Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

10:15 P.M.

The commotion in the hallway and the sound of a body dropping heavily to the hardwood floor have alerted twenty-year-old Fanny Seward to the intrusion. The daughter of the secretary of state is clad only in a nightdress and has been sitting at the foot of her father’s bed, trying to coax him to sleep. Also inside the room is Sergeant George Robinson, sent by the army to watch over Seward. Now Private Robinson pushes his full weight against the door, even as the assassin tries fight his way in. Soon Lewis Powell forces open the door and slashes at Robinson with his Bowie knife, cutting the soldier’s forehead to the bone and almost putting out an eye. As Robinson crumples to the ground, Fanny Seward places herself between Powell and her father. “Please don’t kill him,” she begs, terrified. “Please, please don’t kill him.”

Secretary Seward then awakens on the bed. Something about the word “kill” jars him from his slumber.

Powell punches Fanny Seward hard in the face, instantly knocking her unconscious. A split second later he is on the bed, plunging his knife downward into Seward’s neck and shoulders.

The room is pitch-black, save for the sliver of light from the open door. Powell’s first thrust misses, making a hollow thud as it slams into the headboard. Seward desperately tries to roll away from his attacker and squeeze down into the gap between the mattress and the wall.

He doesn’t succeed. Powell kneels over him, stabbing Seward again and again and again. The secretary wears a splint on his broken jaw, which, luckily, deflects the knife away from the jugular vein, but it does little to protect the rest of his skull. The right side of his face is sliced away from the bone and now hangs like a flap. Blood jets from three deep punctures in his neck, drenching his now-useless bandages, his nightdress, and the white bedsheets and spattering all over Powell’s torso.

The assassin is almost finished. Powell brings up his knife for one final killer blow. But at that exact moment, Seward’s son Augustus enters the room. He is thirty-nine, a decorated graduate of West Point and a career army officer. He has fought in the Mexican War, battled the Apache, and seen action in the Civil War. Never once has he been injured. But now, that changes. Powell leaps at August Seward, stabbing him seven times. In the midst of the attack, Private Robinson staggers to his feet and rejoins the fight. For his trouble, Robinson is stabbed four more times.

Powell is finally exhausted. Lying in front of him are four human beings, all of them still alive. But Powell doesn’t know that. He steps over Fanny’s limp body and races from the room, still clutching his knife. At that very moment, State Department messenger Emerick Hansell arrives at the Seward home on official business. He sees Powell, covered with blood, running down the steps and turns to flee for his life. But Powell catches him, stabbing the courier just above the fourth vertebrae. Powell is in such a hurry, fortunately, that he pulls the knife back out before it can go any deeper, thus sparing Hansell’s life.

“I’m mad! I’m mad!” Powell screams as he runs into the night, hoping to scare off anyone who might try to stop him.

He is, however, anything but mad. Powell is as lucid as he is powerful. He now turns all his focus to the getaway. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, his senses heightened, and his broad shoulders aching from fists rained down upon him in the fight, he hurls the blood-covered knife into the gutter. He then looks right and left into the darkness for David Herold and their getaway horses. Seeing nothing, he listens for a telltale clip-clop of approaching horseshoes.

“Murder! Murder!” William Bell cries from the porch, risking his life by chasing after Powell. Soldiers come running from a nearby sentry box. Powell sees his horse now, tied to the tree where Herold left it. Realizing he has been betrayed, Powell feels his heart sink. He knows that without Herold he will be lost on the streets of Washington. Still, he can’t very well just stand around. He needs to get moving. Powell unties the horse and mounts up. He has the good sense to wipe the blood and sweat from his face with a handkerchief. Then, instead of galloping away, he kicks his heels gently into the horse’s flanks and trots casually down Fifteenth Street, trailed all the while by William Bell and his shouts of “Murder!” But instead of stopping him, the unsuspecting soldiers ignore the black man and run right past Powell.

After a block and a half, Bell falls behind. He eventually returns to the Seward home, where four gravely injured men and one woman lie. Incredibly, they will all recover. But this horrific night will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Powell trots his horse toward the darkness on the edge of town. There he hides in a field and wonders if he will ever find a way out of Washington. Powell’s thoughts then turn to President Lincoln and Vice President Johnson. They should be dead by now.

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