The mys­tery of the skull of a would-be as­sas­sin

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE michael.ruane@wash­

In Jan­uary 1992, Vir­ginia his­to­rian Betty Owns­bey got a call from a friend. She asked if she was sit­ting down.

Owns­bey feared bad news, but her friend said the word, from the grapevine of Lin­coln as­sas­si­na­tion buffs, was ex­cit­ing: “They found Lewis Pow­ell.” “Where?” Owns­bey said. “He’s in the Smith­so­nian,” her friend replied. At least his skull was. The no­to­ri­ous Lewis Thorn­ton Pow­ell was hanged in Washington in 1865 for his in­volve­ment with John Wilkes Booth in the con­spir­acy to as­sas­si­nate Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln.

Pow­ell’s role had been to kill Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam H. Se­ward, and he nearly suc­ceeded, stab­bing Se­ward in his home, as Booth was shoot­ing Lin­coln in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Pow­ell, 21, and three oth­ers were ex­e­cuted at what is now Fort McNair on July 7.

But over the suc­ceed­ing 127 years, the fi­nal lo­ca­tion of his re­mains had be­come amys­tery.

In 1865, the body of the 6foot-2 Pow­ell was squeezed into one of the wooden gun crates pre­pared as coffins for the con­demned and was buried with the oth­ers be­side the gal­lows out­side a fed­eral pen­i­ten­tiary in South­west Washington.

A small fence was erected around the plot, and the graves of the four were marked with wooden head­boards, said Owns­bey, who has writ­ten a bi­og­ra­phy of Pow­ell.

In 1867, the four were se­cretly ex­humed and re­buried be­neath the floor of a pen­i­ten­tiary ware­house, where Booth’s body had al­ready been laid to rest.

In 1869, the gov­ern­ment re­leased the bod­ies to the fam­i­lies, and all but Pow­ell’s were claimed.

Some years later, it was ex­humed and even­tu­ally moved to the old Holmead Ceme­tery, in Dupont Cir­cle, by Washington fu­neral di­rec­tor Joseph Gawler, ac­cord­ing to a news ac­count.

On Dec. 16, 1884, Gawler dug up Pow­ell again, be­cause Holmead was closed and be­ing emp­tied.

At some point, Owns­bey said in an­in­ter­view, Gawler took Pow­ell’s skull and gave it to the U.S. Army Med­i­cal Mu­seum in the Dis­trict.

A mu­seum log­book shows that the skull ar­rived there Jan. 13, 1885.

It be­came spec­i­men num­ber 2244, “skull of a white male,” the log states.

The en­try con­tin­ues: “P-. Hung at Washington D.C. for the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Sec­re­tary of State W.H. Se­ward, in April 1865.”

The mu­seum, which was then lo­cated in Ford’s Theatre, al­ready had a sec­tion of Booth’s spine. Per­haps Gawler be­lieved Pow­ell’s skull be­longed there, too, Owns­bey said.

The rest of Pow­ell, along with hun­dreds of other res­i­dents of Holmead, was re­lo­cated to Rock Creek Ceme­tery in North­west Washington.

On May 3, 1898, the Army Med­i­cal Mu­seum gave its col­lec­tions of 2,206 skulls to the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, say­ing they be­longed more to the study of an­thro­pol­ogy than medicine.

Among the skulls was Pow­ell’s, ac­cord­ing to the Smith­so­nian. Al­most 100 years passed. In1992, as the Smith­so­nian was ex­am­in­ing skulls for pos­si­ble repa­tri­a­tion to In­dian tribes, it came upon one that had the num­ber 2244 writ­ten on its fore­head.

Its cat­a­logue file read: “Cra­nium of L. Payne, hung at Washington DC for the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Sec­re­tary of State, W.H. Se­ward, in 1865.” Payne was an alias that Pow­ell of­ten used.

Ex­perts no­ticed that the skull bore ev­i­dence of a bro­ken jaw. Owns­bey knew that Pow­ell had been kicked in the face by a mule when he was a child.

In 1994, the skull was turned over to Pow­ell’s fam­ily de­scen­dants and buried be­side his mother in Geneva, Fla.

“I pro­vided the cof­fin,” said Owns­bey, who at­tended the burial. “It was very nicely done.”


The skull of Lewis Pow­ell, who was hanged in 1865 for his role in the plot to kill Lin­coln.

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