Geneva's Tie to the Lincoln Conspiracy

Rumors abound about the person (skull) buried in the Geneva Cemetery who was involved in the Lincoln Conspiracy.  That person is Lewis Thornton Powell.  Here is his story briefly.   The Historical Society has published a book about Powell, the deed, the trial, and the recent findings of the burial location of the rest of his remains.


Lewis Thornton Powell

Lewis Thornton Powell was born in Randolph County, Alabama on April 22, 1844 to George Cader and Patience Caroline Powell.  He was the eighth surviving child and youngest boy in a family of 10 children. His father was a Baptist minister, schoolteacher, and farmer.  Lewis was a quiet introverted youth that enjoyed reading.  He was an animal lover that enjoyed taking care of sick and stray animals, which earned him the nickname "Doc".  The Powell family later moved to Stewart and Worth County, Georgia and eventually settled near the small town of Live Oak from where he joined the Confederate Army on May 30, 1861.  Lewis Thornton Powell's Civil War Career

In 1863 Lewis participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, suffered a gunshot wound to his right wrist, was captured and then sent to the Union Field Hospital in Gettysburg.  He was later transferred to Letterman General Hospital and then to the U.S. General Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.  On Sept. 7, 1863, 5 days after arriving in Baltimore, he escaped from the Union hospital.

Lewis headed to Virginia, hoping to reunite with his unit.  On the way he ran into a Union camp, introduced himself as Lewis Paine, convinced them he was a civilian trying to make his way home, and went on his way.  Unable to reunite with his old unit, he managed to join the famous Mosby’s Rangers.

Lewis Powell, alias Paine, rode with Mosby’s Rangers until January of 1865 at which time he left the unit.  He worked his way through Union lines near Alexander, VA and made his way to Baltimore and the boarding house owned by the family of Miss Margaret Branson whom he had met while in the Union hospital at Gettysburg.  There he met Confederate Operatives (Secret Service), one of which was John Harrison Surratt, Jr.  Surratt was serving as a courier for the Confederate Secretary of War, who through his connections, arranged for Lewis to be introduced to John Wilkes Booth.

Powell then went to Washington and boarded at the home of Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt.  It was at this boarding house the plans for kidnapping President Lincoln materialized.  The idea was to kidnap Lincoln and use him as ransom to obtain the release of Confederate soldiers that were being held prisoner.  The opportunity to pull off the kidnapping never presented itself and was abandoned in March of 1865 and the plan for assassinations was put into operation instead.  Lewis Powell was given the assignment to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward who was at his home recovering from a carriage accident.

On the night of April 14, 1865 Lewis Powell, along with David Herold, rode to Seward’s house.  Lewis pretended to be delivering medicine for Seward and was allowed to enter the home.  He headed upstairs to Seward’s bedroom but was stopped by Seward's son at the top of the stairs.  Lewis tried to shoot the son in the head but his gun misfired.  Using his gun as a club, he beat Seward’s son to the floor.  Lewis then pulled his knife, crashed through the bedroom door and proceeded to stab Secretary Seward and others that came to his aid.  Lewis escaped, stabbing others as he fled down the stairs.

Once outside the house, Lewis found that Herold had run away leaving Lewis’s horse tied to a tree.  He mounted his horse and rode away into the night.  He spent three days in the woods and then worked his way back to Mary Surratt’s boarding house where detectives took him into custody.  Mary Surratt was also taken into custody for hiding the fugitives.

By April 28, 1865, 15 days after the assassination, the authorities had eight conspirators to prosecute. The trial began on May 9,1865 and lasted for almost 2 months.  On June 28 the decision was made to hang four of the conspirators, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell.  

Lewis Thornton Powell and the other three were hanged on July 7, 1865.  His body was buried in the penitentiary courtyard near the gallows where he was hanged, was re-interred several times in the years following his hanging.   

