The Reason Lincoln Had to Die
by Don Thomas

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Chapter 11
The Chamber Maid [1]

NOTE: This chapter has been revised [July 29, 2013] since its original release [July 4, 2013],
adding information regarding James Donaldson in the Seward household.

During the same time John Wilkes Booth was entering Ford's Theater to assassinate Lincoln, William Seward's doorbell was ringing. The young, colored house servant, William Bell, opened the door to find a large man holding up a small package for Bell to clearly see. Lewis Powell stepped into the hallway, and Bell closed the door behind him. The large stranger paced toward the stairs, telling William Bell he had come to deliver medicine sent from Dr. Verdi. "I must go up and administer this medicine to Mr. Seward,"¯ Powell told Bell, more as an order than as a request. William Bell protested that he had orders not to disturb Mr. Seward, and he said that Dr. Verdi had just left the house only about an hour before. But Lewis Powell ignored him and continued walking down the hall towards the steps that led to Secretary Seward's bedroom (he somehow knew the way).

Author's Notes & References

[1]  All dialogue in this chapter and the events that take place (unless noted as otherwise) are taken primarily from the transcripts of the eyewitnesses from conspirators’ trial, plus the diary of Frances "Fanny" Seward.  (Sources indicated in Blue.)

Trial Transcripts (TRIAL):  Pitman, Benn, comp. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin 1865. Facsimile edition with introduction by Philip Van Doren Stern. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954.

See testimonies concerning Lewis Powell given by:

  • William Bell
  • Major Augustus Seward
  • Sergeant George F. Robinson
  • Emerick W. Hansell, and
  • Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes.

Fanny Seward's Dairy (FASD): Seward, Frances A., Patricia Carley Johnson, editor. Sensitivity and Civil War: the selected diaries and papers, 1858-1866, of Frances Adeline (Fanny) Seward. University of Rochester, 1964.

The much smaller doorman kept arguing with Powell that he must not go upstairs. But William Bell realized he could not stop the larger Powell from going up the steps, and he began to think that maybe he would be in trouble if Powell was, in fact, just following orders from Dr. Verdi. Bell asked Powell to excuse him for talking so rough, to which Powell replied, "Oh, I know. That's all right."¯ Bell had followed slightly behind Powell on their walk to the stairs, but he quickly took the lead before they started together for the third floor. Powell wore a large, brown hat that he had pulled down low over his face. He had on black pants, a light coat, and weighty, hard-soled boots that rang throughout the house with every step he took on the hardwood stairs. Bell turned to Powell halfway up the steps and told him, "don't walk so heavy."¯
As they reached the third floor they found Seward's oldest son Frederick standing on the top step. Powell's clamorous footfalls had brought Frederick from his bedroom to see who was calling so late at night. Powell repeated the same story that he had given Bell at the front door, but Frederick blocked the way. After a full five minutes of debate, Seward's son insisted Powell leave the medicine with him, or he could leave with the medicine, but he could not wake his father. Bell had been standing behind Powell the whole time during the argument with Frederick, and as he and Powell started back down the stairs, Bell leading the way, he turned to Powell to tell him once again to not walk so heavily. Just as Bell looked back he heard Powell say, "you,"¯ and saw something in Powell's hand that appeared to be "round, mounted all over with silver, and about 10 inches long."¯ Powell attacked Frederick with what Bell had taken to be a knife. Powell hit Frederick twice in his head, knocking him backwards into his sister's room that was two doors down from Mr. Seward's bedroom. Bell was horrified, and he turned and ran down the stairs and out the front door hollering, "Murder!"¯
The noise from Powell's attack on Frederick brought Mr. Seward's male nurse, Sgt. George F. Robinson, from Seward's bedside to the bedroom door to see what the trouble was. As Robinson opened the door Powell was there before him, and, as the Sergeant later testified, Powell struck him "with a knife in the forehead."¯ Pushing past Robinson, Powell attacked the barely conscious Secretary of State, wildly stabbing at him. William Seward laid there, completely defenseless, as he received two slashes to the face and neck in the dark bedroom. The steel brace supporting Seward's broken jaw had deflected the blade from its fatal course.
Sgt. Robinson quickly recovered and jumped to his feet, grabbing Powell and pulling him away. Powell again turned his attack on Robinson. Mr. Seward's other son, Major Augustus Seward, had been awakened by his sister's screams and ran into the dark room to see a struggle between two men at the foot of his father's bed. Augustus grabbed one of the men in the dimly lit bedroom, thinking it was his father and that he had become delirious. Immediately Augustus realized it was not his father, and then supposed it must be Robinson who had become delirious. Not yet realizing this was an assassination attempt against his father, Augustus clung to the intruder, shoving him toward the door.
While wrestling with Augustus, Powell lashed out at him with his knife, striking him five or six times, and in the melee lost his hat. Now engaged with two men Powell's attack seemed hopeless. At close range in the well-lit hallway Augustus stared into the face of the assassin. Powell hollered to a secret accomplice (who was within the house), "I'm made! I'm made!"¯ Then, breaking away from Augustus and Robinson, Powell charged down the stairs and disappeared out the door.
Augustus Seward had misunderstood Powell's Alabama drawl when he heard him call out, as saying, "I'm mad! I'm mad!"¯ while Powell struggled to break free from the army Major. Powell was actually hollering to Seward's chamber maid, that he had been made—clearly seen. He had lost his hat and his face had been revealed, and he knew Augustus could now identify him.

