“The Conspirator” vs. Facts
“The Conspirator” vs. Facts
This page was created to point out some the historical inaccuracies of Robert Redford’s film “The Conspirator”, released April 2011.
The Conspirator The Facts
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was out attending a Union victory celebration the night of the assassination. Though there had been many celebrations in Washington City over the Union victory, this particular evening Stanton went straight home to have dinner with his wife Ellen.  Around 8pm Stanton went to see William Seward, who had been badly injured on April 5 from a carriage accident. Stanton returned home by 10pm and went to bed.
At the Union victory party, Edwin Stanton explains to Frederick Aiken that that Mrs. Lincoln didn’t want to attend the event and wanted an evening of theater instead, which is why President Lincoln was not in attendance at the celebration. President Lincoln was the one set on going to the theater. Late that afternoon Mary came down with a headache, and even when she contemplated not going Lincoln was still going to go with or without her; he made up his mind that he wanted a good laugh even though he was tired himself. In the end, both of them went.
John Wilkes Booth arrived at Ford’s Theater by horse, immediately handing the reins to Edman Spangler. Though Booth tried to hand the reins to Edman to watch, Edman explained he couldn’t hold them as he had to help move around scenery in between acts. He got John Burroughs (also known as “John Peanut”, named after the salty snacks he sold to patrons) to hold Booth’s horse instead.
John Wilkes Booth went immediately inside the theater & killed President Lincoln. Booth went into the theater in the back door, walked through the basement and out a side door to a next door tavern, where he had a drink. Shortly after 10pm he left the bar & went back into the theater.
John Wilkes Booth had the gun in one hand and the knife in the other as he prepared to shoot Lincoln. Booth only held the gun in his hand as he shot the President. When Major Rathbone tried to grab him, Booth then pulled out his knife from it’s shield & stabbed Rathbone.
As John Wilkes Booth ran out of the theater & escaped on his horse, an unknown man chased after him on foot but could not catch him.
Jacob Ritterspaugh was by the back entrance when Booth escaped. He saw Booth leave, but did not chase him down. Edman Spangler came out shortly after and told Jacob not to tell people which direction Booth went.
When Lewis Powell knocked on Seward’s main door to the house, it was one of the son’s sitting in the hallway that was first startled by it. Everyone was upstairs with the exception of William H. Bell, a doorman and house servant at the Seward house. Mr. Bell answered the door (this was shown correctly in the film).
When Powell entered the house he immediately started running through it and attacking everyone in his sight as he made his way up the stairs to Seward’s bedroom.
Powell was originally very professional and told the doorman, Mr. Bell, that Dr. Verdi had asked him to deliver a package containing medicine directly to William Seward. With it being after 10pm and knowing that Seward was trying to sleep, told Powell that he was trained to take packages. Powell insisted that he had to give it to Seward directly. There was a build-up in heated exchange, before Powell got tired of dealing with this “inferior” black man and shoved his way past him and up the stairs, where he knew Seward would be.
William Seward was lying in a narrow bed, but also on the side closest to the bedroom door when Lewis Powell entered.
Seward was in a normal sized bed, laying furthest away from the door when Powell entered the room.
Fanny Seward, William’s daughter, was sitting by his bed when Powell entered the room with someone chasing after him.
Fanny was standing by the door when Powell and Frederick Seward, who was injured from several blows to the from Powell’s pistol, both came through the bedroom door. Fanny immediately saw blood on Frederick’s head, knew something was wrong, and ran towards her father’s bed in an effort to block Powell from hurting him.
Lewis Powell tried to stab Seward in a well lit bedroom where he could see Seward very clearly. Fanny had been reading to Seward, but she could tell he was sleepy. She had turned the gaslight down very low in the room, stopped reading and just watched over him.
Powell makes several attempts to stab William Seward while he laid there, helpless, in bed. Powell brought down the blade of the knife towards Seward’s bed many times. Because it was dark, Powell had a hard time finding his target. Sometime during the struggle Seward managed to roll off the bed and onto the floor…and away from Powell.
Every man Powell attacks ends up falling to the floor; he literally is able to take them out quickly, one by one, as they enter his path in Seward’s bedroom. Powell managed to attack six individuals – William Seward, William Bell (doorman), Frederick Seward (son, who approached him at the top of the stairs), Sergeant George Robinson (guard/military nurse), Emerick Hansell (a messenger who arrived when Powell was leaving), and Augustus Seward (another son who approached him as he was leaving). These attacks happened throughout the house and not all occurred in Seward’s room.
George Atzerodt overhears Vice President Andrew Johnson talking while standing in the hallway of the Kirkwood House, where Johnson is staying. Atzerodt never saw or heard Johnson when he was at the Kirkwood House that evening. He sat at the bar, hoping a few drinks would give him courage to carry out Booth’s order to kill Johnson in his room.
George Atzerodt has a quick drink & loses his nerve to assassinate Vice President Johnson when he sees several military men in the Kirkwood House bar, who appear to be looking at him suspiciously. Atzerodt drank for over an hour. At one point he asked the bartender about Vice President Johnson, as to whether he was there and what type of guy he was. No military men scared him off; he simply lost his nerve and left the hotel to wander the streets of Washington City.
Edwin Stanton learned about the Lincoln assassination when he came across the crowd outside of Ford’s Theater. A messenger came to Stanton’s house; his wife Ellen answered the door. The messenger said that Seward had been assassinated at his home, and that there was a rumor that Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s. Outside, the streets were filled with panicked people. Stanton was upstairs, had heard the claims and shouted down “Humbug, I was just there an hour ago!” But the agitated messenger led him to get dressed and take a carriage to Seward’s home. When he arrived, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells had also just arrived. The went into the Seward home where they saw person after person with blood on their faces and clothes, and the doctors were furiously working on William Seward. There was nothing they could do. Wells brought up the Lincoln claim; they decided to check out Ford’s together.
Edwin Stanton came into Lincoln’s room, saw Lincoln lying on the bed, and immediately ordered Mrs. Lincoln out of the room due to her crying, saying she was not allowed in that room again. Stanton and Gideon Wells entered the Peterson house together and saw Mary Lincoln in the parlor. They made their way into the back room where Lincoln was.
