Author: Kate Clifford Larson
Publication Date: June 2, 2008
I’m always excited when new Civil War media is released, especially via film or television. I had family and friends sending me stories about Robert Redford and a movie he was directing called “The Conspirator.” The focus would be on Mary Surratt, through the eyes of one of her attorneys during the military tribunal. I’ve never found Mrs. Surratt to be a very sympathetic individual, but at the same time she has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I was curious to see how Mr. Redford would portray her and the role she played in U.S. history.
Over the last couple of months I’ve seen several articles and interviews regarding the movie, and as I write this the film is still four days from opening. But as I saw the trailers and read the interviews, I started to worry. The ads use the words “true story,” which always concerns me when it comes to history in the entertainment realm. I know what happens when TV shows and movies are a hit: people who know little on the topic watch them, and afterwards go around using quotes and telling stories like they are experts on the topic. Unfortunately, I’ve seen from experience how Hollywood has a tendency to twist or omit facts – and sometimes completely falsify events – to make the “story” they want to show. They are not in the business of educating; they are in the business of making money. Sometimes making money off of something historical can be tricky.
I guarantee you that I will be in the theater this Friday or Saturday to see Robert Redford’s creation. But in a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, a book caught my eye. With a shadow of Mary Surratt on the cover, I saw the title “The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln,” written by Kate Clifford Larson and published in 2008. This turned out to be the book that “The Conspirator” is based on. I always like to read the book before I see the film, so I decided to take a little shortcut. Knowing that my free time was limited but that I would be spending many hours in the car, I decided to purchase the unabridged audio book. (I like to multitask when I can!) After almost nine hours the story was told. It was not overwhelming, but it was fascinating. Almost a week later my brain is still processing the information this book provides.
Kate Clifford Larson is not the first person to write about the Lincoln assassination or the individuals referred to as “the conspirators.” But obviously the book was strong enough to grab the eye of one of Hollywood’s biggest names, who was then moved enough by the story to put her words into a motion picture. While a lot of the information she presents is not necessarily new, it is presented in a clear, organized manner – yet at a same time it tells a story that captivates and educates.
Ms. Larson does something unique in the first chapter by telling the reader her overall conclusion (SPOILER ALERT): She states that even though she went into the project believing in Mrs. Surratt’s innocence, she finished the project feeling very strongly that not only was Mrs. Surratt guilty of the charges, but she was even more involved than what the military tribunal uncovered.
The story starts at the beginning and educates the reader on who Mary Surratt was not only before she was considered an accomplice to the most shocking assassination in U.S. history, but also who she was before the Civil War. Married to a man who was a drunk and a gambler, Mary appears to play the role of wife and mother quite well. She does not come across as someone who is savvy or manipulative, yet she is someone who is not only smart but has a steely resolve that allows her to live her life without being ruined by the actions of her husband. She is a very devout Catholic, and even the possibility of an inappropriate relationship with a priest is questioned. Above all she is dedicated to her God, her country (more specifically Maryland and the southern culture) and her children, in that order.
It is through these dedications that the path leading to Mary’s execution starts to become clear. At the start of the Civil War, Mary’s oldest son Issac enlists in the Confederate army while her son John attends seminary college. But in 1862 Mary’s husband dies and John comes home to help his mother. He takes a role of postmaster in Surrattsville, Maryland, which allows him to become an operative for the Confederate government. During this same time a friend he met in college, Louis Weichmann, also leaves the seminary and moves to Washington City where he eventually became a boarder at Mrs. Surratt’s.
While Mary never played an active role as an operative for the Confederate government like her son John, her efforts to play along with his cover stories give the sense that she not only knew of his actions but supported them and assisted him as needed. Late into the Civil War, John begins to expand his circle with names now infamous to most – John Wilkes Booth and Dr. Samuel Mudd, for example. Louis Weichmann plays the part of an ignorant friend, surrounded by people who were working for the Southern cause yet is completely blind to it. The reader starts to wonder if Louis, who ends up providing key testimony in the military tribunal, wasn’t just attempting to protect himself. But no sooner than I began to doubt his innocence, Ms. Larson provides a very interesting detail: At one point Louis mentions something to a co-worker at the War Department that he finds something “off” about what is going on at the Surratt boarding house, and also wonders if his friend John, Mary and others are secretly supporting the Confederacy. The co-worker tells Louis it’s probably nothing, but also suggests that he pay more attention to the secret meetings and unexplained activity surrounding him. Unfortunately it appears that Louis blew off the advice, only to see things a little clearer once the assassination occurred and the conspiracy unfolded. Hindsight is 20/20.
