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The Conspirator

Posted By - Thomas R. Turner
Apr 4, 2011 at 9:36pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Historians View the Assassination”

In April of 1865 most northerners had little trouble discerning who was behind the assassination; they were convinced the Confederate government was involved. Andrew Johnson confirmed this view when he issued a proclamation naming Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders as co-equal conspirators with the actual assassins. Given this climate, violence came swiftly to those suspected of celebrating the president's death. One of the most dramatic examples was a scene witnessed by Associated Press General Manager Melville Stone. While passing the Matteson House in Washington, D.C., he heard a shot and stepping inside saw a man lying dead on the floor. When asked why he had fired, the gunman responded, "He said it served Lincoln right." Holstering his weapon, the gunman walked out the door a hero. (Historians Tom and Deborah Goodrich discovered over two hundred such violent episodes!)

In "The Conspirator," the military judges are portrayed as army general intent on retribution, but it is doubtful if a civil jury (composed of people who were caught up in the chaotic aftermath of the assassination) would have been any more discriminating in rendering a verdict. In fact, had the tribunal been vindictive, they could have ordered executions of everyone on trial; instead, they executed only those they believed were involved in the murder itself and gave prison sentences to those who they believed had participated in the kidnapping plan. The fact that a civil jury in 1867 could not agree on John Surratt's guilt had a lot more to do with the cooling of passions over a two year period than it did with the type of trial. Since John Surratt was clearly not in Washington on April 14, his role in the assassination appeared less apparent when the evidence against him was examined in a calmer atmosphere two years later.

By 1867, the country had moved on to other issues, one of which was the effort to impeach and remove Andrew Johnson from office. The president who initially talked about "hanging rebels and making treason odious," had fallen out with his former allies. Since Booth had left a card in Johnson's hotel mailbox reading, "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" some began to suspect that Johnson might have been involved. Overtures were made to some of the imprisoned conspirators who were held in the Dry Tortugas as to whether they would reveal the extent of the president's involvement. But no evidence of his involvement ever turned up. Johnson was eventually impeached, not because of his supposed implication in the assassination, but because he opposed and tried to subvert Congress's Reconstruction policies. He was saved from conviction by one vote in the Senate.

Ultimately, as reconstruction ended many Americans fell back on the belief that Booth, increasingly portrayed as a crazy actor surrounded by a small rag-tag group of followers, was behind Lincoln's death and not the Confederate authorities. Simultaneously, the Radical Republicans were characterized as evil men who in David DeWitt's words had unleashed a "reign of terror" against the defeated South. DeWitt also called the execution of Mary Surratt "Judicial Murder."

One long-running interpretation of the assassination portrayed it as a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests and Jesuits, presumably to weaken the government so the Pope could take control of America. One writer went so far as to state that all eight conspirators (plus John Surratt) were Catholics, including Booth, a supposedly secret convert to the faith. In fact, only the Surratts and Dr. Samuel Mudd were Catholics, and despite this theory's ongoing popularity in anti-Catholic circles, it is entirely without merit.

In the 1930s and 1940s Otto Eisenschiml raised a series of provocative questions, suggesting that the Republican Radicals and particularly Stanton, had actually engineered Lincoln's murder. Eisenschiml prepared the groundwork for other authors to fill in the blanks. One of the most sensational conspiracy books (also made into a movie) was "The Lincoln Conspiracy." Supposedly based on missing pages from Booth's diary, the authors argued that Booth was such a bungler at kidnapping Lincoln that the Radicals replaced him with a Confederate prisoner named James Ward Boyd. Booth was not deterred however, and just as Boyd was about to kidnap Lincoln, Booth shot him. In this scenario, through a series of mistaken identities, Boyd died in Garrett's Barn and Booth escaped. The Radicals "covered up" this error to conceal their own involvement.

In 1977, the wheel came full circle with the publication of William Tidwell's "Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Death of Lincoln," the book argues that the public in 1865 was correct; the Confederate government and Secret Service were involved in the kidnapping plans and murder after all. The book explains that when Jefferson Davis was approached about kidnapping Lincoln he vetoed all plans, fearing that the president would resist and be injured or even killed. After the 1864 raid on Richmond led by Ulric Dahlgren, orders were found on Dahlgren's body to release Union prisoners, burn Richmond, and kill or capture Davis and his cabinet, the gloves supposedly came off. In retaliation, the Confederates sanctioned a number of plans including Booth's, none of which succeeded. Desperate as defeat loomed in the spring of 1865, the Confederates dispatched Thomas Harney of the Torpedo Bureau to infiltrate Washington and blow up Lincoln and his cabinet. When Harney was captured, Booth, knowledgeable about these plans, tried to duplicate them on his own as best he could by targeting the president, vice-president, and Secretary William Seward.