At the Peterson house, Lincoln was laid diagonally across the bed as he was too long; the bed was against the wall, so his head was next to the wall and his feet were on the side by the door. Lincoln was laid across the bed diagonally, but it was the opposite way of what was shown in the film; his head was by the door, and his feet were near the wall.
President Lincoln was lying in the bed in his suit. Lincoln was immediately undressed and covered in mustard plaster to keep warm, with blankets on top of him. After he died and they took his body back to the White House, it was then they realized that they had left Lincoln’s clothes back at the Peterson house.
Mary Surratt was not aware of the charges against her at the start of the trial, making it unfair for her defense. Mary Surratt was not aware of the charges, but she did have an advantage over the rest of the seven on trial – she was the only one who had counsel at the start of the tribunal. By the time the others arranged for counsel, it was too late for any of them to craft a defense (so Mrs. Surratt was definitely better off than the rest).
The conspirators were all in cells next to one another; Mary was in her own separate area, almost like an isolated tower. The eight conspirators brought to trial were kept in cells separate from each other and on separate floors. At least one empty cell was between each one of them. Mary was not in a separate wing by herself, nor a separate floor.
The trial was held in a room on the first floor.
A room for the trial was prepared on the third floor, northeast corner of the Arsenal, where the trial was held.
All the male prisoners wore cloth hoods when they were walked into the tribunal room; they were removed after they were seated.
The hoods were removed prior to them walking into the tribunal room; they squinted when they came in as the light was bright due to gaslights that had been installed. Also, Dr. Mudd was not required to wear a hood in his cell.
While Mary Surratt was in jail during the trial, her daughter Anna Surratt was isolated and kept in the Surratt boarding house with a lone guard outside. Anna Surratt was kept at the Old Capitol Prison until May 11 when she was finally released. She did not go back to the boarding house; instead she went to stay with friends.
Frederick Aiken went to the Surratt boarding house many times to talk with Anna Surratt. Anna Surratt never returned to the boarding house; simply put, this didn’t happen.
Frederick Aiken found a train pass of Louis Wiechmann’s to Richmond in John Surratt Jr’s bedroom. Did not happen, though Louis was accused of traveling to Richmond & trying to offer his services to the Confederate government (though it was never substantiated).
Mary Surratt begged her son John to stay home after the fall of Richmond; instead he went North to Canada.
John returned home from Richmond and was clueless that Richmond had fallen within hours of his departure. When Mary told him what happened, he was in denial. There is no evidence that says that Mary was upset that John left to go North instead of staying in Washington City.
A brick was thrown through the window of the Surratt boarding house, almost hitting Anna Surratt and Frederick Aiken. Did not happen as Anna Surratt did not go back to the boarding house.
Frederick Aiken was the only lawyer for Mary Surratt; the original main lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, only showed up once to give a brief speech about Mary’s innocence, and then give a brief talk about the military tribunal not being constitutional. John Clampitt was a second lawyer who was there with Aiken during the trial to defend Mary. Reverdy Johnson only came three times to the tribunal hearings – on the first, second and last day.
Mrs. Surratt was kept in the same jail cell during the entire trial. Because Mrs. Surratt’s health was taking a beating during the trial, she was at one point moved to a larger & more comfortable room.
Lewis Powell showed up at the Surratt boarding house wearing a light colored, full rimmed hat.
Powell had discarded the hat & coat he was wearing when he attacked Seward & the others. He had fashioned a weird little hat from a shirt sleeve that he placed on top of his head as a hat.
When Powell came to the Surratt boarding house three days after the assassination, he was greeted by military personnel. When Powell arrived, he was greeted by detectives in plain clothes. As he had never learned the streets of Washington City, he was unsure this was even the right place. He initially started to back away, saying he had the wrong house. They asked him who he was looking for; he said Mrs. Surratt. They told him he had the right house, invited him in & shut the door.
Mrs. Surratt always sat alone in the court room at a separate table, next to Frederick Aiken, usually with the veil pulled back over her hair. Mrs. Surratt, because she was a female, was given special considerations compared to the men. She was allowed separate seating, but most reports say there was usually a guard next to her. She did not sit at a “lawyers table.” She was allowed a bonnet, veil and fan in the court room; she almost always wore the black veil to cover her face. She was in a corner and seated near the entrance to the room.
Mrs. Surratt was eventually very grateful for Frederick Aiken’s counsel. Frederick Aiken and John Clampett were junior lawyers; as time went on, she spoke of their inability to represent her. She felt great disappointment that Reverdy Johnson abandoned her & left her with two inexperienced lawyers.
Frederick Aiken was a loyal Unionist who fought for his country. On April 5, 1861, Aiken wrote a lengthy letter to Jefferson Davis and offered his services to the Confederacy; he wished to offer his pen to the cause. He did end up serving the U.S. military honorably, though.
Frederick Aiken gave closing remarks at Mary’s trial. Reverdy Johnson gave the closing arguments, though once again he only focused on the military tribunal being unconstitutional and not Mary’s innocence.
Frederick Aiken wrote the application for the Writ of Habeas Corpus for Mrs. Surratt. Two of Mary’s lawyers, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, were responsible for the application.
Frederick Aiken presented a Writ of Habeas Corpus directly to Edwin Stanton, who then gives an angry speech about needing to move forward with the execution in order to heal the country and put Lincoln’s assassination behind them. The Writ was not presented by Aiken, and it was not given to Stanton but to General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was responsible for overseeing the execution. Hancock meet with President Johnson & Attorney General Speed. Hancock was presented with a letter from President Johnson suspending the Writ and telling him that he was to proceed with the execution of Mrs. Surratt.
John Lloyd testifies that Mary told him to have the shooting irons ready along with two bottles of whiskey the day of the assassination. This is true, but what Redford doesn’t show is Lloyd’s testimony that Mary had stopped by the tavern that previous Monday and told him something very similar: To get the shooting irons ready, that they would likely be used soon.
