Biographies & Memoirs


MONDAY, APRIL 17, 1865 



Mary Surratt has been a suspect since the night Lincoln was shot. An anonymous tipster alerted Washington police that the boardinghouse on H Street was the hub of the conspiracy. Detectives questioned her at two o’clock that morning, even as Lincoln lay dying. The widow was forthcoming about the fact that John Wilkes Booth had paid her a visit just twelve hours earlier and that her son John had last been in Washington two weeks earlier. When a thorough search of the house turned up nothing, the police left. No arrest was made.

Now they are back. One of her boarders, Louis Weichmann, has volunteered volumes of information to the authorities about the comings and goings of Booth and the conspirators at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse. This eyewitness information has confirmed not only that Booth is at the heart of the plan but that Mary Surratt is complicit.

It is well past midnight when police surround the house. She answers a knock at the door, thinking it is a friend. “Is this Mrs. Surratt’s house?” asks a detective.


“Are you Mrs. Surratt?”

“I am the widow of John H. Surratt.”

“And the mother of John H. Surratt Jr.?”


“Madam, I have come to arrest you.”

Three policemen step inside. Mary’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Anna, is also taken into custody. Just before they are led outside, Mary asks permission to kneel in prayer. She is a devout Catholic and prays “the blessing of God upon me, as I do in all my actions.”

The house is quiet. Her words echo through the half-lighted rooms as the detectives awkwardly wait for Mary to finish praying and rise to her feet.

Then there’s another knock on the door.

When the detectives open it, they are shocked by the sight of a sixfoot-two man with a pickax slung over his shoulder, wearing a shirtsleeve on his head like a stocking cap. His boots are coated with mud and he is unshaven. As he steps inside, they see that there appears to be blood on his sleeves. The detectives quickly close the door behind him.

Lewis Powell, starved and famished after three days of sleeping in the woods, instantly realizes he has made a grave error. “I guess I am mistaken,” he quickly tells the detectives, turning to leave.

The police send Mary and Anna Surratt out the door, where carriages wait to take them to jail. Then they focus their attention on the tall stranger with the pickax.

Powell gives his name as Lewis Payne and fabricates an elaborate story, saying that he has come to Mary Surratt’s at her behest, in order to dig a ditch for her in the morning. The police press him, asking about Powell’s address and place of employment. When he can’t answer in a satisfactory manner, they arrest him. At the police station he is stripsearched, and an unlikely collection of items, including cash, a compass, a pocketknife, and a newspaper clipping of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, are found in his pockets.

So far, all evidence points to “Payne’s” involvement in the assassination. His height and rugged build clearly match the description of Secretary Seward’s attacker. The police summon the young black servant who had given the description to the station. William Bell has been interrogated a number of times since the attacks, so as he is called back to the station once again his attitude is weary. The late hour does not help.

However, when a lineup of potential suspects is paraded into the room before him, Bell becomes instantly euphoric. He marches right up to Powell and presses his finger against the lips of the man who mocked him, insulted him with a racial slur, and very nearly killed his employer and several members of the family and staff. “He is the man,” Bell proclaims.

This is the last moment in Lewis Powell’s life when he is able to move his arms freely and walk without hearing the clank of chains. Manacles are placed on his wrists. A ball and chain will be attached to each ankle in the days to come, the unyielding iron cutting deeply into his flesh every time he takes a step. A canvas hood will soon be placed over his head, with only a small hole through which he can draw breath and eat.

And yet there is much worse to come for Lewis Powell.

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