In the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth began to formulate his plot against President Abraham Lincoln. On June 8, Lincoln was nominated for a second term by the National Union Party convention in Baltimore. Within weeks, Booth was recruiting conspirators.
President Lincoln was vitally interested in news from the front lines of the Civil War. He would regularly visit the War Department telegraph office -- located next door to the White House -- to review dispatches from Union commanders. In 1862, he visited the battlefield at Antietam in Maryland shortly after the Union victory. On July 12, 1864, Lincoln became the first sitting U.S. president to witness a battle involving forces he commanded. He watched from a parapet at Fort Stephens, just outside Washington, as his army repelled a Confederate attack.
There were three killings planned on April 14, 1865. John Wilkes Booth targeted President Abraham Lincoln, George Atzerodt went after Vice President Andrew Johnson and Lewis Powell attacked Secretary of State William Seward. Booth succeeded and Powell almost did. When he entered Seward's house that night, he confronted the cabinet officer's son, Frederick, who served as an assistant to his father in the State Department.
Frederick William Seward
Frederick put up a fight, even though Powell had a gun. The pistol misfired and Powell used it to beat the younger Seward severely. He suffered a fractured skull but -- like his father -- survived Powell's vicious assault.
Frederick William Seward was born on July 8, 1830. He would serve as a diplomat under three presidents -- Lincoln, Johnson and Hayes -- and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1874. He died in 1915.
So many people wanted to be inside the Old Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865 that prison authorities issued tickets for admission. Nearly 1,000 people crowded the courtyard, the buildings, even the top of the walls to face a gallows, constructed of raw lumber. With the mid-day sun beating down on the scene, four prisoners were led from their cells and positioned on the gallows. Each was fitted with a hood, or hanging cap, and a noose place around each of their necks.
At 1:26 PM, the supports beneath the gallows were knocked away. Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt dropped through the trapdoors. They dangled in their nooses for nearly 25 minutes before soldiers cut them down. Doctors examined each body and pronounced all four conspirators dead. They were buried in shallow graves next to the gallows.
At mid-day on July 6, 1865, Mary Surratt learned she would hang the next day. She erupted in wails of grief and sorrow. Two Catholic priests, Jacob Walter and B.F. Wiget, went to her cell and tried to comfort her. Anna Surratt also arrived, but her mother was inconsolable. Mrs. Surratt was also suffering from severe menstrual distress and she was doubled over in pain. The prison doctor prescribed wine and pain medication. Outside her cell, in the prison courtyard, soldiers tested the gallows from which she would hang. The priests and Anna remained at her side until the next morning.
Following the conviction of the Lincoln conspirators on June 30, five
of the nine military judges signed a letter to President Andrew
Johnson, asking him to commute the death sentence imposed on Mary
Surratt. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt delivered it to the
president on July 5, 1865. Johnson signed the execution order and did
nothing about extending clemency to Mrs. Surratt. The president later
claimed he never saw the letter. Holt disputed that account. He said
Johnson read the letter, then signed woman's death warrant, muttering
that she "kept the nest that hatched the egg."
Later on July 5, soldiers began constructing a gallows at the Old Arsenal Prison, where the condemned were locked up.
After hearing testimony from more than 350 witnesses during a seven-week trial, the nine members of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy tribunal issued their verdicts on June 30, 1865. All eight of the defendants were convicted and four -- Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt -- were sentenced to hang. Another conspirator, Dr. Samuel Mudd, escaped execution by one vote. He, Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen were sentenced to life in prison. "Ned" Spangler was sentenced to six years.