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The Conspirator

Posted By - Kate Clifford Larson
Apr 20, 2011 at 9:41pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Mary Surratt - Guilty, Innocent, or does it matter?”

Less than three months after her arrest at her boarding house on H Street in Washington City, Mary Surratt would be hanged for her role in John Wilkes Booth's murderous plot. The military tribunal that found her guilty never doubted their verdict, but five of the nine commissioners petitioned President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, to show mercy because of her sex and age. President Johnson, however, was unmoved, convinced that Surratt "kept the nest that hatched the egg," and demanded her execution anyway.

On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt would become the first woman ever executed by the United States government. At the time, this was a shocking and uncomfortable consequence of a horrific crime committed at the end of a grueling, divisive war. That a woman could have been so bold, so beyond her place in society that she could have, would have, been involved with Booth and his supporters defied expected norms of femininity, piety, and motherhood. But, stepping out of such gendered roles left her vulnerable to the same deadly punishment historically reserved for men.

A few decades ago, a small group of doggedly determined Lincoln assassination historians and researchers, began reexamining the history of the assassination and the trial of the co-conspirators. They recovered long lost interviews, confessions, and extensive court testimony that had been filed and left untouched for one-hundred-and-fifty years. More recently, this new research has provoked a reassessment of the conspiracy behind Booth's attack, and this, in turn, has focused a bright light on Mary Surratt's role. Those records reveal that testimony regarding Surratt's knowledge of the kidnapping plot was substantial, but it was her actions on the day of the assassination that fatally linked her to the murder. While there is no evidence that Surratt knew of Booth’s intentions to kill Lincoln, by aiding and abetting him she was doomed.

Damning testimony by two key witnesses, Louis J. Weichmann and John Lloyd, sealed Mary's fate. Their detailed and unwavering testimonies during the trial convinced many court observers that Mary was guilty. Some Surratt supporters, then and now, believe Weichmann and Lloyd lied about Mary to save their own necks. But the evidence does not bear this out. While both were privy to information and details about Booth's plans - Lloyd aided Booth and Herold the night of the assassination - their testimony regarding Mary's actions was never contradicted. More importantly, however, it did not exonerate them of complicity, either.

While true believers in Mary's innocence refuse to accept their testimony, no one has been able to offer evidence that the testimony was engineered or manufactured by the prosecution. It was only after Lloyd's interrogation on April 22 that the government looked more deeply into Mary Surratt's personal role. Mary could have revealed details of Booth's plans when she was interrogated, but she refused. Unlike Lloyd and Weichmann, Mary had much more to lose. Revealing her knowledge of Booth's plans would have further implicated her son John, Jr. This, for a mother, was a bargain she could not make.

Interestingly, three of the other co-conspirators fingered Mary, too. The day of the execution, William E. Doster, attorney for both Lewis Payne and George Atzerodt, wrote that co-conspirator David Herold complained that Mary "is as deep in as any of us." Doster was also in possession of Atzerodt's confession, taken in early May, in which Atzerodt implicates Mary in the plot. Additionally, Atzerodt swore so loudly that day that Mary was as guilty as the rest of them that it was reported by numerous journalists stationed at the prison.

Lewis Payne, the fourth conspirator to hang with Mary, gave his own confession during those final hours, admitting his guilt and role in Booth's plans. He told Doctor Guillette that he went to Mary’s house that fateful evening of April 17th because he "believed Mrs. Surratt knew about the plot and would help him through, but was not sure she would not give him up...and would not therefore have blamed Mrs. Surratt if she had caused him to be arrested. He [Payne] never has either said she was guilty or innocent, but has more than once said that the conversations of Booth and John H. Surratt led him to believe that she knew in general terms what the plot was." Mary, Payne said, "does not deserve to die with us. If I had no other reason, Doctor - she is a woman, and men do not make war on women." Payne truly believed that Mary was unaware of the assassination plans, though he understood she was cognizant of the kidnapping plot. To Payne, the distinction was very important.

Was Mary privy to Booth’s final decision to murder the president? Did he tell her his plans when he met with her early on Good Friday, when he asked her to deliver the field glasses to John Lloyd at the Surratt Tavern? We may never know. But actual knowledge of the murder plot was not a requirement to receive the death penalty. Being an accessory to the murder through helping Booth, and concealing her knowledge of the conspirators' plans, resulted in her conviction.

The military judges must have known their decision would provoke strong reactions. The weight of the historical and legal precedent they were about to set may have tempered their decision. Testing historical tradition, they determined that Mary must hang. But five members of this jury recommended mercy for Mary and a reduction in her sentence. By requesting an alternative to putting her to death, they placed the final decision in President Johnson's hands. Johnson would have to approve the verdicts and sentences, and now it would be up to him to decide Mary's final fate. They gave their separate clemency petition to Judge Advocate Burnett, who then attached it to the written statements detailing the prisoners' sentences, and prepared them for Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to present to the President.

