FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a powerful Civil War-era photograph from The Album of the Lincoln Conspiracy. This work is currently not on view, so we have provided an exclusive online viewing!
The subject of this stirring photograph is Lewis Powell, one of John Wilkes Booth's cohorts in the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln and other government officials. On April 13, 1865, in a meeting that took place in Powell's room at Mary Surratt's boarding house, Booth assigned Powell the task of murdering Secretary of State William Seward. The next day, Powell failed in his attempted murder, but did succeed in severely wounding both the Secretary of State and his two eldest sons. Throughout the subsequent trial, Powell reportedly failed to show any remorse for his actions, although he maintained Mrs. Surratt's innocence until both of their deaths. Just over 150 years ago on July 7, 1865, Lewis Powell (tried as Payne) was executed by hanging at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.
Before his death, Powell was photographed by Alexander Gardner. A Scottish expatriate, Gardner was one of the leading photographers of the American Civil War. In 1851, while still living in Scotland, Gardner first encountered the work of Matthew Brady while it was on display at The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. By 1856, Gardner had moved with his family to the United States where he soon made contact with Brady and ultimately became the manager of Brady's Washington, D.C. gallery. Allan Pinkerton, whose intelligence operation would become the Secret Service, recommended Gardner for the position of chief photographer for the U.S. Topographical Engineers. From there, Gardner went on to become a staff photographer in the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General George B. McClellan. In this role and independently, Gardner photographed some of the Civil War's most iconic battles, including the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.
After the assassination of President Lincoln and the ensuing capture and death of John Wilkes Booth, Gardner photographed the remaining suspects accused of conspiring to assassinate American political officials. The psychological intensity captured in the photographs from this series was compounded by the harsh conditions in which the prisoners were kept as they awaited trial; they were blindfolded, manacled and shackled below the decks of a monitor (an ironclad warship). Powell is pictured here seated against the turret of the monitor USS Saugus, where several of the assassination conspirators were incarcerated. Alexander Gardner was the sole photographer present at the conspirators' execution.