Across town, Secretary of State William H. Seward was recuperating from a terrible carriage accident. Only a few days before, the president had walked to Seward’s house to visit his good friend and check on his recovery. Now, Seward was lying in bed, while his favorite child, the slender twenty-year-old Fanny sat nearby. For six years, Fanny had kept a detailed diary of all she observed among the Washington elite.
After years serving together during wartime, Lincoln had become close to members of his cabinet like Secretary of State Seward. He was attentive to Seward during his convalescence, which reflected the strong personal bonds between the two men, who had competed to lead the Republican ticket in 1860.
Outside the house, Lewis Powell and David Herold watched the street. They saw no guards and knew that Seward should be an easy target, weak and sure to be in bed after the serious accident that had been reported in the newspapers. The difficulties would be in entering the Seward mansion, discovering which room was the Secretary of State’s, and dealing with an unknown number of other occupants. Powell and Herold came up with a plan: Powell would tell the house’s occupants that he was there to deliver medicine sent by Seward’s doctor. He would carry a small package as a prop for this deception. Herold would wait outside, holding Powell’s horse and waiting for him.
While Booth had an intimate knowledge of Ford’s Theatre, Powell and Herold lacked any knowledge of Seward’s house. They could not predict what obstacles they would face or what would be going on in the house when Powell entered. They used the knowledge that they did have about Seward’s injuries from the carriage accident to craft a plan to gain entrance to the home, but they knew that there could be any number of other difficulties that they could not predict in advance.
Powell’s ring at the bell was answered by a black servant named William Bell. Bell believed Powell’s story, but argued with Powell when he said the doctor had told him he must deliver the medicine personally to the secretary of state and give him instructions for how to take the medicine. Powell insisted that he needed to see the secretary, but Bell did not back down. Powell backed Bell up the stairs, arguing all the way. At the top of the staircase, Seward’s son Frederick halted Powell. Powell told Frederick the same story, and Frederick told him he could not see the secretary.
Here Powell’s disadvantages also contrast to Booth’s advantages. Booth was able to convince Lincoln’s servant to give him access to the presidential box, possibly using his status as a celebrity, but perhaps merely by using the charm he had cultivated as an actor. Powell, on the other hand, could not use charm or ingenuity to get his way, but rather continued to repeat the same story over and over rudely.
Fanny Seward then poked her head out into the hall to tell Frederick that their father was awake. Powell tried to peer into the room behind Fanny, who held the door slightly ajar. Powell demanded to know if the secretary was asleep, and Fanny, in a terrible error, looked back at her father and replied, “almost.” Unwittingly, Fanny had shown Powell where his target lay. Powell likely assumed that Seward was lying there defenseless, only watched over by his daughter, but a wounded Union army veteran named Sergeant Robinson was also in the room with Seward.
Until Fanny spoke to her brother about their father, it had seemed that Powell would not be able to find out where the secretary was. Now it would be up to Powell to take advantage of this stroke of luck to get into that room. It may also have seemed to Powell that Fanny’s emergence gave him an answer to the other question he and Herold had puzzled over: how many other people were nearby to defend the secretary.
Powell pretended to give up in his argument with Frederick and Bell and walked down the stairs, led by William Bell. Frederick walked back towards his room. Suddenly, Powell ran up the stairs. By the time Frederick had turned, there was a revolver pointed in his face. Powell squeezed the trigger, but the gun misfired. Although he had five more rounds in the gun, Powell raised the gun and broke the pistol over Frederick’s head, making it impossible to fire again. He then bludgeoned Frederick with the broken gun. Bell ran outside into the street, screaming, “murder!”
Unable to talk himself into the secretary’s room, Powell turned to brute force. The need to act spontaneously but intelligently was too much for Powell, however, who instead began to make error after error. Instead of going directly into the sick room where the secretary lay, he instead rushed at Frederick, who was not his target. When the gun misfired, he did not use his other shots, but instead ruined his weapon.
Fanny heard the noise in the hallway and opened the door to see Frederick beaten and bloody. Powell pushed past her and straight up to Sergeant Robinson, whom he hit in the forehead with a knife. Fanny tried to block Powell, but he ran to the secretary’s bed, pinned him to the bed, then tried twice to stab him, missing each time. The third time, he hit Seward, slicing his cheek so that the skin hung from a flap and his teeth were exposed. Sergeant Robinson recovered and charged at Powell and they fought one another in a life-or-death struggle. David Herold heard Fanny screaming, took fright, and fled the scene, abandoning Powell to his fate.
In this detailed account of the bloody fight between Powell and the Seward family, violence brings out both courage and cowardice. Like Major Rathbone in Lincoln’s box, Sergeant Robinson was able to ignore his own terrible injuries in order to fight to protect Seward. For Robinson, the battle to protect Seward was another battle in the Civil War, with Seward’s body representing the Union and all the principles it stood for. Meanwhile, David Herold fled at the sounds of violence, failing to stand with Powell and the principles he fought for.
Augustus Seward, the secretary’s other son, then rushed in. At first, he thought his father had deliriously begun to struggle with the night nurse, but quickly realized the man was not his father. The three men then fought, and Powell stabbed Robinson twice deeply before he was wrestled out into the hall where the gaslight illuminated the three men’s faces. There, Powell made an odd confession to Augustus: “I’m mad. I’m mad!” he said. Powell had Robinson in a choke hold and could have killed him, but in a last-minute act of mercy, he instead punched him with his fist. Powell then fled the house, mounted his horse, and rode off, chased for a bit by Bell.
Having brutally attacked five people, Powell began to seem terrified by the magnitude of his own crimes. He could no longer feel connected to the principles that led him to undertake the attack and instead felt like a madman. At this moment, he decided against killing Robinson and trying to make sure that he had definitely achieved his goal to kill Seward. Instead, he abandoned the scene of the violence in fear and horror.
Fanny ran to her father’s bedroom. Seward had rolled out of bed to escape Powell, and was on the floor. Sergeant Robinson, who was severely wounded, lifted Seward into his bed. In unimaginable pain, Seward told his daughter, “I am not dead; send for a doctor, send for the police, close the house.”
Although the Sewards had been badly wounded in the fight for their survival, they had collectively won the battle against Powell. It would turn out that they had also struck a blow to the principles Powell sought to attack when he attacked Seward.