For three hours, Judge Advocate General Holt and President Johnson discussed the findings of the court and each prisoner's sentence. When the two men emerged from their meeting, Johnson remarked to his private secretary General R. D. Muzzey that several Commissioners recommended leniency. Johnson, however, "thought the grounds urged insufficient, and that he refused to interfere; that if she was guilty at all, her sex did not make her any the less guilty." Later, Johnson reiterated his feelings on the subject, telling Muzzey, "that there had not been ‘women enough hanged in this war.'"

That Mary was found guilty of conspiring with Booth and the other conspirators does matter. Placed in its historical context, she was party to a heinous crime and deserved punishment. That the military trial was and is contested, casting doubts as to its fairness, complicates our ability to view the evidence against Mary objectively. But we must, as a nation, remember and acknowledge the historical record. Our nation's history is complex and messy. Films like "The Conspirator" help shed light on this history, stimulating a welcomed debate that finally brings Mary out of a marginalized place to the center of one of America's notorious crimes.

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  • Cryptomys
    09/24/2011 at 12:15am


    I was a little disappointed that the film focused so much on Joseph Holt and said nothing about John Bingham. It's true that Holt was the lead prosecutor and, thus, more important at the trial, but Bingham is an important figure in American History because of his work in connection with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

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  • laverge-01
    09/22/2011 at 8:38pm


    The Surratts' connections with the Confederate underground courier route that ran from Richmond to Washington and on into Canada are well documented, including a CSA report from the third quarter of 1864 listing their tavern specifically as a safe house for agents -- this, two years after the death of Mary Surratt's husband. And, of course, her youngest son was a courier from 1863 on.

    However, to place Mary Surratt involved with Booth's kidnap/assassination plot for a long time is stretching it a bit. Booth was sent to Southern Maryland in November of 1864 to meet with Confederate supporters such as Dr. William Queen and Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd then took him to meet with Thomas Harbin, the chief Southern agent in the area.

    On December 23, 1864, Mudd met with Booth in Washington City and introduced him to John Surratt, Jr. The Surratts had just moved from their Maryland farm to the home they owned since 1853 on H Street in the city. It was at that time - just a little over four months before the assassination - that the Surratts became involved with the actor/assassin. A short period, but certainly enough time to do serious damage.

    BTW: thomasjones3, I wish they would have included more information on thomasjones1. He was an interesting man throughout the Civil War, and a Southern patriot to the last.

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  • thomasjones3
    09/21/2011 at 11:45am


    From an investigation of the many contacts with the Confederate "underground" in Washington throughout the war by the Surratt family, it was not by accident that the plot centered around Mary Surratt's boarding house. The letters and documents from the Confederate spies located in Canada support a long and seasoned group of Confederate spies involved with Booth throughout the war. Washington was overrun by Confederate spies. It was the "nature of the beast" having the Yankee capital so far south. Mary was surely involved for a long time.

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  • kfrogb
    09/11/2011 at 10:53pm


    I think it will always be a mystery of Mary Surrat's innocence or guilt in the efforts behind the conspiracy and assasinating of President Lincoln, however, what was no mystery was the meaning of the Constitution that should have allowed her a fair trial. The focus on the Constitution in this film really portrayed the importance of our Nations founding document.

    Constitution Week is coming up (September 17th - 23rd, 2011) and this will commemorate the 224th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. I will remember the struggle for her fair trial much during that week!!

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  • laverge-01
    09/10/2011 at 8:40pm


    The military court that tried the Lincoln conspirators did not try them each individually except within the jurisdiction of that one court. They were tried as one group under the laws of conspiracy - since they all were being tried as joining as one to traitorously murder the President and throw the country into chaos.

    The hoods were a means of deterring the prisoners from speaking to one another while in their cells. Mrs. Surratt and Dr. Mudd did not wear hoods - the latter probably in deference to his position as a physician. At one point early on, the hoods were actually padded. However, prison doctors soon determined that that was leading to signs of psychosis and ordered them removed.

    The padded ones were a result of Lewis Powell, the attacker of Secretary Seward, trying to commit suicide by beating his head against the walls of the ironclad monitor that the men (except for Mudd) were first imprisoned on in the Washington Navy Yard - before being transferred to the old Penitentiary on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal.

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Kate Clifford Larson

Historian and Author

Kate Clifford Larson, PhD., is an historian and author of "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln" (Basic Books, June 2008). With degrees from Simmons College and Northeastern University, and a doctorate in history from the University of New Hampshire, Larson... More

Kate Clifford Larson

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