Lincoln Assassination: The Executioner's Rope

7/30/2020 Nathan Cooper

Fragment of rope

This odd-looking item in our collection has a grisly history. It's a piece of the rope that was used to execute Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln.

Most Americans know that John Wilkes Booth murdered President Lincoln. Often overlooked however is Booth's participation in a larger conspiray to simultaneously kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and the nation's top military leader, Ulysses S. Grant.

Booth was going to kill Lincoln and Grant (who originally was supposed to attend the theater with the president on the night of the assassination). A man named George Atzerodt was to go after Johnson. Powell's assignment was to kill Seward, and he very nearly succeeded.


Seward had recently been injured in a carriage accident and was at home recuperating on the night of April 14, 1865. Powell showed up and got inside the house by claiming to be bringing medicine from Seward's doctor. Powell then beat Seward's son unconscious with his pistol (which, luckily for the Sewards, wouldn't fire), slashed the secretary of state across the face with a knife, and stabbed three other people who tried to prevent his escape. Powell fled the house shouting, "I'm mad! I'm mad!"

Despite serious injuries, everyone attacked by Powell that night managed to survive. Seward carried scars on his face for the rest of his life.

Powell (who also used the name Payne) was apprehended a couple of days later and was tried by a military tribunal that summer. The world learned that he was an Alabama native who had been a Confederate soldier. He was wounded and taken prisoner at Gettysburg but managed to escape. Powell returned to combat with the cavalry unit known as "Mosby's Raiders."

Lewis Powell

Powell eventually left the Confederate forces and made his way to Baltimore, where he encountered Booth. That led to him joining the conspiracy, which originally intended to kidnap the president but later changed its plans to murder.

Powell was found guilty and sentenced to die along with three other conspirators: Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt. All four of them were hanged on July 7, 1865. Powell was 21 years old.

Moments before the execution.

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