John Lloyd testifies that he didn’t know David Herold; that when Herold & Booth came to the tavern to pick up shooting irons, he gave everything to Booth while he was on horseback. What was omitted was that Herold got off his horse to knock on the door of Surratt’s tavern until Lloyd woke up and answered the door. Herold is the one who interacted with Lloyd; he asked for the shooting irons. While Lloyd got the, he gave Herold whiskey, which he took over to Booth (who was still on his horse with his injured leg) so he could have a drink. Lloyd handed the weapons to both men. Before they left, Booth asked Lloyd if he cared to hear some news. Lloyd, very drunk, told him he didn’t care & that he could go about his own speed telling it. Booth told him that they had just assassinated the President and the Secretary of State, and then they rode off. Lloyd was so drunk that he was confused about the whole thing and went back to bed, not thinking anything of it.
Mary says that she received letters from her son John saying he was in Canada, but she doesn’t know where the letters are.
One person who was never mentioned in the film is Anna Ward, who was – according to some – John Surratt’s girlfriend. He had sent four letters from Canada; two to Anna Ward, two to his mother. Ward had read the letters and for some reason gave them back to Mrs. Surratt. She was staying at the boarding house at the time of the assassination and told Louis Wiechmann of their existance. However, when she asked Mary where they were she said she didn’t know.  Ms. Ward found this very strange as to how Mary misplaced these letters. Later she expressed that she felt Mrs. Surratt had likely burned them so they couldn’t be used as evidence, though it would have proven that John Surratt was not in Washington City at the time of the assassination. Though it was not shown in the film, Anna Ward did testify in regards to Mary Surratt’s poor eyesight, which the defense was trying to constantly drill into the tribunal’s mind – this was because she claimed not to recognize Lewis Powell when she did, in fact, know him. Her defense in not recognizing him was “poor eyesight.”
Anna Surratt was not allowed to see her mother except after she testified and on the day of her execution. Anna visited her mother on many occasions; she also spent a lot of time talking with Powell, as she was trying to convince him to help pursuade the court that her mother was innocent.
Anna Surratt was a strong young woman. Anna was constantly viewed as someone much younger than what she was. She was frail, immature and emotionally all over the place. She was not someone who showed composure in most circumstances.
Mrs. Surratt did a fairly good job maintaining her composure when she was sentenced to die. Mary became completely unglued and flighty in thought & expression. Anna Surratt was allowed to spend the evening with her mother in her prison cell.
Mrs. Surratt was in black & standing in her cell when the guards came to take her to the gallows. When the guards came to her cell, she was lying on her mattress in a white undergarment looking pale and debilitated. Anna, another female and two male clergy were also in the room.
Mrs. Surratt did not wear a black veil when led to the gallows. Mrs. Surratt did wear her black bonnet and veil when she was led to the gallows; her face was not in view until they took off the bonnet & veil to put the rope around her neck and put the hood on her head.
None of the four conspirators hanged said anything moments before the execution & before the hoods were put over their heads. Powell cried out “Mrs. Surratt is innocent.” (TWCP Author’s Note: Anna Surratt had spent almost two full days talking to Powell and begging him to help claim her mother’s innocence. In a private conversation with clergy, Powell told them that Mary Surratt was just as guilty as the rest of them. She probably didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but she knew something was going to happen. It was thought that Powell only shouted Mary’s innocence because, like many others, didn’t feel it right to hang a woman.) George Atzerodt said “May we all meet in the other world. God take me now.” Most importantly, Mary Surratt kept saying “Please don’t let me fall. Please don’t let me fall.”
Mrs. Surratt was the last one to have the hood put over her head before the hanging. There was only one man who attended to the prisoners to prep them for hanging. He started with Mary, the worked his way to Powell, Herold and Atzerodt. Therefore Mary had the hood over her head before the other three.
The military tribunal was found unconstitutional less than two years after Mrs. Surratt was hanged. Her son, John, was tried in a civilian court on the same charges and was found not guilty. This is true. However, it was not explained why the tribunal was used. Per the Constitution, citizens should only be on trial through military tribunals if civilian courts are not in session. The civilian courts were in session during the entire war. However, per Attorney General Speed, the conspirators had acted as “public enemies” of the U.S. saying they had disobeyed the laws of war. Later this was questioned because “war” was never officially claimed by the U.S. or Confederacy during the Civil War, though after 1,000,000 dead or injured in four years, I think it’s safe to call the Civil War a “war.” The differences between Civilian and Military courts: In Military courts, the defendants have to prove themselves innocent. In Civilian courts the prosecution has to prove the defendants guilty. Because the Confederate government was still in operation (though on the run) and there were still military units fighting, it was ruled that the U.S. was still at war when the assassination was committed. Though the conspirators were not soldiers, the assassination was considered to be a “military” type act.
Several cameras were set up to capture the hanging.
This is true, except for one shot that showed a photographer setting up on a grass lawn – no photos were taken from the ground.
The four that were hanged died immediately. Mary Surratt died immediately. David Herold struggled for a couple of seconds. George Atzerodt struggled for several minutes. Lewis Powell struggled wildly for over five minutes; twice he even pulled up his legs so that he was almost in a sitting position.
Frederick Aiken, 16 months later, goes to meet with John Surratt in the same cell his mother had been kept in. Likely it did not happen. First, John was not taken to the same location and he was tried in a civilian court in Maryland. Second, there is no record of Aiken meeting or having any correspondence with John Surratt.
John Surratt Jr. was found innocent in a civilian court of the same charges his mother was found guilty on – and using the same evidence. The statute of limitations had run out on all potential charges except murder, so the only thing John was tried for was the murder of President Lincoln and assassination attempt of Seward and Johnson. His lawyer admitted to John being involved in the kidnapping plot, but there was no charge for that. The same evidence was used as the trial of 1865, but since John Surratt was not even in the city at the time it is the conclusion of TCWP author that he he was innocent of the murder charge – and it makes sense that he was found innocent. 


