On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln passes away. He’d been shot by an assassin the night before. You know many details of what happened to Lincoln, but did you know that Booth had co-conspirators who were trying to simultaneously assassinate other members of Lincoln’s administration?
One of the men targeted was the Secretary of State, William Henry Seward.
Seward was already having trouble. Several days earlier, he’d been involved in a horrible carriage accident. Seward had been trying to stop some out-of-control horses when he “fell violently to the ground upon his right side, breaking his arm close to the shoulder joint [and] bruising his nose, cheek, and jaw in a terribly painful manner,” as one paper reported.
Seward was carried to his house, in intense pain. Nevertheless, he was recovering. He had no idea that an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth was working to take Seward down again.
Booth really wanted Lincoln, of course, but his original plan to kidnap Lincoln had become more grandiose. Now, he and several co-conspirators planned to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Seward.
Things would come to a head on April 14.
Late that night, Booth headed towards Ford’s theater and Lincoln, but two of Booth’s men headed towards Seward’s house. (A third would back out and drink the night away, failing to go after Johnson.)
The two men at Seward’s house, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Lewis Payne) and David Herold, knew of Seward’s injuries and figured he would have trouble fighting back.
At 10:00, Powell knocked at the front door, pretending to be a messenger from Seward’s doctor. He carried a package and claimed it was medicine that he must take to Seward personally. At first, it seemed the ruse would work. Powell was inside and made it to the top of the stairs before Seward’s son Frederick intervened.
He refused to let Powell continue and would not even say where Seward’s room was.
Unfortunately, Seward’s daughter, Fanny, chose that moment to open her father’s door and peek out into the hall. Now Powell knew where Seward was. He pretended to give up on his attempts to make a personal delivery, and he turned back towards the stairs—but it was only a pretense.
He soon “sprang up and forward,” Frederick later described, “having drawn a navy revolver, which he levelled, with a muttered oath, at my head, and pulled the trigger.”
Fortunately, it was a misfire, but Powell wasn’t done. He used the gun like it was a club and pounded Frederick until he got past him. He was pulling a knife as he charged into Seward’s room.
Even with all his injuries and with an assassin staring him down, Seward was still a father. He later said he “knew the man sought his life, [but] still feared for Fanny and, with great effort, rose up in his bed to interpose his shattered frame as a protection.”
Powell’s first stab at Seward missed, perhaps because he was on the far side of the bed, but he kept stabbing until Powell’s nurse, George Robinson, pulled him off. By then another brother, Augustus, was there helping, too. Finally, they’d pulled Powell into the hallway. He looked Augustus in the eye and yelled, “I’m mad, I’m mad.” Then he ran away.
Amazingly, Seward survived. He calmly told Robinson, “I am not dead. Send for the police and a surgeon and close the house.”
A brace around Seward’s jaw likely deflected some blows and saved his life.
In the end, four people were captured, convicted, and hanged for their crimes that night. The conspirators had mostly failed in their objectives.
Yet, unfortunately, for the first time in American history, an American President had been assassinated.
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Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006)
Edward Steers Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (2001)
Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (2012)
Willard M. Oliver & Nancy E. Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (2010)