In January of 1992, the tagged skull of Lewis Thornton Powell was found in the Smithsonian Anthropology Department among mostly Indian remains that were being identified for return to their  appropriate tribes.  With the help of Lincoln conspiracy author Michael Kauffman, the nearest living relative of Powell who lives in Geneva initiated a dialog with the Smithsonian to convince them to send his remains to Geneva.  On November 12, 1994, a dignified ceremony was held in the Geneva Cemetery and the the skull of Lewis Thornton Powell was interred in a small, velvet-lined, mahogany casket near the grave of his mother, Patience Caroline Powell.  

The Geneva Historical Society has published a book about Powell, the deed, the trial, and the discovery of the resting place of the remainder of Powell's skeleton in a common grave in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC. (Section K, location 39).  See photo at right - credit D. Krauss.

Sometime in 1867 Powell's family moved to Orange County and settled near Lake Jesup.  Reverend George Cader Powell, Lewis' father, founded the First Baptist Church of Apopka, the Baptist Church of Oviedo, and also became the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Geneva.  Reverend and Mrs. Powell’s daughters married into prominent families in the Geneva area.



Errors and Misconceptions re: Lewis Thornton Powell and Family  

On page 10 of the book Abraham Lincoln's Execution by Professor John Chandler Griffin, University of South Carolina, in his acknowledgements, states "As for Lorraine Whiting of Geneva, Florida, my sincere gratitude.  Lorraine is the great-grandniece of Lewis Powell and a deep storehouse of knowledge concerning Powell's childhood and adolescence in Fair Oaks, Florida.  Lewis Powell was her great-grandfather's youngest brother... "  These statements by Professor Griffin are incorrect.  It is another citizen of Geneva that is the great-grandniece of Lewis Powell, not Lorraine Whiting.  Furthermore, Powell did not spend his childhood in Fair Oaks, Florida, but in Live Oak, Florida.  Lorraine Whiting, while she was a local historian who was interviewed, is not related to Lewis Powell.  

Also, on page 363 & 366 of the same book, Professor Griffin states: "The bodies were then placed in simple pine boxes and dropped into holes four feet deep on the penitentiary grounds... There they would remain until February 1869, when by order of the president their bodies were released to their families...  Lewis Powell's body.....was claimed by his father and older brother, George, and returned to Geneva, Florida, where he was buried beside his mother."  The problem with this is: (1) If the body had been claimed in 1869, the skull would have still been with the body, and (2) Lewis' mother did not die until 1904, therefore his body could not have been buried next to his mother's in 1869.  (3) The Geneva Cemetery was not established until 1880, another reason why he could not have been buried by his mother in 1869. 

There are problems with a Betty J. Ownsbey article entitled "Unlocking the Mystery of Lewis Powell" in the 1998 publication, The Day Lincoln Was Shot: An Illustrated Chronicle by Richard Bak.  The statement, "In 1879 Powell was again disinterred and buried next to his mother in Geneva, Florida," cannot be true since the 1885 Florida State Census shows that his mother, Patience Caroline Powell, was living with her son-in-law William P. Lassiter and his wife, Angeline S. Powell, daughter of George Cader and Patience Caroline Powell.  As stated before, the Geneva Cemetery did not exist until 1880. 

In June 1983, Mrs. Jenny Diana Speck of Riverside, MO submitted a copy of her Powell Research Papers to Allen Taylor, genealogist with the Geneva Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. in Geneva, FL.  In this research paper she states:  "November 1881: George Cader Powell died at West Apopka in Orange County, Florida, quickly following his lifelong companion who had preceded him in death."  The problem with this statement is that again according to the 1885 State of Florida Census, Patience Caroline Powell at age 74 is living in the household of her daughter Angeline S. and husband, William P. Lassiter. 


Compiled by Mal Martin


Alias "Paine."  

Bak, Richard. The Day Lincoln Was Shot: An Illustrated Chronicle. 1998

Griffin, John Chandler. Abraham Lincoln's Execution. Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. Gretna, Louisiana. 2006. 

Louis Paine.  Abraham Lincoln Research Site. 

Ownsbey, Betty J.  Alias "Paine."  McFarland & Company, Inc. Jefferson, NC. 1993.

Surratt Society. "Surratt Courier". Vol. XX - No. 1. January 1995.

Teaching History Online

The Lincoln Conspirators - 1865


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