30 thoughts on ““The Conspirator” vs. Facts

  1. Was the military tribunal’s initial leniency suborned by the Secretary of War, as portrayed in the movie?


    Posted by Anonymous | 04/17/2012, 9:06 am
  2. I apologize for the delayed response to your question, but I’ve been very ill for several months and was not able to continue the website during that time. To answer your question, because it was a military tribunal it was going to consist of people who were pro-Union and the war department did play a role. However, I feel the movie portrayed Stanton with much more authority than what he actually had. Every critical decision – from the military vs. civil court and the decision to ignore the petition for habeas corpus – fell under President Andrew Johnson, who was basically ignored in the film. It was Andrew Johnson who agreed with the decision by Attorney General (and former friend of Lincoln) Joshua Speed to hold a military tribunal, since Lincoln was assassinated before the war was officially over. Though Lee had surrendered and Richmond had fallen, the Confederate government was on the move and was still functioning. Confederate General Johnston’s forces were engaging with Union General Sherman’s forces and there were still many engagements to the west. The act of assassinating a government leader was then considered to be an act of war. It would have been nearly impossible to then find impartial military members for the trial. Though the commission found the conspirators guilty, not all of them recommended hanging Mary Surratt. Those three individuals actually went to President Johnson and asked for her life to be spared, but he chose to ignore their recommendation. He is also the one who ignored the petition for habeas corpus – not Stanton as portrayed in the movie.

    Stanton was a friend of Lincoln and Lincoln had been his boss. They didn’t always agree, but Lincoln’s death and the attempt at Seward’s life was a huge blow to Stanton. It definitely made his already-hardened core even more so when it came to punishment for those involved. He was hungry for justice, as many American’s were at the time.

    But the movie used him as the prime “villain” character; it didn’t show him in a way that was entirely true to his character, and it had him participating in events that he took no part in. He was definitely involved and provided his opinion to Johnson on certain matters because he was a part of his cabinet. However, this movie has too many inaccuracies to be considered historical or a documentary. If you’d like to learn the real facts, I suggest that you read “The Assassin’s Accomplice” (or get the audiobook version through iTunes) by Kate Clifford Larson. They connected the film to her book after the script was already written, saying the movie was based on her book. However, when you read the book, you’ll see there’s very little in common between the book and film. It also uncovers a lot of evidence that wasn’t even presented at the trial, and makes the case even clearer that Mary Surratt was guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by thecivilwarproject | 06/25/2012, 2:07 pm
    • There was no attempt on Stanton’s life. Stanton and his allies in the War Department invented this phony charge to make it seem like he had been a target. The supposed would-be assassin, Michael O’Laughlen, had no intention of killing Stanton and never made the attempt. The defense proved at the conspiracy trial that on the night of the murder, O’Laughlen spent the evening in the company of nearly a dozen people, some of whom were staunch Unionists, and all of whom vouched for his whereabouts.

