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John Wilkes Booth's Accomplice

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"I'm mad! I'm mad!" Lewis Powell shouted as he burst out of the Secretary of State's house, threw himself on his horse, and rode away. Across town, Abraham Lincoln slumped forward in his theater chair, a laugh forever frozen on his face.

The year was 1865, and the scene at Ford's Theatre was the end of a President and the beginning of a legend. But many have forgotten that Lincoln's assassination was just one facet of a three-pronged plot to take down America—and fewer still know about the mysterious Confederate deserter who became John Wilkes Booth's right-hand man.

Was he a member of the Confederate Secret Service? A soldier who used a Union soldier's skull as an ashtray? A suave city man, or a country Baptist with a simple mind? During 21 years of life and countless aliases, Lewis Powell adopted all of these identities and more. After deserting the flailing Confederate Army, Powell met John Wilkes Booth, one of the most famous actors of his day, in a Baltimore hotel. Over dinner, Booth recognized a kindred spirit. He immediately recruited Powell to the cause that obsessed him: his plan to kidnap President Lincoln in retribution for his political views.

From that day forward, the two men became extremely close and worked together on their plot. They even watched Lincoln's last speech ever, one about reconstruction, from the White House lawn. Angered, the conspirators knew kidnapping was not enough. They decided they must murder the President in order to bring down the entire American government.

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The conspiracy that followed revolved around three simultaneous acts of violence calculated to create chaos and fear in the Union government and punish Booth's enemies for their roles in the bloody war that was ending. While Booth killed Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Powell would murder Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt, another conspirator, would shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson. But the plot went wrong from the start. Atzerodt, overcome by fear, could only get as far as the hotel bar where Johnson was staying (he drank all night, but never shot the vice president).

On the night of April 14, Powell and another conspirator, David Herold, made their way to the Secretary of State's residence. Seward was inside, recovering from a concussion, broken jaw, and other injuries following a recent carriage accident. Powell entered Seward's house pretending to deliver medicine while Herold waited out front. Powell pushed his way past Seward's butler, who ran into the night to get help. This frightened Herold, who immediately took off.

Once inside, Powell attempted to shoot Seward's son Frederick, but his revolver misfired. Powell beat him to the floor and made his way to the room where Seward was recovering. The Secretary of State was being tended to by his daughter and by Sergeant George F. Robinson, an army nurse. Powell slashed Robinson and punched Seward's daughter in the face. He then climbed atop Seward and stabbed and slashed at his head and neck. Because of his injuries from the carriage accident, Seward was wearing a metal splint around his jaw. This protected him from any would-be fatal blows, but Powell managed to slash his cheek and face. Though he survived the attack, the scars would remain with Seward for life.

Seward's other son Augustus burst into the room and wrestled with Powell. Powell slashed at Augustus and got away, but not before encountering a messenger in the hallway (who Powell stabbed, as well). Powell escaped, but he was a stranger on the run in Washington, D.C. Helpless without Herold, he disappeared for three days, wandering the streets or hiding alone. Finally, he returned to the boarding house where Booth and the other conspirators rendezvoused before the assassination. As he got there, police were taking the owner of the house and others away for questioning. Powell claimed he was just a laborer there to dig a gutter, but the police were suspicious because he was wearing expensive clothing, so they took him into custody when he was positively identified.

Powell's well-kept hands are in shackles in this photograph Alexander Gardner took after his arrest. Powell looks easy-going, relaxed, and strangely modern for a man on the wrong side of history.

By the time Powell was transferred to a monitor ship by the authorities, John Wilkes Booth was dead. Two months later, Powell was found guilty of conspiracy and hanged. During his time in chains, he reportedly told tall tales about his Confederate days, chewed tobacco, and attempted suicide by bashing his head into the walls of his cell. Despite his behavior, doctors refused to acknowledge he was insane.

On July 7, 1865, he was hanged alongside Mary Surratt (the owner of the rendezvous point), David Herold, and George Atzerodt.

But the strange case of Lewis Powell didn’t end there. Like those of his co-conspirators, Powell's corpse was cast into a coffin and temporarily buried. Years later, the four bodies were released to their families. There are multiple assertions that no one showed up to claim Powell's. Others maintain that his family had taken some of his remains. Either way, no one knows where his remains are, except for his skull, which popped up in a most unlikely place.

In 1991, Lewis Powell's skull was found in the Native American collection at the Smithsonian Museum. After some research, it was confirmed as his. It sat there for over a century.

References: The Orlando Sentinel, "Mystery Still Shrouds Story Of Lewis Powell" by Jim Robinson (July 5, 1992); Alias "Paine": Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy, by Betty J. Ownsbey (McFarland, 2005); Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Steers (University Press of Kentucky, 2005); American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, by Michael W. Kauffman (Random House, 2005); The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia, by Edward Steers (Harper Perennial, 2010)

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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