While John is actively involved with Confederate operations and taking trips to places like Richmond, Virginia and Canada, Mary Surratt is keeping things running in their boarding house, which is now more like a home base for Confederate spies. Even though Booth’s group of conspirator’s are often described as a “rag tag team of rejects,” others that used the Surratt house as a stopping point were actually some of the more successful Confederate spies during this time. Mary not only provides these individuals with her hospitality, but also frequently meets these people privately – often in her upstairs bedroom – and runs errands for them and passes along messages. John Wilkes Booth appears to be one of her more frequent visitors, especially when her son John isn’t around. She is calm, cool and collected at all times, and those few who know her outside of this special circle don’t suspect a thing.
If you are looking for a detailed account of the Lincoln’s assassination and the other attempts, you will not find it in this book. You will, however, see the day of the assassination and the series of events following it from Mary’s point of view. The reader follows Mary’s path as she is questioned by detectives, arrested and taken to the Old Capitol Prison for interrogation. On April 30 she is taken to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, where she spends her remaining days in captivity and on trial until her execution on July 7, 1865. This is merely a high level summary; the details this book provides most readers will find as new and at times fascinating.
The last few chapters focus specifically on the trial and testimony, to which there are few surprises at this point in regards to evidence. What is surprising, however, is the legal representation for Mrs. Surratt, which can be summed up as a bumbling mess of inexperience. A seasoned attorney, Reverdy Johnson, was originally acquired to represent Mary but it quickly becomes obvious that he was in it for political posturing only. Reverdy cared more about the military tribunal being unconstitutional than he did defending his client. After giving an opening lecture on military tribunals, he only comes back to give closing remarks on the same topic. Frederick Aiken, (who is also the main character in Robert Redford’s film), is now in charge in Johnson’s absence. Aiken might be well meaning in his intent to clear Mary’s name from the charges against her. However, time and time again he calls witnesses to the stand and asks questions where only answers that further prove Mary’s guilt can be – and are – provided.
In the last days of the trial and when the sentencing was given, the main argument in Mary’s case was that she was a woman. Though vilified in the press, the government and military tribunal wouldn’t hang a woman, would they? With less than two days for an “appeals process,” Mary never had a chance. During the trial newspapers had a tendency to call attention to her cold, “evil” and homely looking presence, and citizens were quick to wish every harm upon her. But once her sentence was given, most didn’t believe it would be carried through. For most, the conviction was enough. But President Andrew Johnson refused to give a pardon, an act that was supported by members of his Cabinet (who happened to be the same Cabinet members in the Lincoln administration). Mary Surratt was hanged, and suddenly everyone was up in arms about hanging an “innocent woman.” Mind you, it wasn’t that people though she was innocent of the charges; it was the idea that a woman was too innocent to be sentenced to such a horrifying death. As is typical in such pivotal events in history, people of the day started to rewrite history, some even going so far as to claim Mary’s innocence when they knew otherwise. It is this rewriting of history that often leads to conflicting thoughts as to whether Mary was innocent and more importantly, whether she should have hanged for her actions.
My husband, who listened to most of the audio book with me, asked me the question “If Lincoln had managed to live, do you think he would have hung Mary Surratt?”
“No,” I answered. “Lincoln was well known for finding ways to pardon anyone he could from a sentence of death, much to the frustration of military officers and government officials. In fact, I think he would have had trouble letting any of the conspirators hang with the exception of Lewis Powell, as he physically attacked William Seward and several others in the household. Obviously if Booth had survived that was another figure he likely would have let hang. But the others I think he would have sentenced to strictly jail time, if that.”
We listened to several hours of the book, and as we arrived home I asked him a question: “Replace Mary Surratt with her husband. If her husband had done the things Mary did, would people had been so upset at him being hanged?”
We looked at each other, knowing the answer. “Most definitely not, and it would be a non-issue today.”
And that is why this topic is still talked about today. It’s not that what Mary did was any different than many other Confederate sympathizers, including other females. What makes this different is that Mary was affiliated with the man who assassinated a President and threw a country into a panic. One of my favorite assassination authors, James L. Swanson, once stated that “The Lincoln assassination was like 9/11 but ten times worse.” I think he’s right. This didn’t come out of the blue like that horrible day in 2001, or even like being attacked at Pearl Harbor. It came at the end of four year war that had significant loss of life. Few had any idea the war would be as horrific as it was, and now the end was finally in sight for all sides. People were coming to terms with the results and celebrating that peace was finally here. But then a gun shot rang out in Ford’s Theater, causing a chaos and panic that I do not think we have seen since. I think it’s something impossible to comprehend; you just had to be there in order to fully understand it.
If you have an interest in the conspiracy or if you’re going to see Robert Redford’s film, I recommend that you pick up this book or purchase the audio version. While I have no doubt that Redford will give viewers an Oscar-quality motion picture, I have the feeling that the events he will portray will be vastly different from the reality Ms. Larson’s book presents.