      The movie “The Conspirator” is a big improvement over the War Department’s version of events, but it contains a number of errors. It’s closer to the truth than the traditional version, but it’s off the mark on some key points.


      Posted by Mike Griffith | 01/16/2019, 9:47 am
  3. Based on what Lincoln assassination hiorintass have read, and continue to hear from script developers, this film will bear little resemblance to the true history of Surratt’s complicity, trial, and hanging. This is unfortuante, because the real history that is, Mary Surratt’s very real and important role in Booth’s plans is far more intriguing and fascinating that the poorly conceived script that dramatizes the fiction that MAry was innocent and a victim of an enraged government hell bent on hanging her. Believe me, they hanged Mary because she was guilty. We wish Redford would stick to the real story, rather than make heroes out of villains, two-bit con artists, and incompetent lawyers. Kate Larson, author, The Assassins Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Gilang | 11/26/2013, 12:16 pm
    • Just curious – What does the word “hiorintass” mean? I did like the film but there were a way too many “Hollywood” mistakes to make it an accurate depiction of what happened. Such as the Zipper sound just before Booth enters the presidential box, zippers are decades into the future (even Elias Howe’s 1851 invention wouldn’t make that sound). The execution scene was also badly done – first the noose goes over the head, then the noose over the head. The knot is cinched up snug against the neck and positioned between the mid-jawbone and the collarbone. This positioning assures the executioner that the neck will break cleanly, and the criminal will die quickly. The exception here is someone with a long neck requires a larger wrapping noose knot(then they eventually die). I had to look up the execution by hanging information, because my teacher for Cinematography didn’t like what I said about “Hollywood fakery” to make a better story.


      Posted by Robert W. Bolitho | 04/17/2019, 12:06 pm
  4. It is still not clear to me why Reverdy Johnson “abandoned” Mary Surratt. Did he believe her guilty? Will we ever really know? Thank you.


    Posted by Anonymous | 05/15/2014, 4:13 pm
    • That’s a great question! From what I’ve read, I don’t think he cared whether she was guilty or not. I also think if he truly thought she was innocent he wouldn’t have left her like he did. The newspapers and many in the North had already judged her guilty before the trial began, and I believe he was smart enough to know that it would end with a guilty verdict. It is widely believed – and I agree – that the only reason Reverdy associated himself with her in the first place was to further his own political agenda. He knew this was a “show trial.” He had been against military tribunals for some time, and this was the biggest news story of the time. He not only got his name, but his beliefs, in the newspapers. It’s why he appeared at the beginning and at the end of the trial, but no where in between; all he cared about were his opening & closing arguments, which in no way focused on Mary. Had he been in court day-to-day, he would have actually had to provide some sort of defense instead of giving a speech about his personal beliefs.

      This all greatly frustrated Mary’s daughter Anna, and obviously Mary herself. She must have been thrilled to have an offer of a very prominent lawyer, only to suddenly be left with two very inexperienced lawyers representing her. The only thing that was truly suspenseful at the time of the trial was whether Mary would be hanged. Many people were not shocked at the verdict, but were horrified at the fact that the U.S. government actually went through with it. Many believed that a woman was too delicate in nature for such a brutal act; they thought her sentence would be reduced to life in prison. They were wrong.

      As for Reverdy, his “self-promotion” attempt didn’t work though and his words made no difference, as he wasn’t smart enough to realize that many people in the North didn’t care; they just wanted to see the people responsible for President Lincoln’s death pay a price. The validity of “military tribunals” was something no one cared about, between the assassination and having been through a horrible war the previous four years.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by thecivilwarproject | 05/15/2014, 6:13 pm
    • I believe Johnson abandoned Mary because it was a no win for the lawyer, regardless of the verdict. That, and like many others, he felt that someone had to pay.


      Posted by Anonymous | 02/14/2020, 2:43 am
      • This information is lacking so much. The lawyer abandoned the case because that’s what he was ordered to do. I don’t know anything about the civil war project but I’m pretty sure what organization they Serve. Why is there no mention of that little nation in Italy, who were truly responsible not only of President Lincolns assassination but the actual instigation of the war against the states?


        Posted by Chris | 09/22/2020, 2:47 am
  5. Why was the daughter Anna not a suspect? She lived in the same house as her mother…


    Posted by Anoniem | 06/14/2014, 2:25 pm
    • The first time police came to the Surratt boarding house, they asked Mary the questions as she was the head of the household & owned the boarding house. She was also the mother of John Surratt, who they felt was likely the person who tried to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. The second time they came to not only do a search of the house, and they also took Mary & her daughter Anna into custody at that time. That act may not have occurred if it wasn’t for Lewis Powell – the man who had attempted to kill Seward – hadn’t shown up in the middle of their search. Both Mary & Anna were sent to the same prison where they awaited their fate.

