Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A History Lesson

I would like you to look at the old mugshot taken from 1865. Who is this person you ask? This person was involved in one of the most heinous acts in American History. He was also born in Randolph County, Alabama before moving to Florida. Let me tell you his....and my story.

I have always been a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. I have read stacks upon stacks of books on him and if I cannot lay my hands on one, I usually read the review of the book at least. I have a small bronze bust in my room of the former President.

Its remarkable how a person can be drawn to someone. Throughout my life, I have went through periods that I have became immursed in reading and learning all I can learn on a particular person, place or thing. When I was in the 6th grade, I had a vague notion who Abraham Lincoln was due to our rudimentary studies of him. Becoming interested in our late President, I asked my mom to buy me a book on Lincoln through Scholastic Inc. that sold books aimed at young students. I remember the day when I received my book at school and went to a quiet corner to start sifting through it. As always, I read the pages very quickly and went to the last few to read what was printed on the end of Lincolns life. I knew vaguely that he met an untimely death and wanted to know more. To my amazement, I turned to the last page and found a photograph of an execution....a hanging. One of the people executed was a woman, Mary Surratt, believed to be the first woman executed by the U.S. goverment.

This one photograph at this one moment stirred a purpose in me to find out everything I could on Lincoln's life with a emphasis on his death or assassination. In my readings, I discovered the timeless story that has been printed in all school history books that Lincoln was assassinated by a deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth. One day in the 10th grade, I came across a book.....a history of the United States until 1865.....where it read that Booth was "helped" by certain persons. Now there were more people other than Booth involved. Why didn't the other history books I read mention this? I started searching and reading every book that I could lay my hands on about Lincoln's assassination. I would practically force my parents to later take me on vacation to Washington D.C.. My mother would ask me on the way to the Nation's capital what I was more interested in visiting. I told her without batting an eye. "Ford's Theatre".

I can still remember the day when I stood in front of the massive structure. I slowly walked in and just stared in amazement the surroundings. My eye slowly wandered up to the presidential box. "Wow...this is where it happened..." even though I found out later that the entire theater was repaired after a structural collapse and now is only more or less a reproduction. Downstairs was the museum and bookstore. Coming off the elevator, I was met by a HUGE photograph of the execution scene again. For some macabre reason, that picture has stayed with me since I first saw it in the 6th grade.

The gentleman in the mugshot is Lewis Thornton Powell. However, history knows him best as Lewis Paine or Payne depending on what account or book you read. This mugshot is the original Library of Congress photo. You can noticed the picture not being cropped. This picture also gives an excellent view of the "handcuffs" that Paine had to endure. Paine was the "muscle" person of the conspirators that Booth had hired to kidnap Lincoln. I was flabbergasted. "Kidnap? I thought that Booth wanted to simply kill Lincoln?" Later, after the kidnap plan was deemed to dangerous and unworkable since the South at this time had surrendered, Booth turned his attention to the elimination of the Lincoln and his cabinet. Paine was ordered to kill Secretary of State William Seward, the man later responsible for purchasing Alaska from Russia. The stabbing, of course, failed leaving Seward severely scarred and made Paine infamous for running down the stairs exclaiming "I'M MAD! I'M MAD!". Paine would later get lost in the streets of Washington due to his escort, David Herold, abandoning him while he was in the Seward household to join up with Booth in southern Maryland. Paine was later caught at the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt trying to pose as a laborer. Paine had stayed there earlier while meeting with Booth during the kidnap plot.

The picture above was taken aboard the monitor U.S.S. Saugus. You can tell that it was due to the fact that you can see the giant rivets of the gun turret behind Paine. Paine was held with the other conspirators aboard the Saugus until he was transferred to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington for his trial. He was found guilty on June 30 and sentenced to death on July 6th. His execution was the next day. The hanging of the conspirators was called the first national coverage of an execution in the history of the country. Everything was detailed including his last hours. He was by far the star of the show. Paine showed dignity and class during his last hours. He maintained his composure throughout. As he was led to the scaffold, he playfully snatched a hat from a bystander and wore it to his seat on the gallows. As he rose to have his legs and hands bound, the hat was blown off his head but by the time it made it back to him, the hood was ready and he motioned that he did not need it any longer. He made one last plea of innocence for Mrs. Surratt, who was being executed, perhaps unjustly, beside him. A testiment to the respect the guards had for him, hangman Captain Christian Rath whispered to Paine as he slid the noose around his neck, "I hope you die quick." to which Paine responded with his last words. "You know best, Captain. I thank you. Goodbye." The last moments of the conspirators were documented after the drop of the gallows. Paine stayed alive the longest after the trap fell. His neck was so strong that the fall did not break it. He slowly strangled to death as he tried repeatedly to pull up his body to take the pressure off of his neck. It was reported that his hands and neck that were exposed turned purple.

No family member claimed his body until 1871. After the body was returned to Florida, it was discovered just prior to the reburial that the head of Lewis Paine was missing. No explanation was given until the late 20th Century when a exhibit of Indian relics and skulls were being catalogued in Washington when a skull was found with a tag reading that it was the crainium of Lewis Powell, hung in Washington in 1865. The skull was reinterred with the body in Geneva, Florida.

The story is a time honored one. New bits and pieces of history are found here and there concerning the Lincoln assassination. References to the trial of the Lincoln conspirators have been brought up recently concerning the legality of trying Al-Qeida prisoners by military commissions.

If anyone is interested in this pivotal moment in American history, please go to or the website of the Surratt Society at

Thank you for letting tell you this story. Its one that I have studied and read about for many years. I cannot explain why its captured my interests but its a truly remarkable story in American History.
Blogger Anduin said...

Wow! I had no idea any of this happened. It's sad how little the schools are allowed to teach us as kids.

I had a fascination with John F. Kennedy when I was in the 8th grade. I wanted to know everything about him that I could find out.

Great post. Thanks for sharing this with us.

10:30 PM  

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