The most enigmatic of the associates of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Confederate soldier Lewis Thornton Powell, using the alias Lewis Paine, was a key player in the postwar attempt to undermine the Federal Government. On the night Lincoln was shot, 20-year-old Powell burst into the house of William Seward and attempted to assassinate the Secretary of State. CapturedThe most enigmatic of the associates of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Confederate soldier Lewis Thornton Powell, using the alias Lewis Paine, was a key player in the postwar attempt to undermine the Federal Government. On the night Lincoln was shot, 20-year-old Powell burst into the house of William Seward and attempted to assassinate the Secretary of State. Captured shortly after the assassination, Powell stood trial for his crime and was hanged three months later. Powell and his role in the conspiracy has been the subject of debate for many years. Who was this man? What made him tick? This biography attempts to unveil the true character of the man....more
November 30th 2014
by McFarland & Company
(first published September 1993)
This is a 2d edition of historian Betty Ownsbey's biography of Lincoln assassination conspirator Lewis Powell aka Lewis Payne. Revisions to the text seem to be minor, although some paragraphs are expanded upon for clarity and to incorporate alternative viewpoints.
This is the critical work on Powell, the man who attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and long remained one of the most enigmatic of the Lincoln conspirators. Ownsbey labored long and hard to dig out the truth about PoThis is a 2d edition of historian Betty Ownsbey's biography of Lincoln assassination conspirator Lewis Powell aka Lewis Payne. Revisions to the text seem to be minor, although some paragraphs are expanded upon for clarity and to incorporate alternative viewpoints.
This is the critical work on Powell, the man who attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and long remained one of the most enigmatic of the Lincoln conspirators. Ownsbey labored long and hard to dig out the truth about Powell, much of which lay beneath half-truth and fiction (as Powell's true identity was not known until the second or third week of his trial) as well as the florid imaginings of Victorian-era writers and the yellow journalists of the day.
This is a highly commendable, easily-read work written with the lay person in mind. It's not an academic work, and the footnoting is minimal. The writing style is personable, conversational, even a little breezy.
Other authors have been content to rely on the court records transcribed by Benn Pitman in 1865, the often partisan but very useful work of Osborn Oldroyd in 1901, the 1990 study by scholar Roy Z. Chamlee, and the extensive publications of historian Edward Steers, Jr. Not so Ownsbey. For reasons which are never clear, investigators in 1865 often took statements at face-value, rarely questioned motive or rationales, and routinely failed to investigate the most obvious of leads. In Powell's case, there are extensive gaps in his history, even when it comes to the relatively well-known and well-explored Lincoln kidnap and assassination conspiracies in which Powell participated from January to April 1865.
There's a fair amount of extra legwork in this book, where Ownsbey helps to unearth the backstory and relationships that help make sense of these gaps. For example: When Mary Branson (Powell's alleged sweetheart whose father provided a safe house for Confederates in Baltimore, and where Powell stayed) mentions a "Heim" -- an importer of fine wines living in Richmond -- most authors ignore the statement as unimportant. Ownsbey digs into documents completely unrelated to the Lincoln conspiracy to learn more, and hypothesizes about who Heim was and what his relationship to the conspiracy was (e.g., Confederate secret agent).
At times, too, however, the reader is left a little surprised at the conclusions Ownsbey draws, and the gaps she leaves in the story. Most historians, for example, believe that Powell got lost as he attempted to flee the city of Washington for Surrattsville, Md., and then Virginia. Unhorsed (for whatever reason), Powell spent three days hiding and then returned to the Surratt boarding house (where he was captured). Ownsbey, however, argues that Powell was much smarter than nearly all historians credit him with. From this, she concludes that Powell knew his way around Washington's crazy street layout well, and that Powell was heading to Baltimore to the Branson house (and his alleged sweetheart, Mary). She leaves unexamined why Powell never scouted his escape routes, how Powell became unhorsed, why Powell was unable or unwilling to steal a horse from one of the many farms he passed, why Powell ended up near Fort Bunker Hill (far from any bridge leading across the Anacostia River and far from any road leading to Baltimore), and why Powell spent three days essentially doing nothing. She relies heavily on a second-hand statement made by the son of Rev. Abram Dunn Gillette in 1892 -- nearly three decades after the event -- in which Rev. Gillette relates a story allegedly told to him by Powell. Even Powell's story doesn't answer many of these questions.
A little more digging, and perhaps a little more skepticism, might have revealed that in 1865 it would have been easy to turn left onto Bladensburg Road rather than right onto Benning Road (which led to Benning Bridge and Maryland). Perhaps Powell intended to take Bladensburg Road, and then was unhorsed?
There are plausible scenarios here that would help make the story more complete, but Ownsbey seems uninterested in them.
There are, here and there throughout the book, small factual errors or misstatements which might annoy the attentive reader. (Camp Barry, where Powell's horse was found, is not "behind" Congressional Cemetery. It's four miles to the north.) But these appear minor.
I very much hope for a revised 2d edition that will incorporate Ownsbey's 2012 research into the location of Powell's body. Powell's skull was discovered in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1991. The current 2d edition of Alias "Paine" argues for a burial in Graceland Cemetery (before that cemetery even existed), a disinterment due to Graceland's closure (long after it had closed and been turned into housing) and reinterment at Holmead's Burying Ground, and then kind of ends there. Much more recent research into D.C.'s cemetery history has been done in the past decade that should help to bring this part of the story into the light, and I really look forward to seeing it included!...more
Pretty much the only book out there about Lewis Powell, I had heard about it from his Wikipedia entry under further reading. Powell was an interesting man and though vague on facts, I have to give Ms Ownsbey kudos for all the research and countless hours trying to write an understandable flowing book on someone whose life was obviously so sketchy.