      While Anna may have known some of what was going on, evidence gathered did not show any active participation by her. She was in her early 20’s, but many who knew her described her as almost child-like, emotional and immature. There was testimony given that Mary had several private meetings with John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators at the boarding house in the previous months leading up to the assassination. On several occasions when Booth came to the house looking for her son John, if he was not there Booth would then ask to speak to Mary privately upstairs. It was Booth that gave her a wrapped package to take with her the afternoon of Friday, April 14 (the day of Lincoln’s assassination) to her tavern outside of Washington, which contained field glasses. She rented a buggy that day and had one of her tenants, Lewis Weichmann, give her a ride there. She said she needed to go there to discuss a debt situation, but she never made contact with anyone regarding that matter when she was there. Instead, she had Weichmann take her to her tavern, where she had a private conversation with the tavern keeper, John Lloyd. While Weichmann waited in the buggy, Mary spoke privately with Lloyd. Mary gave Lloyd the wrapped package given to her by Booth (the field glasses), and told Lloyd to get two bottles of whiskey and the shooting irons ready as someone would be stopping by later that night for them. The shooting irons she was referring to were ones that her son, John, had secured in the attic in a secret hiding spot after their failed attempt at kidnapping Lincoln the month before.

      Other than Anna having an obvious crush on John Wilkes Booth, there was no testimony or act that led to her facing charges as part of the conspiracy to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. Anna was kept in the Old Capital Prison in Washington along with her mother after they were arrested at the boarding house. While Mary was charged with being part of the conspiracy & moved to the Washington Arsenal for trial, Anna was released. Anna testified during the trial on behalf of her mother, though during her first testimony it became too much for her – the stress and the unbearable heat – and she fainted. She was allowed a pass to sit in the courtroom on June 1, 1865 and on June 5, 1865 obtained a pass to see her mother for a one-on-one visit. She had not had physical contact with her mother in over a month, and it was said they hugged each other, Anna sobbing, for a full 10 minutes. They then spoke privately for 90 minutes. Anna would testify again on June 7, and would continue to see her mother as much as she could during the remainder of the trial.

      When the sentence of death by hanging was given for Mary, Anna was shocked & extremely upset. The night before the execution Anna went inside the White House and attempted to beg for her mother’s release or at least a reduction in her sentence. It was of no use; Mary Surratt was executed on July 7, 1865.

      The short answer is that, at one point, every person in the Surratt boarding house was a suspect. But they were quickly able to determine the involvement of the various individuals and cleared Anna in the process. Even to this day there is no evidence that shows Anna had any involvement.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by thecivilwarproject | 06/14/2014, 4:48 pm
  6. Thanks!! How do we know Anna had a crush on John Wilkes Booth?


    Posted by Anoniem | 06/14/2014, 5:43 pm
    • Anna’s brother John mentioned to his male friends on several occasions how his sister would primp herself once she knew John Wilkes Booth was coming over, and that at times she embarrassed him by her flirting. She had a picture of Booth in her room, though it was hidden behind another photo. It doesn’t appear, however, that Booth returned her affections. While he was a ladies man, he never spoke with her or did anything with her one-on-one. When he was shot & killed, he had photos of four women in his pocket; three were actresses and the other was Lucy Hale, a Senator’s daughter he is thought to have been engaged to. It is questionable whether or not the engagement existed, or if had been called off shortly before Booth shot Lincoln. All we do know is that Lucy was shocked, as she & her family were abolitionists. She had no idea Booth had hated Lincoln and had such a “love” of the Southern cause. Lucy’s father didn’t like Booth, but her mother approved. There are some documents that show they had a few fights before the assassination, including one during a trip to Newport, Rhode Island at their hotel. Booth actually had breakfast with her & her mother the morning of the assassination, but it was before he found out that Lincoln was going to attend the play that night.

      Booth being engaged was also a shock to his family; they had no idea. And the Hale family made sure to distance Lucy from Booth immediately, so that’s why it’s unclear about the true status of their relationship. If he did propose, many question the motives as to why he proposed to her, when he loved the company of actresses and women of “ill-repute.” He was not the type to “settle down.” Booth was a famous actor & powerful in his own right. However, the one thing people didn’t realize is that he was practically broke. He made several poor business deals, so it’s possible he thought marrying into a rich family would help him financially.

      One other interesting fact: Lucy Hale also had another male suitor around the time Booth started courting her. Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s oldest son. Lucy would choose Booth.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by thecivilwarproject | 06/16/2014, 5:18 pm
  7. How ironic, about Robert Todd Lincoln!
    Thanks so much for your answers, appreciate it! It’s nice to be able to ask you these questions.


    Posted by Anoniem | 06/20/2014, 3:00 pm
  8. Do we have any idea how John Surratt felt about his mother being hanged? Is there any record to his reaction to the news? Also, do we know anything about his relationship with Anna during his trials or later in life after he was freed?


    Posted by lee smitn | 06/24/2014, 8:20 am
    • John was in Elmira, New York the night of the assassination. Because Seward’s assailant was not originally known, John became a top suspect almost immediately because people had seen him with Booth on many occasions, including at Fords Theatre. There is no evidence to show that he knew of any plot of “murder,” but he had been a part of the kidnapping plot the previous month. Instead of returning to Washington, he feared he would be still be linked to the assassination and escaped to Canada, where Confederates had many operatives throughout the war. It was a key place where money was filtered and information was exchanged. He lived with a Catholic priest for three months using the alias “Charles Armstrong.” During this time the story played out in Washington, where his mother & sister were taken into custody, and his mother eventually was tried, convicted & hung for her role in the assassination.