[2]  George Atzerodt's confession given to Marshal McPhail on May 1, 1865.  Available online at the UMKC School of Law.

[3]  Before hanging, Lewis Powell revealed in his confession to Reverend Gillette: “It was early in that day [of the assassination] that he [Powell] was instructed as to what was expected of him. A bottle of medicine was given to him and the pretext … by which he would gain access to the Secretary’s apartment.”

Gillette, Abraham D. “The Last Days of Payne.” New York: World, Sunday, April 3, 1892, p. 17.

[4]  FASD, p. 183.
The chamber maid at Mr. Seward's home was identified in Atzerodt's confession as being in a relationship with Booth. [2] She and James Donaldson were secret agents in the War Department's assassination plots against Seward and Lincoln.

Donaldson first infiltrated Booth's kidnapping conspiracy, winning Booth's trust by posing as a double agent for the Democratic Copperheads, but he was actually on a mission for Edwin Stanton. Two months later, and just hours before Lincoln departed for Ford's Theatre, Donaldson gave Booth the plan for the President's assassination. He also provided Booth with the name of Seward's doctor, a bottle of medicine, and the location of Seward's bedroom on the third floor[3] Donaldson was originally scheduled to be Seward's guard for the evening, but he traded his shift with Robinson. [4]

Donaldson's instructions for Powell were to make his way into Seward's bedroom, quietly kill the Secretary with a knife, and then discreetly depart. Powell was assured that the chamber maid would help him with his mission. However, her actual purpose was to plant a very rare, broken, Confederate-made pistol at the crime scene. The pistol would be used as evidence to prove that a Confederate assassin murdered Mr. Seward.

James Donaldson, photographed in 1863 with William Seward and dignitaries from nine foreign countries at Trenton Falls, New York, wearing his trademark dark suit.
Photo source: U.S. Library of Congress.

[5]  TRIAL: Weichmann’s testimony, May 25, 1865.

[6]  Lafayette Baker stated that "Payne" (Powell's other alias) had been identified by an informant lodging at the Surratt House, that the man had visited the house on two occasions using the name "Wood."

Baker, La Fayette C. History of the United States Secret Service. Philadelphia: L. C. Baker, 1867, p. 486.

[7]  FASD, p. 183.

Baker and Stanton already knew that Booth had given each of his gang members a pistol and a knife, and Stanton preplanned to use those weapons as evidence to frame Booth's kidnapping accomplices as Confederate agents, therefore implicating the Confederacy as committing "a new act of war." Stanton knew about the weapons because John Surratt's close friend, Louis Weichmann, was a civilian informant, living in Mary Surratt's boardinghouse, and for two months he had been reporting his surveillances about Booth and his associates to Captain D. H. Gleason at the War Department. [5]

Weichmann reported to Gleason that John Surratt's friend from Baltimore, James Wood, was a Confederate agent who always wore a long, gray coat. [6] The pistol and coat were preplanned by Stanton to be used as evidence to identify James Wood (Powell) as Seward's Confederate murderer.

