with us. If I had no other reason, Doctor—she is a woman, and men do not make war on women." (139)

Gillette emphatically asserted that Powell partook of nothing, neither food nor drink, on the fatal day. Stimulants were administered to Herold, Atzerodt and Mrs. Surratt, but Powell steadily refused, saying "that he wished to die with an unclouded mind.” (140)

By mid-morning, the gallows structure was completed. Next on the agenda was the digging of the graves. As the prison personnel were too superstitious to perform this duty, soldiers were recruited to complete the task under a sluggish, blistering sun. (142)

The last prisoner to enter the yard was the one all eyes turned to—Lewis Powell. Accompanied by a detective and a Veteran Reserve Corps sergeant in addition to Dr. Gillette and the Rev. Stryker, who had finally arrived about noon, Powell walked erect, proud, chin up and without any tremor in his firm step. His face betrayed no fear, and he seemed the most collected of the four, conducting himself with quiet dignity. (144)

Powell was the first to receive the noose, and "held back his head and was particular about having the noose adjusted and secured by tightening above his 'Adam's Apple,' as if it had been the adjustment of a cravat for a festive occasion.
“I want you to die quick, Paine," Captain Rath said, adjusting the noose under the youth's left ear.
"You know best, Captain." Powell's voice was calm and matter of fact. (145)

Somehow, on January 13,1885, the cranium or skull of Lewis Powell ended up as anatomical specimen number 2244 in the Army Medical Museum. At that time housed in Ford's Theater, the Seward assailant's skull was stored in company with the severed vertebra of John Wilkes Booth. (153-4)

Sometime in May 1898, the remains were turned over to the Smithsonian Anthropology Department. There they were stored away for approximately ninety-four years. Recently, while sorting through the remains of various Native American skulls in preparation for return to their respective tribes for burial, workers discovered the skull of a young white male. With the skull was documentation listing it as the "cranium of Payne hung [sic] in Washington, D.C. in 1865 for the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward." (154)

[The following is from an article in the Philadelphia Weekly Times (June 3, 1882) by Lewis Edmonds Payne, son of Dr. Albin S. Payne, from whom Lewis Powell had borrowed the name Payne.]

The Powell family is one of great prominence and distinction in Virginia, and the Powell, and not the Payne family, is clearly entitled to the questionable credit of having contributed this character to the annals of American History. (159)

In Scott's history of Mosby's Battalion, the writer, in describing the fight with Captain Blazer, who came to capture Mosby, but unfortunately got captured by him, in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, says: "Captain Blazer, do thy speediest, for those are upon thy track who smite and spare not—Syd Ferguson, Cab Maddux and the terrible Lewis Powell." (160-1)

Powell's favorite mare was a blood bay. This animal had a habit of foaming at the mouth and exposing the whites of her eyes. Mounted on this mare, this strange man "rode fast and far to share war's fiercest perils." The people here in Virginia who remember Powell as he appeared twenty years ago, with his pale face, slouch hat and mysterious ways, mounted on that bay mare, dashing and splashing through the woods, across fields, over ditches and fences, by day, at night, and through all kinds of weather, almost believe that he must have been a stray knight from the Black Forest. (163)

He undoubtedly possessed qualifications enough to have made a very useful citizen had they been employed in raising cotten [sic] and sugar cane instead of killing Cabinets. (164)

The assuming of my name by Powell came very near getting the necks of several of my relatives, if not my own, stretched in a way "we most do despise." We had no more to do with the conspiracy than the man in the moon. During the trial a body of troops were sent to Fauquier to "run us all in," under the impression that we knew something about it. (172)

He seems to have fancied that if he could abduct Mr. Lincoln he could force an exchange of prisoners. Possibly he may have been inspired by resentment at the recollection that it was the infamous duplicity of Lincoln that curious mixture of Satyr, Harlequin, and Demagogue that had kept these 50,000 Confederate soldiers in prison; at any rate we know what he wanted to do and that he had the courage to attempt it. (174)

[From Doster's defense argument:]

It was a traditional political precept of the State in which the prisoner lived, that the State, like its elder sisters, had reserved the right of divorcing itself at pleasure from the Union, and that great as the duty of a citizen might be to the Union, his first duty was to Florida. (182-3)

He is now eighteen, and the last two years have formed his character. He also abhors the President of the Yankees; he also believes that victory comes because God is just; he also believes that nothing is bad so the South be free; he also regards a Federal as a ravisher and a robber. (185)

What, then, has he done that every rebel soldier has not tried to do? Only this: He has shown a higher courage, a bitterer hate, and a more ready sacrifice; he has aimed at the head of a department, instead of the head of a corps; he has struck at the head of a nation, instead of at its limbs, he has struck in the day of his humiliation, when nothing was to be accomplished but revenge, and when he believed he was killing an oppressor. (186-7)

Throughout the history of the world, there is no lesson taught in clearer language than that the noblest deed of men is to free the world of oppressors. But I hear students of history reply: True; but they must have been oppressors. Granted; but who is to be the judge? There can be no one but the assassin himself. It is he and he only, who takes the risk of becoming a deliverer, or a foul and parricidal murderer. (187-8)

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