      From what I’ve read, there was some dismay on Anna’s part that her brother did not return to Washington to help her mother. They had an older brother, Issac, who had fought in the Confederate army; he also did not go to Washington to help. Both brothers left things in the hands of fate. At the time no one believed that Mary would be hung; no woman had ever been put to death in the United States. While Anna realized the severity of the situation, both brothers took no action to support their sister or mother. Many people would view this as cowardly, especially on the part of John.

      After his mother’s death, and with help from former Confederates & sympathizers, John traveled to Britain, and then moved on to Rome where he became part of the Papal Guard. Eventually he told a fellow soldier of his story, who notified a Cardinal; the U.S. Consul was contacted and they were able to apprehend John & took him back to the U.S. By then the statue of limitations had run out on the kidnapping charge, so they only thing they could charge John with was playing a role in the assassination. John was found not guilty. Many often say that this was because John’s trial was held in a civilian, not military tribunal, court, and that if John’s mother had gotten the same treatment, her life would have been spared. This, I feel, is a large misrepresentation. John was a Confederate courier & spy, and his whereabouts are detailed and verified. He was no where near Washington the day of the murder or the week leading up to it. Mary, however, was. And her actions helped Booth in his escape. If John had been tried for kidnapping, then he would have been found guilty, as even he would admit before the court that he was a part of it.

      I state this because it supports what I’m about to tell you next: In regards to John & his reaction to his mother’s death, he would give four lectures/speeches, one that was in high attendance and was actually reprinted, and he commented that he was shocked that they hung his mother. He didn’t think that would happen because she was a female. He did learn of her fate after-the-fact. He put a lot of blame on one of his former friends & a boarder at the Surratt boarding house, Lewis Weichmann. John claimed Lewis knew of the murder plot, had pointed the finger of blame at his mother and also did not “notify John of the severity” of the situation she was in.

      However, I’ve read not only Lewis’s testimony, but seen the timeline/actions he took before & after the assassination, and I do not believe he was a part of it. The biggest reason: Lewis wrote a letter to one of their old professors, telling him that he was worried that John Surratt was possibly involved with conspiracy against the U.S. government. He feared his friend was in trouble. The professor wrote back, but the letter never reached Lewis. Instead, it was found in John Wilkes Booth’s possessions in his hotel room; he had intercepted the letter and put it in his trunk. During & after the trial Lewis was chastised by a lot of people, many who thought he was a coward who should have protected Mary instead of providing key testimony that pointed to her guilt. This became worse after she was executed, because even though many wanted vengeance on Lincoln’s killer & his accomplices, most were appalled that the government hung a woman. People wanted justice, but for most that went too far.

      Lewis would refer to the letter of concern he wrote as proof that he was innocent, but the professor denied he had ever received anything to the press & also placed guilt on Lewis. Lewis had no proof he had written the professor, and it wouldn’t come out until years later. Why? Because the government had taken Booth’s trunk & placed it in a room within the hotel where they kept other luggage and customer items. No one came back for it. It wasn’t until the hotel was closed that someone opened it up & found the contents. It was then that the letter that the professor had written to Lewis was made public, but by then decades had past and no one really cared. The letter had instructed Lewis not to be too hasty to judge, but to still keep an eye on the situation. Why the professor did not support Lewis – and in fact, made him out to be a liar & a horrible person that betrayed Mary & John Surratt – is a question we’ll never have an answer to.

      In regards to the three children of Mary Surratt: Issac never married; he came to Washington during his brother John’s trial only to testify on John’s age (he was 23), eventually settled in Baltimore but seemed to have little interaction with his siblings. Anna did not testify during John’s trial. She would stay in Washington, marry, and have several children, but was devastated over the loss of her mother. Many found her mentally unstable, if not insane. She fought, on her own – and eventually succeeded – to have her mother buried in a proper place. Anna & her brother Issac are buried along either side of their mother in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington.

      As for John, after his trial he would marry and have seven children. He would try farming & teaching, but eventually became Treasurer for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company. He is buried in Baltimore. There is not a lot of evidence, but it appears that John & Anna did not really interact before, during or after his trial. There was no correspondence during Mary’s trial between the two of them, since obviously John was in hiding. While Anna was unable to move past what happened, John obviously did. Given that simple fact, it’s no surprise that the two were not close. While John was the youngest of the three, he was the one who was most active not only as a Confederate spy, but in conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to take action against the U.S. In the end, it was his mother & sister who paid the ultimate price. Don’t get me wrong, Mary supported her son & knew what he was doing. She even lied for him on several occasions. She was also unwilling to give him up during her own trial in any effort to save herself.