Powell stabbed one more victim before he fled the Seward house. His last attack was on Emerick W. Hansell, the third State Department messenger assigned to watch over the Secretary of State since his carriage accident. [7] As Powell was running from the house he collided with Hansell, then stabbed him in the back. After Powell descended the staircase, Major Augustus Seward scrambled back to his room and dug down into his carpetbag where he kept his pistol. He then hurried downstairs to the front door to shoot the intruder if he attempted to return.
William Bell had run down the street to General Augur's headquarters to get help. After not finding anyone on duty, he raced back to the house, and on his way three soldiers ran out of the building and fell in behind him, maintaining a short distance. As Bell turned the corner he saw the assassin jump on a horse. Bell had not noticed a horse when he answered the door, nor was a horse there when Bell ran down to General Augur's headquarters. Only after Bell returned to the house did he see the horse for the first time. Bell hollered to the three soldiers, "There he is, going on a horse!"¯ The soldiers slacked their pace, and stopped running. Bell fell in behind the rider, and kept up with the assassin all the way up to I Street at 15-1/2 Street. The assassin just rode away at an easy pace with Bell running only about 20 feet behind him. After turning right on Vermont Avenue the assassin spurred his horse and galloped out of sight. The three soldiers who had followed Bell back to Mr. Seward's home for some unknown reason never joined Bell in his pursuit of the assassin.
Augustus was still standing at the doorway when Bell returned to the house. The breathless servant told Augustus that the "man with the knife"¯ had ridden off on a horse. Bell was sure that Powell had attacked Frederick with a knife, and testified that it was a knife, but that he was told by the investigators that Powell used a pistol.
Major Augustus left Bell at the front door, and returned to Mr. Seward's bedroom. Only then did he realize how severe his own injuries were. After all five stabbing victims had been bandaged and cared for, Augustus again checked on his father. The family wouldn't know until the next morning that the other son, Frederick, was seriously injured, with his brain exposed through a hole in his shattered skull.
During the trial Augustus said that the wound on Frederick's head looked just like it had been made with a knife, but "surgeons said"¯ Frederick's wound appeared to be created by the hammer of a pistol. Some people said that the pistol was found in Seward's bedroom, but Augustus heard it was recovered in the front yard of the home. In either case Augustus never saw the pistol in his father's room, and after he returned to the room he only found Powell's hat on the floor.


The pistol that appeared at the Seward house was a rare, 36-caliber Confederate Navy revolver made by Spiller & Burr of Atlanta.  The pistols Booth obtained in New York for his followers were 44-caliber Colt revolvers.  This gun, with blued steel and a six-inch barrel, could not be mistaken for a ten-inch, silver knife.

If Powell attacked Frederick at the top of the stairs with the butt of a pistol and then immediately turned to attack nurse Robinson with a knife, the pistol and its broken pieces would have been found in the room where Frederick was knocked down: two doors away, and not in Mr. Seward's bedroom. Powell obviously would not have bothered to pick up the useless, broken pistol and carry it with him into Mr. Seward's bedroom, or carry it outside with him, and then drop it in the front yard during his escape. The pistol was without question planted, which exposes a premeditated set-up to Seward's murder. Donaldson and the chamber maid were working with Stanton to use the pistol and the long, gray coat as evidence, even before Powell was given a plan commit the crime.

Surgeon Joseph K. Barnes treated Frederick Seward's head wound and said it seemed to have been inflicted by some blunt instrument. William Bell said he saw Powell attack Frederick with something silver "about ten inches long."¯ That could only be a knife held with the blade pointing out in front of Powell's hand. The blunt handle was used to come down on Frederick's head because he was holding the knife with the blade pointing forward. The attacker could only use the knife to cut with an upward swinging motion while held in that position. Powell never had a pistol when he entered the house, only a ten-inch silver knife mounted on a blunt handle.

The pistol used as evidence against Powell did not belong to him, but was planted by Mr. Seward's chamber maid after he had attacked five people with a knife. Though it was known a maid was in the house, she was never called to testify. She was the same person Powell was calling to when he lost his hat and abandoned his attack, yelling, "I'm made! I'm made!"¯ This chamber maid was identified in George Atzerodt's confession as being in a close relationship with John Wilkes Booth:

"I overheard Booth when in conversation with Wood say, That he visited a chambermaid at Seward's House & that she was pretty. He said he had a great mind to give her his diamond pin." [8]

This precious, monogrammed pin was found on Booth's body when he was captured. [9] Atzerodt's confession was withheld from the trial.

[8] George Atzerodt's confession.

[9] Impeachment Investigation: Testimony Taken before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in the Investigation of the Charges against Andrew Johnson. House of Representatives, 2nd session, 39th Congress, First Session, and 40th Congress: Government Printing Office, 1867, p. 488

Minutes after Powell fled Seward's house, James Donaldson showed up. [10]

[10] FASD, p. 191

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