Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


10:15 P.M.

A few blocks away, someone knocks hard on the front door of the “Old Clubhouse,” the home of Secretary of State William Seward. The three-story brick house facing Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, took that name from its day as the headquarters of the elite Washington Club. Tragedy paid a visit to the building in 1859, when a congressman shot his mistress’s husband on a nearby lawn. The husband, Philip Barton Key, was a United States attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key’s body was carried inside the club, where he passed away in a first-floor parlor.

That tragedy, however, will pale in comparison with what will happen in the next ten minutes.

There is another sharp knock, even though it’s been only a few seconds since the first one. This time the pounding is more insistent. Secretary Seward does not hear it, for he is sleeping upstairs, his medication causing him to drift between consciousness and unconsciousness. William Bell, a young black servant in a pressed white coat, hurries to the entryway.

“Yes, sir?” he asks, opening the door and seeing an unfamiliar face.

A handsome young man with long, thick hair stares back from the porch. He wears an expensive slouch hat and stands a couple inches over six feet. His jaw is awry on the left, as if it was badly broken and then healed improperly. “I have medicine from Dr. Verdi,” he says in an Alabama drawl, holding up a small vial.

“Yes, sir. I’ll take it to him,” Bell says, reaching for the bottle.

“It has to be delivered personally.”

Bell looks at him curiously. Secretary Seward’s physician had visited just an hour ago. Before leaving, he’d administered a sedative and insisted that there be no more visitors tonight. “Sir, I can’t let you go upstairs. I have strict orders—”

“You’re talking to a white man, boy. This medicine is for your master and, by God, you’re going to give it to him.”

When Bell protests further, Lewis Powell pushes past him, saying, “Out of my way, nigger. I’m going up.”

Bell simply doesn’t know how to stop the intruder.

Powell starts climbing the steps from the foyer to the living area. Bell is a step behind at all times, pleading forgiveness and politely asking that Powell tread more softly. The sound of the southerner’s heavy work boots on the wooden steps echoes through the house. “I’m sorry I talked rough to you,” Bell says sheepishly.

“That’s all right,” Powell sighs, pleased that the hardest part of the plot is behind him. He feared he wouldn’t gain access to the Seward home and would botch his part of the plan. The next step is locating Seward’s bedroom.

Out front, in the shadow of a tree across the street, David Herold holds their horses, prepared for the escape.

But now the secretary’s son Frederick stands at the top of the stairs in a dressing gown, blocking Powell’s path. He was in bed with his wife, but the sound of Powell’s boots woke him. Young Seward, fresh off a heady day that saw him represent his father at Lincoln’s cabinet meeting, demands to know Powell’s business.

Politely and deferentially, Powell holds up the medicine vial and swears that Dr. Verdi told him to deliver it to William Seward and William Seward only.

Seward takes one look at Powell and misjudges him as a simpleton. Rather than argue, he walks into his father’s bedroom to see if he is awake.

This is the break the assassin is looking for. Now he knows exactly which room belongs to the secretary of state. He grows excited, eager to get the job done as quickly as possible. He can feel the revolver stuffed inside his waistband.

Frederick Seward returns. “He’s sleeping. Give it to me.”

“I was ordered to give it to the secretary.”

“You cannot see Mr. Seward. I am his son and the assistant secretary of state. Go back and tell the doctor that I refused to let you go into the sickroom, because Mr. Seward was sleeping.”

“Very well, sir,” says Powell, handing Frederick the vial. “I will go.”

As Frederick Seward accepts the vial, Powell turns and takes three steps down the stairs. Suddenly he turns. He sprints back up to the landing, drawing a navy revolver. He levels the gun, curses, and pulls the trigger.

But the gun jams. Frederick Seward will later tell police he thought he was a dead man. Frederick cries out in fear and pain, throwing up his arms to defend himself. He has the advantage of standing one step higher than Powell but only for a second. The two men grapple as Powell leaps up onto the landing and then uses the butt of his gun to pistol-whip Frederick. Finally, Frederick Seward is knocked unconscious. His body makes a horrible thud as he collapses to the floor, his skull shattered in two places, gray brain matter trickling out through the gashes, blood streaming down his face.

“Murder, murder, murder!” cries William Bell from the ground floor. He sprints out the front door and into the night, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Across the street, David Herold holds the two getaway horses. Bell’s cries are sure to bring soldiers and police to the house within minutes. Suddenly, the long list of reasons why Herold wants to be part of the Lincoln conspiracy are forgotten. He panics. He ties Powell’s horse to a tree, spurs his own mount, and gallops down Fifteenth Street.

Back inside the Seward home, Lewis Powell isn’t done. He pounds on Frederick’s head without mercy, blood spattering the walls and his own hands and face. The beating is so savage that Powell’s pistol literally falls to pieces in his hands. Only then does he stand up straight and begin walking toward the secretary of state’s bedroom.

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