April 14th, 1865: On the Sidelines of Lincoln’s Assassination

By Kaleena Fraga

On April 14th, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. This much is well known. But the plot to kill the president was larger than two men, and it struck Washington with such force that it left more than one casualty.

William Henry Seward: Along with Lincoln, the conspirators of the assassination sought to kill both the secretary of state, Seward, and the vice president.  While Booth went to Ford’s Theatre, Lewis Powell headed for Seward’s residence, where the secretary had sewardbeen bedridden for nine days following a carriage accident that had almost killed him.

The president and his secretary of state, once political rivals, enjoyed a close relationship and partnership. Indeed, when Lincoln visited Seward after his carriage accident, he lay down in bed beside him, and recounted his recent journey to Richmond until Seward fell asleep.

On the night of April 14th, Lewis Powell, a friend of John Wilkes Booth, was dispatched to the Seward residence. Powell claimed he had been sent by a doctor with medicine for Seward and that he must deliver it in person. Seward’s son, Fred, refused to let him by and at this point Powell pulled a pistol. It misfired, but Powell used it to clobber Fred, leaving him unconscious.

Powell stormed Seward’s chamber, slashing Seward’s guard in the face. Seward’s daughter, Fanny, ran into the room and begged Powell not to kill her father. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the word kill is what revived the secretary–who awoke just as Powell stabbed him in in the neck and face. Seward’s other son, Gus, ran into the room, and he and Seward’s injured guard managed to pull Powell away. Powell fled, stabbing a stabbing-seward-national-police-gazette-4-22-1865young State Department messenger on his way out of the house.

Seward had been saved in part by the carriage accident that almost took his life. Goodwin writes that, “the knife had been deflected by the metal contraption holding Seward’s broken jaw in place.”

How Seward learned of the president’s death is disputed. His biographer Walter Stahr wrote that Seward was informed by his wife, who told him “very gently” “Henry, the president is gone.” Goodwin writes, however, that news of the president’s death was kept from Seward because of his fragile condition. According to her biography Team of Rivals, Seward noticed the flag at half- mast at the War Department from his window, and announced:

“The president is dead. If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me. But he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at halfmast.”

Mary Surratt: A name largely forgotten by history, Surratt was the first women ever to be executed by the U.S. government. Surratt grew up in a family that owned slaves and during the war she and her husband used their home as a safe house for Confederate soldiers. Her son Isaac fought for the Confederacy. Heavily in debt after the death of her husband, Surratt moved to Washington D.C. and opened a boarding house. Her son John came too, and befriended a frequent visitor to the boarding house, John Wilkes Booth.Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (1820 or May 1823 – July 7, 1865) Dated 1865

On the night of the assassination the police came to the boarding house looking for both Booth and John Surratt, whom they suspected had participated in the failed assassination of William Henry Seward. Neither were there, but as the police were questioning Surratt, Lewis Powell showed up. One of Seward’s servants identified him. Both Powell and Surratt were taken into custody–her son, John, fled and escaped to Canada.

Surratt claimed innocence–however, a tavern keeper named John Lloyd disputed this, testifying that she had told him to keep guns at the ready on the night of Lincoln’s assassination–the same guns that were later used to shoot the president. After he heard of Lincoln’s death Lloyd is reported to have cried, “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!”

Up until her execution, Surratt maintained her innocence. Powell also insisted that she had nothing to do with the conspiracy. Despite this, she was tried and convicted. On July 7th, 1865 she was hanged.

Henry Rathbone & Clara Harris: Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Clara was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two often went to the theater together. The Lincolns had originally invited Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, but Julia, not a fan of the First Lady, insisted they go to New Jersey instead. With the war over, Clara later recalled that the Lincolns were “in the gayest of spirits.” At one point Lincoln took his wife’s hand and Mary Lincoln chided him, saying, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Lincoln, speaking his last words before his death, is reported to have replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

henry-and-claraWhen Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone leapt up and tried to disarm him. Booth stabbed Rathbone and then escaped, as Clara, now covered with her fiancé’s blood, cried, “The president is shot!”

Rathbone was never the same. In the years following the assassination he was diagnosed with “attacks of neuralgia (intense pain) of the head and face and in the region of the heart attended by palpitations and at times difficulty breathing.”

On Christmas Eve 1883, while living in Germany, Rathbone murdered Clara–attacking her with a pistol and a dagger, and then slashing himself in an eerie reproduction of the night in Ford’s Theatre. He barely survived, and later insisted that he was injured trying to intervene in an attack by someone else.

Rathbone was declared insane and sent to the Provincial Insane Asylum in Hildesheim, Germany. He stayed there until the day in died in 1911, refusing ever again to speak either of the assassination or of the murder of his wife.

George Atzerodt & Andrew Johnson: The original plot to kill the president included the Secretary of State Seward as well as the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But while Lewis Powell and John Wilkes Booth went through with their plot, the man assigned to kill Johnson, George Atzerodt, lost his nerve.

Atzerodt had rented a room in the same hotel, the Kirkwood House, where the vice andrew johnsonpresident was staying (lacking foresight, Atzerodt made the reservation in his own name). Anxious about his assignment, Atzerodt tried to steel his resolve by drinking. He was armed with gun and a knife and the vice president, alone and unguarded, would have been an easy target. But Atzerodt couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. Instead he got drunk, and wandered around Washington D.C. until around two in the morning, when he checked into another hotel.

He was arrested on April 20th, about a week after the assassination. Investigators had found a gun and a knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, and evidence linking him to John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt confessed to everything–including the role the others had played. Despite his cooperation, he was hanged with the rest of them. Andrew Johnson became president.

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