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About the Film

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks.

Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken, a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son.

A suspenseful thriller with action throughout, The Conspirator tells the true story of a woman who would do anything to protect her family and the man who risked everything to save her.

About Frederick Aiken

Thomas R. Turner

by Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College
"The filming of THE CONSPIRATOR, however, has led to a great deal of research that has shed additional light on Frederick Aiken's life and career." Learn more

About Mary Surratt

Fred L. Borch III

by Fred L. Borch III

U.S. Army (Ret.) Historian
"On July 7, 1865, about 20 minutes after one o’clock, Mary Surratt was hanged. She was forty-two years old and had earned the unwanted distinction of being the first woman executed by the U.S. government." Learn more

About Frederick Aiken

Thomas R. Turner

by Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College

Frederick A. Aiken

Popular music uses the term “one hit wonder” to refer to an individual or group that recorded an enormous hit but who were never again able to duplicate their initial success. Historians deal with a similar phenomenon, individuals who lived fairly ordinary lives that would not have put their names into the history books except for the fact that they found themselves thrust into the spotlight of some very significant historical event. This is the case with Frederick Aiken. Many people familiar with Lincoln’s assassination reacted skeptically when it was announced that Aiken would be one of the leading characters in “The Conspirator” since so little was known about him other than his defense of Mary Surratt. The filming of the movie, however, has led to a great deal of research that has shed additional light on his life and career.

Frederick Aiken was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1832, according to his birth record and both the 1840 and 1850 census. At the age of ten he moved with his parents to Hardwick, Vermont, where he attended Morrisville and St. Johnsbury academies. He attended Middlebury College where he studied journalism and became the editor of the Burlington Sentinel.

He married Sarah Olivia Weston who was a brilliant woman in her own right. Sarah originally studied with her father Judge Edmund Weston but was also educated in Boston. She was one of the first women students granted privileges by Harvard College.

Despite erroneous claims that he graduated from Harvard Law School (Harvard has no record of his attendance), like most lawyers of his day—including Abraham Lincoln—he apprenticed himself to a lawyer, in this case his father-in-law Judge Weston. In 1859 he was admitted to the Vermont Bar; the next year he relocated to Washington, D.C.

Despite being a newcomer to the nation’s capital he moved in high social and political circles. He served as the secretary of the Democratic National Committee where he supported the presidential candidacy of John C. Breckenridge. Aiken also wrote a letter to Secretary of State William Seward enclosing a letter from Colonel Isaac Stevens expressing his disappointment at not receiving a more significant military command (Stevens’ letter is also in Aiken’s handwriting). Stevens, a well-known military figure and politician, apparently felt that a note transmitted (and written) by Aiken would enhance his case.

In addition Aiken wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis offering his services to the Confederacy as a writer, an unusual offer given his service during the war in the Union army. Some historians have speculated that the letter might have been part of some elaborate espionage plan. An equally plausible explanation is that, as a Democrat who did not like Abraham Lincoln, Aiken may have had some sympathies with the Confederacy early in the war.

Though Aiken's military service has been more difficult to verify in all of its details, correspondence concerning his service appears in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. A dispatch from Aiken to Winfield Scott Hancock notes that he served as acting aide de camp to Hancock on May 5, 1862 during the battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, while a dispatch from Hancock praising Aiken and several other officers refers to him as volunteer aide de camp to the division commander General William F. Smith. Aiken apparently served gallantly having horses shot out from under him and being wounded.

While Aiken’s defense of Mary Surratt is sometimes portrayed as inept it was not easy to obtain lawyers for the accused Lincoln conspirators much less to secure acquittals. All of those tried were found guilty; however, if Andrew Johnson had approved the clemency petition submitted by the Military Commission (debate still rages as to whether Judge-Advocate Joseph Holt showed it to the president) Mary Surratt would have been sentenced to life in prison and probably would have been pardoned in 1869.

Interestingly, while it was previously believed that Aiken (with partner John Clampitt) worked for Senator Reverdy Johnson, he had his own law practice and may have approached Senator Johnson to draft a plea against the military court’s jurisdiction over civilians. The fact that Senator Johnson withdrew from active participation in the trial (leaving Aiken to defend Mary), left an impression that Johnson believed Surratt was guilty but that she should not be tried by the military.

Aiken and Clampitt’s partnership ended shortly after the trial which could mean that their defense of Mary Surratt prevented them from attracting new clients. A more significant factor in the demise of the firm may have been a scandal. The New York Times reported Aiken’s arrest in June of 1866 when he cashed a check with a merchant but did not have the funds to cover the amount.

Despite this indiscretion Aiken continued his contacts with prominent individuals, even writing a letter to Jefferson Davis in which he congratulated him upon his release from Fortress Monroe. In 1868, he returned to his previous career in journalism; at the time of his death he was serving as the first city editor of The Washington Post.

Aiken died a relatively young man (46) in 1878, from heart-related problems (likely aggravated by his war service and wounds). While he is buried in an unmarked grave in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, research provoked by the production of THE CONSPIRATOR has shown him to be a much more complex figure than the inexperienced lawyer who had his moment in the spotlight during one of the most sensational trials in American history.

Some research provided by the Surratt House Museum and the James O. Hall Research Center.

Note: There are a number of researchers who have added to our previously sparse knowledge about Aiken including Christine Christensen, Laurie Verge, Melissa Jacobson, and Herb Swingle who discovered the copy of Aiken's letter to Jefferson Davis. Many thanks to Christine and Herb for sharing some of their recent research.

