The Attempted Assassination of William Seward

Bones crushed by horses,

Stabbed in face by actor’s goon,

Still not president.

It is often forgotten that Mr Lincoln’s unfortunate interaction with John Wilkes Booth was not the only shit going down on April 14, 1865. Particularly, that one of Booth’s cronies had a go at Secretary of State William Seward. (Another goon was assigned to off Vice President Andrew Johnson, but chickened out, which was kind of a shame because Johnson was the worst.)

First, a little background on Seward. Former Governor of New York and US Senator. A favorite to win the Republican nomination for president in 1860… until some weird-looking upstart named Abraham Lincoln nabbed it, to everyone’s surprise. (It was considered poor form to actually campaign for your own self, so neither Lincoln nor Seward did that, but Lincoln had one canny crew.) Seward was crushed, but he got over himself enough to campaign for Lincoln in the subsequent election. Lincoln won. He made Seward Secretary of State. Hurrah!

Then there was some unpleasantness resulting from the southern states being a bunch of big babies who felt that any encroachment on their right to own and oppress an entire population of people was a bigger sin than them owning and oppressing an entire population. So let’s have a big ol’ war in which thousands die, why not.

Fast forward to April 14, 1865. Lee’s surrendered to Grant at Appomatox, Mr and Mrs Lincoln are off to the theatre again for a well-deserved night of relaxation, and all is right with the world. Now let’s move the camera away from Ford’s Theater and to the residence of William Seward.

Seward hadn’t had a good time this past fortnight. Ten days prior, the horses hauling his carriage, himself and his daughter Fanny inside, had gotten out of control. Loving dads do crazy shit when their children are at risk, and Seward was no exception – he swung out of the carriage in an attempt to take matters in hand. Instead, he was trampled and so severely injured that his death seemed probable. So yeah, lots of bedrest for him.

Enter Lewis Powell, Confederate veteran wounded at Gettysburg, former Mosby Ranger, with ties to the Confederate Secret Service. He met John Wilkes Booth in early 1865, when the plan was to just kidnap Lincoln. Powell quickly began to fanboy the B-list actor who got by on his good looks and his family name and was with him when Lincoln had made his final speech on April 11, in which he discussed reconciliation and giving Black people the vote. Said Booth: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make.”

The plan had changed by then. Kidnapping is hard. Why not just murder? Thus, the events of April 14, which saw Powell trotting up to the Seward residence with a little white box. He knocked and rang the bell.

The door was opened by William Bell, a probable ex-slave and future lawyer. Powell gave him a line that he’d been sent by Seward’s doctor to personally deliver medicine, and Bell didn’t really buy it. He repeatedly refused to let Powell in (if it was medicine in that little box, why not just give him the instructions and leave the deliverance to him?), but the assassin pushed past him and hurried up the stairs.

(Bell took this as his cue to run next door to the soldier-packed HQ of General Augur for help. Not the worst move.)

There he met Seward’s son Frederick, who told him to stop and give him the medicine. At this point, Seward pére‘s door opened long enough for Fanny (who’d been reading to him before and watching over him then) to tell them that Dad was sleeping, please and thank you, door shut. Powell then fired his pistol right in Frederick’s face… Except it misfired. So he clubbed Freddy with the butt of the pistol long enough and hard enough that the young man wasn’t expected to live. And now he knew where his target was! Bonus!

Fanny heard the racket, opened the door again, only to be flung to the side by a madman with a knife. And so, Powell went a’ stabbing, wounding Seward multiple times, and another son of his, and a soldier who’d been assigned to keep watch over him. Seward was saved by the splints he’d been sporting since his accident. Eventually, Powell was beaten off (as Fanny screamed out the window for help), only for him to escape.

For two days. Because hey, you know what would be really smart? Returning to the boarding house where the conspiracy was hatched. Especially right when Union troops had popped by to question the landlady. (She claimed she didn’t recognize him, later because of bad eyes. He was standing under a lamp.) Powell and the landlady (Mary Suratt) were arrested and hanged in July with some other involved parties. Not Booth, though. He’d been shot dead long ago.

Oh yes, guess who made the identification? Our pal, William Bell!

Survive though he did, Seward might have wished he didn’t. His wife’s health went dashing downhill after the attack, barely lasting two months before she died. And Fanny? Our old friend tuberculosis carried her off next year. (Which is a particular shame – she’d had ambitions of being a writer, and evidence shows she would’ve achieved them.)

He later helped bring Alaska into the Union (a move dubbed ‘Seward’s Folly’) and tried to convince others that an appropriate restitution for Britain allowing the Confederacy to build some ships in their yards was for them hand over the whole of post-Confederation Canada. (Mind you, it took a loooong time for Americans as a whole to recognize that annexation just wasn’t gonna happen.)

Nevertheless, he lasted until just 1872 before he took poorly at his desk and promptly died.

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