“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.
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.|