For Further Reading, The American Film Company recommends:

Surratt House Museum

About Mary Surratt

About Mary Surratt

Fred L. Borch III

by Fred L. Borch III

U.S. Army (Ret.) Historian

Photo Courtesy of Surratt House Museum/M-NCPPC, Clinton, Maryland.

Mary Surratt (neé Jenkins)
(1823 – 1865)

Born on a plantation in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1823, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was the second of three children born to Archibald and Elizabeth Jenkins. After Mary’s father died when she was two years old, her mother did not remarry. Rather, she continued to run the farm, manage its slaves, and enjoyed considerable financial success.

In 1835, Elizabeth Jenkins sent twelve year old Mary to the Academy for Young Ladies, a private Catholic boarding school located in Alexandria, Va. Mary was greatly influenced by the religious instruction of this school and, despite having been raised as an Episcopalian, converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 14 years old. By all accounts, Mary was a devout Catholic - it was her faith that gave her much comfort in the last few months of her life.

The private school closed in 1839 and Mary returned to her family plantation. Shortly thereafter, sixteen-year-old Mary met John H. Surratt, who was ten years older than she. Although Surratt was already a father (he had a son out of wedlock in 1838), he and Mary became romantically involved and married when Mary was 17 years old, in August 1840. Over the next four years, Mary and John had three children: Issac, Anna, and John Jr.

Initially, John Surratt Sr. did well financially, as he had a small plantation and enough slaves to help him farm it. But Mary’s marriage was not happy. Although John provided financial security, he was an alcoholic and apparently physically and emotionally abusive. Given the traditional culture of the time, and the subservient role played by women, Mary had little recourse so she remained married to John.

In 1851, the Surratts were financially ruined when their farm was destroyed by fire. John Sr. was forced to leave the area to take a job in Virginia. But he returned to Prince George’s county the following year and purchased about 200 acres located twelve miles south of Washington City (as Washington, D.C. was then called). Surratt then built a tavern and an inn on this land, and named the location “Surrattsville.”

The tavern and inn were a success and, in December 1853, John Sr. used some of the money he had earned to buy a four-story townhouse on H Street in Washington City. Meanwhile, the Surratt’s farm properties continued to do well - by the mid-1850s, John and Mary were curing tobacco, raising pigs, and running a blacksmith shop and stable. They also owned at least six slaves. John Sr. also had been appointed as the local postmaster, which meant additional income making the Surratt tavern a local U.S. Post Office.

After the Civil War began, the Surratt tavern became known as a safe haven for Confederate agents and smugglers. Although this meant additional income for John Sr. and his family, John spent more than he earned, gambled incessantly, and drank more and more heavily. On August 25, 1862, fifty-one year old John Surratt died (probably of a stroke). He left behind large debts that meant his widow Mary was in a dire financial situation.

Mary decided that the only way for her and for her children to survive was to liquidate her assets. She then began the process of selling some items (furniture, farm equipment and slaves), renting her Surrattsville properties, and moving to Washington City, where she intended to operate the H street home as a boardinghouse.

While her 21-year-old daughter Anna went with her to Washington City, her sons did not: Issac had enlisted in the Confederate Army and was far away; John Jr. remained in Surrattsville as the postmaster (he had assumed his father’s post). John also began working as a Confederate agent (supplying information about the movements of Federal troops and also smuggling messages).

Running a boarding house was a step down from operating a tavern, inn and plantation but Mary had little choice and apparently did well enough. One frequent visitor to her brick H Street home (in addition to her son, John Jr.) was the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. In fact, most of the other men tried for conspiring to murder Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President (later President) Andrew Johnson also visited the Surratt boarding house. This fact caused Johnson to later refer to the Surratt home as the “nest that hatched the rotten egg,” by which he meant that Mary’s boardinghouse had been the central meeting place for the assassination conspiracy.

On May 10, 1865, Mary Surratt and her fellow conspirators went on trial at the Old Washington Arsenal, located in the District of Columbia. On June 30, the military commission found all eight defendants guilty and sentenced four of them, including Mary Surratt, to be hanged by the neck until dead.

On July 7, 1865, about 20 minutes after one o’clock, Mary Surratt was hanged. She was forty-two years old and had earned the unwanted distinction of being the first woman executed by the U.S. government.

Some research provided by the Surratt House Museum and the James O. Hall Research Center.

For Further Reading, The American Film Company recommends:

Surratt House Museum

Abraham Lincoln Research Site

CAST

James McAvoy

Frederick Aiken

Robin Wright

Mary Surratt

Kevin Kline

Secretary Stanton

Evan Rachel Wood

Anna Surratt

Justin Long

Baker

Alexis Bledel

Sarah

Tom Wilkinson

Reverdy Johnson

Danny Huston

JAG Holt

Toby Kebbell

John Wilkes Booth

James Badge Dale

Hamilton

Johnny Simmons

John Surratt

Colm Meaney

General Hunter

Stephen Root

John Lloyd

Jonathan Groff

Louis Weichmann

Norman Reedus

Lewis Payne

CREW

Robert Redford

Director

James D. Solomon

Writer

Joe Ricketts

Executive Producer

Greg Shapiro

Producer

Brian Falk

Producer

Robert Stone

Producer

Bill Holderman

Producer

Webster Stone

Executive Producer

Jeremiah Samuels

Executive Producer

Newton Thomas Sigel

Director of Photography

Kalina Ivanov

Production Designer

Louise Frogley

Costume Designer

Mark Isham

Composer

Craig McKay

Editor

Greg Bernstein

Story By

DID YOU KNOW

“John Wilkes Booth failed in his attempt to kidnap President Lincoln only weeks before the assassination.”

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