It is striking how the historiography of the assassination resembles the turning of a wheel, starting with Confederate guilt, and in Tidwell's thesis, ending with Confederate guilt. However, wheels have a way of continuing to turn and the debate between two leading assassination historians demonstrates that the wheel may be moving once again. Historian Edward Steers, Jr. supports author Tidwell ("Come Retribution"), although he believes the plot can only be clearly traced back to Confederate agents in Canada. Michael Kauffman ("American Brutus") plays down the Dahlgren raid, arguing for a much simpler conspiracy where Booth and his band are once again the primary focus.

One encouraging note about assassination scholarship is that since 1982 when the first academic book on the subject appeared, a number of excellent studies have been written which attempt to seize the initiative from the sensationalists. On the negative side, however, the flow of conspiracy works has not abated. Given the lack of any consensus, it will be interesting to see where the wheel may turn in the future; in fact, "The Conspirator" may just move that wheel some too.

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  • teamsarratt77
    10/10/2011 at 10:22pm


    I'm young, so the things I know are what I've seen in the movie The Conspirator, I feel that Mary Sarratt was innocent, and should not have been hung, I also feel that Mary being hung was an act of vengance. I feel that Fredrick Aiken did an excellant job defending her, he did what he could to save her from her tragic fate. I'm only 12, but the story of Sarratt and Aiken fasinates me.

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  • laverge-01
    09/28/2011 at 7:31pm


    Sure hope I can answer this in 250 words - Booth's was the most identified body maybe in U.S. history! The troops in search of him were supplied with photographs of the actor; upon his being dragged out of the burning barn, even the Garrett family who owned the farm were shown those photos up against the living face. His leg was still in a sort of splint with a make-shift shoe.

    Upon being brought back to a monitor in the Washington Navy Yard, there was an autopsy (not of our standards) that confirmed the broken leg and also a scar on his neck from a carbuncle. This was identified by the surgeon who had removed the tumor. His initials that he "tattooed" on his hand as a child (attested to by his sister) were there. A cravat pin given and engraved by a fellow actor friend was found holding together a tear on his undershirt.

    Finally, his body was identified by fifty or more people - from the hotel clerk at the National where he stayed to members of the acting community, and probably even his fiancee. In 1869, when the remains were released to the family, his dental records were also produced by a brother and compared with those in the skull. Booth was wealthy enough to afford fillings in a day where most men just had bad teeth removed. His profession depended upon good hygiene.

    Americans love a good conspiracy - especially if it involves their government. Evidence be damned.

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  • Cliff
    09/28/2011 at 5:31am


    Can anyone shade some light on this? With so many conspiracy theories about Booth being captured and shot. Did anyone in that time check to see if the man shot at Garretts farm see if the leg was splint or broke? Just didn't seem like that would go unnoticed?! I can't wait for more I love this movie!!!!!!

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  • laverge-01
    09/12/2011 at 7:44pm


    Chasing Lincoln's Killer is actually a young adult edition of James Swanson's best selling Manhunt. It is also non-fiction, is a quick and tremendous read, and makes you feel like you are chasing Booth and Herold through the swamps and hills of Southern Maryland and the Northern Neck of Virginia.

    Check out for a long list of good books that are sold through the Surratt House Museum in Maryland. Beware, the story of the Lincoln assassination is addictive. Once you are infected, there is no known cure!

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  • kfrogb
    09/11/2011 at 10:56pm


    If you appreicated the history presented in this movie, then check out "Chasing Lincoln's Killer" by James Swanson. Not only does it contain a very detailed account of the assasination itself, but it also contains many pictures in the book of the participants. The book was absolutely fascinating!!!

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Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College

Thomas R. Turner is a historian and professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the oldest continuously published journal devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln which includes articles examining all facets of... More

Thomas R. Turner


James M. McPherson

Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University

Professor James McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Ameritus at Princeton University. He is also a member of the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Battle Cry of Freedom" and his most recent book "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as... More

James M. McPherson

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