Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy
Betty J. Ownsbey
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 220 pages
Book Review published on: June 30, 2017
A thorough study of the American Civil War includes the events and players related to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the attempted assassination of then Secretary of State William Seward on 14 April 1865. Americans can identify John Wilkes Booth as the man who fired the shot in Ford’s Theater that eventually killed Abraham Lincoln, but most are unlikely to be able to identify the seven other conspirators. While Booth succeeded, the attempt by “Paine” on Seward’s life failed. This book gives the reader insight into the life of the man who failed.
I highly recommend Alias “Paine.” It is a well written, thoroughly researched account from official trial records, transcripts, photos, and newspaper accounts. In addition, the inclusion of material derived from the letters of soldiers, friends, and family provides insight into the life of the conspiracy’s youngest member—a conspiracy that originally began as a plot to abduct the president in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war but ultimately ended tragically in Lincoln’s death. Ownsbey traces Lewis Thornton Powell’s journey from a Baptist preacher’s son to teenage Confederate army enlistee, prisoner of war, member of Mosby’s Rangers, rebel spy, and finally, unsuccessful assassin. Following a failed escape, federal agents captured him at the house of co-conspirator Mary Surratt. Tried before a military tribunal at the Washington Arsenal prison, convicted, and hanged, he rests alongside three fellow convicted conspirators in the prison yard beneath the gallows.
Beginning with the title, Alias “Paine,” one of seven aliases Powell used to disguise his confederate identity and activities, Ownsbey offers conflicting testimonies and lost evidence in order to cast doubt on Powell’s character, demeanor, and purpose. She purposely posits questions throughout the chronicles of Powell’s life. This technique captivates readers, causes them to challenge the accuracy of events leading to 14 April, as well as to dispute Powell’s behavior and personal account during his imprisonment. Ownsbey successfully lures readers in believing the “yellow journalism” of the time; that is, the media’s characterization of “Lewis Paine the Mysterious” as the most controversial figure in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
Did Powell act as a confederate spy? Did his hatred for Lincoln, his senior staff, and the North justify assassination leading to “his personal glory and the gratitude of the confederate government and Southern people?” Was his devil-may-care attitude during the trial merely bravado that made him “look like an animal at bay—defiant and brutal—a cold, calculating cutthroat without remorse and who, if given another chance, would do it again?” Or, as William Doster, Powell’s court-appointed defender advances, did Powell simply act as a soldier in the cause of Southern independence who viewed Seward as an “advisor to the oppressor (Lincoln) and the slippery advocate of an irrepressible conflict?” Was his calm, modest, and silent demeanor throughout imprisonment and trial a demonstration of contrition and courage for an “unsoldierly deed that deserved a dishonorable death?”
The author offers readers no answers nor an interpretation of her own. Rather, her text, series of questions, and innuendo flood the reader with information intended to peak curiosity and interest, and as it did with me, incite the reader to dig deeper into the lives of the eight involved in the assassination of our nation’s sixteenth president. In the end, Ownsbey succeeded in her quest leaving this reader to wonder “who was Lewis Thornton Powell, alias Lewis Paine?”
Book Review written by: James D. Sharpe, Fort Gordon, Georgia