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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Assassination Attempt on William H. Seward

Yesterday, April 14, marked a solemn date during a year in which we are celebrating Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday -- the 144th anniversary of his murder.

While Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth will likely always be remembered as one of America's most heinous crimes, it should be recalled that Booth and his conspirators had two other targets that night, as well: Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Even though Lee had already surrendered to Grant, Booth reasoned that if they could kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State all on one night the Union would be thrown into disarray. And, with no formal right of succession--which wouldn't be codified in the Constitution until after the Kennedy assassination--Booth might have had a point.

William Seward, best known today for his purchase of Alaska from the Russians ("Seward's Folly"), was Governor of New York from 1838-42 and Senator from 1848 until becoming Lincoln's Secretary of State in 1861. (Seward, one of the founding members of the Republican Party, had been many people's first choice to be nominated in 1860 and he received more votes on the first ballot than Lincoln. However, he did not have enough votes to gain the nomination outright and it was his eventual shift of support to Lincoln that guaranteed his rival the top spot on the Republican ticket in 1860.)

The night that Lincoln was murdered, Seward was laid up in bed. He had been in a serious carriage accident just nine days earlier that had left him close to death. One of Booth's co-conspirators, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine), talked his way into the Seward house pretending that he was delivering medicine. Stopped on the stairs by Seward's son, Frederick, Powell panicked, attacking Frederick and dashing into the Secretary of State's bedroom. He stabbed Seward multiple times, injured another of Seward's sons and his bodyguard, and retreated into the night thinking he had mortally wounded the Secretary of State. It was only after Powell was captured the next day that he discovered that Seward was still alive; Seward went on to make a full recovery, continuing to serve as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson. (Johnson was to have been assassinated that night by George Azerodt, but the would-be killer chickened out.)

Seward died in 1872 and is memorialized in New York City in a famous park on the Lower East Side (about which we'll blog more in the future) as well as in a grand statue in Madison Square Park. This statue will be one of the stops on our tour of the Flatiron District this Sunday, April 19, at 4:00PM. The tour is sponsored by local, independent travel bookstore Idlewild Books. The event costs $25 per person, which include the tour, a signed copy of our new book, Inside the Apple, and a reception afterwards at the bookstore. This is a great opportunity to learn more about Madison Square Park and the Flatiron District -- and a great deal; you are essentially getting a free book for the price of a walking tour. To register for the tour call Idlewild Books at 212-414-8888.

[This post was edited April 14, 2015 for clarity and to add a new photo.]

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