Thursday, July 7, 2016



July 7, 1865 -- The conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are hanged at the Old Arsenal in Washington, D.C. (now Ft. McNair). They included German immigrant George Atzerodt (b. 1833), Navy clerk's son and D.C. pharmacist David Herold (b. 1842), Southern preacher's son Lewis Payne (b. 1844), and Maryland businesswoman Mary Surratt (b. 1823).

The trial for the alleged conspirators began on May 9 in a temporary courtroom in a prison building at the Old Arsenal. It ended on June 28, and the military judges hearing the case considered guilt and sentencing on June 29 and 30. A death sentence required six of the nine votes of the judges. All were found guilty and sentenced to die. Surratt's case presented difficulties of evidence and witness reliability, and five of the nine judges asked President Andrew Johnson to commute her sentence to life in prison. Johnson declined, saying that she had "kept the nest that hatched the egg".

Sentences were handed down June 30, and construction of the gallows began on July 5 in the south part of the Arsenal courtyard (now east and adjacent to the tennis courts at the base). The prisoners were informed at noon on July 6 that they would die the next day.

It was already 92°F at noon on July 7. All people visiting the condemned (except for clergy) were ordered to leave at 12:30. At 1:15 PM, a procession escorted the condemned through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner's ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. Surratt led the way. Noted photographer Alexander Gardner photographed the execution for the government. The order for execution was read. The condemned were seated in chairs, with Surratt to the right of the others (the traditional "seat of honor" in an execution). White cloth was used to bind their arms to their sides, and their ankles and thighs together. Each person was ministered to by a member of the clergy. Lewis Powell cried out, "Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us."

The noose was then placed around each person's neck, and a white bag placed over the head of each prisoner. Finally, the prisoners were asked to stand and move forward a few feet to the nooses. The chairs were removed.

About 16 minutes had elapsed from the time the prisoners entered the courtyard until they were ready for execution.

The condemned stood on the drop for about 10 seconds. It was deathly quiet. Captain Christian Rath clapped his hands, and four soldiers of Company F of the 14th Veteran Reserves knocked out the supports holding the drops in place.

Surratt, who had moved forward enough to barely step onto the drop, lurched forward and slid partway down the drop -- her body snapping tight at the end of the rope, swinging back and forth. Atzerodt's stomach heaved once and his legs quivered, and then he was still. Herold and Powell struggled for nearly five minutes, Powell's legs rising upward several times, as if he were sitting in mid-air.

The bodies of the executed were allowed to hang for about 30 minutes. Each was then inspected by a physician to ensure that death had occurred. The examination showed that none of them had died of a broken neck, as intended. Rather, all of them had strangled to death.

The bodies began to be cut down at 1:53 PM. A corporal raced to the top of the gallows and cut down Atzerodt's body, which fell to the ground with a thud. He was reprimanded, and the other bodies cut down more gently. Herold's body was next, followed by Powell's. Surratt's body was cut down at 1:58 PM. As Surratt's body was lowered, her head fell forward. A soldier joked, "She makes a good bow" and was rebuked by an officer for his poor use of humor.

The manacles and cloth bindings were removed (but not the white execution masks), and the bodies were placed into the pine coffins. The name of each person was written on a piece of paper by acting Assistant Adjutant R. A. Watts, and inserted in a glass vial (which was placed into the coffin). The coffins were buried against the east wall of the courtyard in shallow graves, just a few feet behind the gallows. A white picket fence marked the burial site.

In 1867, the War Department decided to tear down the portion of the Washington Arsenal where the bodies of Surratt and the other executed conspirators lay. On October 1, 1867, the coffins were disinterred and reburied in the basement of Warehouse No. 1 at the Arsenal (now a parking lot bounded by 4th Avenue on the west and the James Creek Marina on the east). A wooden marker was placed at the head of each grave.

John Wilkes Booth's body had originally been buried in the floor of a basement storage room at the Old Capitol Prison (now the site of the Supreme Court). His body was moved to Warehouse No. 1 on on October 1, 1867, as well.

In February 1869, Edwin Booth asked President Johnson for the body of his brother. Johnson agreed, and soon four of the six bodies were turned over to their families.

David Herold was buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in an unmarked grave next to that of his father, Adam.

George Atzerodt was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in an unmarked grave. Cemetery records were stolen, however, and the exact location of his grave has yet to be discovered.

Mary Surratt was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (Her primary accuser, John M. Lloyd is buried 100 yards away.)

John Wilkes Booth was buried in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.

Lewis Powell's family never claimed his body. There is some dispute about why. Just where he was buried is not clear, either. Powell was most likely buried at Holmead's Burying Ground in Washington, D.C. (a site just south of the Washington Hilton Hotel). He was disinterred when Holmead's closed in 1874, and reburied at Graceland Cemetery. When Graceland closed in 1894, his remains were probably to a mass grave in Section K, Lot 23 at Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C., along with other unclaimed caucasian remains.

When local funeral home director A.H. Gawler helped move Powell's body from Warehouse No. 1 in February 1869, he probably removed Powell's skull surreptitiously. Gawler then donated the skull in 1885 to the Army Medical Museum. At that time, it was stenciled with the accession number 2244 and the capital letter "P". The museum's documentation shows that the skull came from "Payne", a criminal who had been executed by hanging. The Army gave the skull to the Smithsonian on May 7, 1898, and somehow it became mixed with the museum's collection of Native American bones.

In 1991, a Smithsonian Institution researcher discovered Powell's skull. The Smithsonian contacted Powell's nearest living relative, his 70-year-old great-niece Helen Alderman, who requested that the skull be turned over to her. Verification of Alderman's relationship took two years. On November 12, 1994, Lewis Powell's skull was buried next to the grave of his mother, Caroline Patience Powell, at Geneva Cemetery in Seminole County, Florida.


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