      The day of the assassination, Mary Surratt received two letters from her son John. One was for her, the other was for his girlfriend. Mary gave the letter to his girlfriend for her to read, but then asked for it back. Mary burned both the letters later that day. Had she kept them, it would have been proof that John was not in Washington the day of the assassination based on the postmark & location it was sent from. John’s girlfriend always questioned why Mary had burned the letters, as she stated that her own letter contained no incriminating information. It is not known what John’s letter contained to his mother. But one has to wonder what would have happened to Mary if she had kept the letters (proving John’s innocence at the time, making it harder to prosecute him for the assassination part), or if John had returned to Washington. Would the U.S. government let Mary go in exchange for her son? Would John have been executed, or just sentenced for life for his role in the kidnapping? Definitely questions we’ll never know the answer to.

      Liked by 2 people

      Posted by thecivilwarproject | 06/25/2014, 5:28 pm
  9. There is no evidence Mary was guilty. America wanted revenge.


    Posted by Laurie Scarlett Anne Corbin | 11/22/2014, 1:30 am
  10. Mary Surrat was guilty and received what she deserved. No manner of reason can change the facts or opinions of those who found her guilty of a most unpatriotic nature. She conspired to take the life of a US President for political purposes and I thank God for her demise.


    Posted by Ronald Rhodes | 02/15/2015, 1:47 pm
  11. I think this was a horrible trial and they should have had a community trial


    Posted by Anonymous | 05/17/2018, 2:41 pm
  12. i love this site


    Posted by Anonymous | 05/17/2018, 2:44 pm
  13. A civil war in a state build on genocide and in occupied territory.


    Posted by Hans de Vries | 05/17/2018, 3:19 pm
  14. According to references cited in Wikipedia: “military surgeons determined that no one’s neck had been broken by the fall.”
    As an emergency physician I wonder what sort of assessment made that determination. Certainly some neck fractures are
    readily evident by basic physical exam. I will never forget assessing the neck of a patient who died at the scene of a motor vehicle accident, feeling and hearing the macabre crunch of fractured bone and obvious instability. With this knowledge, I was able to tell the family I was certain the death was instantaneous, a sad but meaningful comfort to them.

    But not all neck fractures are that extreme in their physical findings. I would assume the military surgeons did not dissect to
    better evaluate for neck fracture, but relied on closed exam. And perhaps they had the experience and skill to make an accurate assessment.
    In my career, where I am constantly assessing for cervical fracture, I certainly do not flex and extend injured necks, but rely on cat scan.
    Only once, with a long dead patient, did I flex and extend a broken neck. Civil war military surgeons had a far different reality.

    The goal from a properly tied noose is the hangman’s fracture, a bilateral pedicle fracture of cervical vertebrae number 2, which results from an abrupt extension and axial load on the neck. Neck bone rapidly compresses or cuts through high spinal cord, I am troubled that during a period when I would assume hangings were a frequent occurence, doctors at the scene were of the opinion that not one of the prisoners sustained the desired quick transection of their cervical cord. Prisoners instead suffered slow asphyxiation, a dreadful way to go. I also find it interesting, and rather troubling, that the military surgeons made the effort to determine whether necks were indeed broken. This suggest to me that many or
    most hangings were “botched.”

    In our “modern” society, we have lost an appreciation for the difference between a good death and a bad one. This assessment by the military surgeons, who most likely had witnessed vast horrors during the preceding 4 years, suggests they were quite interested in “cause of death”. People familiar with death usually are. I vaguely remember, when I last read on the Surratt case, something about the individual who usually tied the hangman’s knots being unavailable, that another less experienced person prepared the nooses. Does anything else have knowledge on this?
    The rope used in the movie was very large and coarse and did not look like it would slide for the needed mechanism. A properly tied hangman’s knot requires skill, and the rope needs to slide smoothly and quickly for an abrupt clean jerk high on the neck.

    And I don’t see how it can be determined that Mary Surratt died instantly when there was a bag over her head.

    These are the referenced sources in Wikipedia on this point:

    Gillespie, L. Kay. Executed Women of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2009.
    Swanson, James L. and Weinberg, Daniel R. Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.


    Posted by Diana Michele | 07/10/2018, 9:57 pm
  15. Some of the statements in The Facts column are inaccurate, but most of them are valid. It is a shame that Redford was not more careful about historical accuracy. Surprisingly, For example, Redford has Mary Surratt telling Aiken that her son and Booth were trying to kidnap Lincoln. But Sam Arnold said Mary knew nothing about the kidnapping plot, and Lewis Powell said Mary knew nothing about the murder plot. Why couldn’t Redford have done a scene where Arnold and Powell told Aiken that Mary knew nothing about either of Booth’s plots?

    The Flimsy Case Against Mary Surratt

    Click to access flimsycase.pdf


    Posted by Michael Griffith | 01/16/2019, 9:48 pm
  16. your mom


    Posted by Anonymous | 05/22/2019, 11:44 am
  17. The accounts explain were very helpful to my husband and I. We are appreciative of the effort made to bring further clarity to this movie .


    Posted by Kimberly | 01/30/2020, 8:23 pm
  18. In the movie trial, Weichman testifies that he had reported his suspicions of illegal activity to someone in the war department. That doesn’t seem to make much sense in the movie, as it seems like such a random, if not unsubstantiated comment. Is it safe to assume that it had no part in the actual trial or did I miss the connection?


    Posted by jimspen99 | 03/27/2020, 11:02 pm


  1. Pingback: The Conspirator – Filmmakers Galore - 02/28/2017

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