The son of a Baptist minister, Lewis Powell was a quiet boy who earned the nickname “Doc” for his care of sick animals. After joining the Confederate 2nd Florida Infantry at the age of 17, Powell was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. He escaped with the help of a volunteer nurse.
In January 1865 Powell left the Confederate army, swearing an oath of allegiance to the Union under a false last name—Paine. He became one of Mary Surratt’s boarders on H Street in Washington, where he met John Wilkes Booth.
On the night of April 14, Booth assigned Powell the task of killing Secretary of State William Seward. Powell arrived at Seward’s home along with David Herold, a 19-year-old pharmacist’s assistant, claiming they were there to deliver a prescription. The secretary, who had been seriously injured in a carriage accident on April 5, was recovering in bed.
Insisting he had to deliver the medicine in person, Powell was stopped on the stairs by Seward’s son, Frederick. Powell drew his revolver. When it misfired he clubbed Frederick across the head with it.
Then Powell burst into the secretary’s room, stabbing Seward in the face and neck with a bowie knife. Seward was wearing a jaw splint from the carriage accident, which may have saved his life by redirecting the blade of the knife. Powell escaped but was arrested at Mary Surratt’s house three days later.