Book review by ACWRT (UK) member Keith Steiner: October 2020
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy
Betty J. Ownsbey: Second Edition: 2015: McFarland & Company, Inc: 209 pages, Illustrated.
In late April 1865, the photographer Alexander Gardner sited his camera opposite the turret of the Union monitor USS Saugus, at anchor near the Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC, and focused the image of the man seated against the turret. This man, a prisoner, was mute, manacled, and under guard. This prisoner, Lewis Thornton Powell, alias Lewis Paine, alias Lewis Payne, alias Mr. Kincheloe, alias Mr. Wood, alias Mr. Hall, could not evade the searching vision of his photographer, and is powerless to evade the scrutiny of his modern day biographer Betty J. Ownsbey. However, and with some irony, paradoxically, this prisoner ultimately escaped the confining picture frame to encounter us, head on, in an instant, and in our own age.
Alone among his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Powell was equally an object of some fascination for the many society ladies of Washington, who, daily, claimed their places in the trial courtroom of the Washington Old Arsenal. Betty J. Ownsbey, however, tracks him forensically from childhood to his service in the Confederate army, from his wounding on the second day at Gettysburg to his service in Union army hospitals, from his service with partisan irregulars Mosby’s Rangers to his probable service in the Confederate Secret Service; and, including his fatal encounter with the actor John Wilkes Booth. Any grey areas or shadows are identified as such.
Ownsbey passes her accomplished historian’s gaze over a panoply of evidence and assembles a compelling narrative with the skill of a historical novelist. The reverberations first encountered in the Gardner image are given form by her interrogation of family photographs, personal mementoes, and extended conversations with surviving family relatives. Her incisive research ranges from trial records, witness statements to the poignant itemisation of the extensive range of items recovered from Powell’s person on his arrest – these items ranging from an embroidered pin cushion to a pack of pistol cartridges.
From there, the author follows her subject from the rifle box into which his body was placed minutes after his execution, through his various subsequent interments, to what is likely his final resting place.
However, this may not be the final chapter in this fascinating account of an enigmatic persona. Betty J. Ownsbey’s narrative simultaneously captures the chaotic milieu of civil war circumstance. Union Major General Lewis Wallace, one of the nine jurists of the military tribunal which tried Lewis Thornton Powell, was the later author of the publication which became the film epic Ben Hur. Perhaps Wallace’s courtroom sketches of Powell during the trial were a later source of inspiration.
Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Powell is cinematic in its ambition, as was his frame by frame sequence of Powell’s execution. In the Director Robert Redford’s 2011 film The Conspirator, Powell’s depiction is of that of a passing presence. The full story of the enigmatic presence of Lewis Thornton Powell and its place in history is one that cries out for fulfilment as a poignant, romantic epic of the silver screen. Any putative film Producer or Director worth their salt must consider the narrative of Betty J. Ownsbey as their point of departure. As a reader, hers is a title to which I return, again, and again.