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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth George Alfred Townsend

Letter IX: The Executions

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Payne, the strangest criminal in our history, was alone dignified and self possessed. He wore a closely-fitting knit shirt, a sailor's straw hat tied with a ribbon, and dark pantaloons, but no shoes. His collar, cut very low, showed the tremendous muscularity of his neck, and the breadth of his breast was more conspicuous by the manner in which the pinioned arms thrust it forward. His height, his vigor, his glare made him the strong central figure of this interelementary tableaux. He said no word; his eyes were red as with the penitential weeping of a courageous man, and the smooth hardness of his skin seemed like a polished muscle. He did not look abroad inquisitively, nor within intuitively. He had no accusation, no despair, no dreaminess. He was only looking at death as for one long expected, and not a tremor nor a shock stirred his long stately limbs; withal, his blue eye was milder than when I saw him last, as if some bitterness, or stolidness, or obstinate pride had been exorcised, perhaps by the candor of confession. Now and then he looked half-pityingly at the woman, and only once moved his lips, as if in supplication. Few who looked at him, forgetful of his crime, did not respect him. He seemed to feel that no man was more than his peer, and one of his last commands was a word of regret to Mr. Seward.

I have a doubt that this man is entirely a member of our nervous race. I believe that a fiber of the aboriginal runs through his tough sinews. At times he looked entirely an Indian. His hair is tufted, and will not lie smoothly. His cheek-bones are large and high set. There is a tint in his complexion. Perhaps the Seminole blood of his swampy state left a trace of its combative nature there.

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Payne was a preacher's son, and not the worst graduate of his class. His real name is Lewis Thornton Powell.

He died without taking the hand of any living friend.

Even the squalid Atzerott was not so poor. I felt a pity for his physical rather than his vital or spiritual peril. It seemed a profanation to break the iron column of his neck, and give to the worm his belted chest.

But I remember that he would have slain a sick old man.

The third condemned, although whimpering, had far more grit than I anticipated; he was inquisitive and flippant-faced, and looked at the noose flaunting before him, and the people gathered below, and the haggard face of Atzerott, as if entirely conscious and incapable of abstraction.

Harold would have enjoyed this execution vastly as a spectator. He was, I think, capable of a greater degree of depravity than any of his accomplices. Atzerott might have made a sneak thief, Booth a forger, but Harold was not far from a professional pickpocket. He was keen-eyed, insolent, idle, and, by a small experience in Houston street, would have been qualified for a first-class "knuck." He had not, like the rest, any political suggestion for the murder of the heads of the nation; and upon the gallows, in his dirty felt hat, soiled cloth coat, light pantaloons and stockings, he seemed unworthy of his manacles.

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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
George Alfred Townsend

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