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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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  • isingandshout
    09/10/2011 at 2:23pm


    Can you tell me why, during Mary Suratt's trial, that the men involved in the conspiracy of the murders of the President, the VP, and Sec. of State were present during her trial? And why did those men have parital hoods over their faces while they were in the cells?

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  • Basinger
    08/22/2011 at 11:43pm


    I'm not a historian, but I love history, and really enjoyed "The Conspirator". I can't wait for this new film company to make more movies.

    I think it would be interesting if they made a movie about Mary Dyer. She was hanged in Massachusetts for the crime of being a Quaker. I like what she said just before she was hanged. When they gave her a last chance to "repent" and leave Massachusetts for good, she replied, "Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent."

    It's good American history, but probably too religious for the tastes of today's audiences.

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  • martinrwj2
    08/22/2011 at 4:16pm


    She was indeed guilty, however she should not have been executed, and to be tried by a prejudiced Military Court was wrong. Many ways, in which The Military handled her Case, was just not right. Also Secretary of War Stanton was so angry, and full of remorse, anybody, in his mind, that was involved, should have been hanged, and he also felt that if you felt any compassion, remorse, or the need to follow The Law to the fullest, you must be a supporter of The Rebels, and therefore not loyal to your Country.

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  • sic-semper-tyrannis
    08/19/2011 at 9:14am


    Oh, and one last thing: Although I don't think they could of saved Lincoln, if they could have it was have been a very slender chance regarding the way in which they practiced medicine at the time; however, I do believe that it was a mistake to pick him up and move him across the street like they did. You have a dying man, possibly with a bullet still in his brain (i dont know if it went all the way through or not), then you pick him up, several bulky soldiers with equipment smacking into the president, carry him through dirt road and possible high sidewalks (sidewalks were higher up back then because of the mud when it rained, plus building would sink sometimes depending on the ground) making it a rough transition and transport AT BEST, and you have a mob of scared people bumping and pushing and running to get a look at what's going on. Lincoln did not die right away, so, quite possibly, even with the slimmest of chances, he might not of died if they had handeled that correctly; at any rate, his chances would have been better at the very least. This could of possibly changed history because of the effect his death had on reconstruction.
    Anyways, just a thought. My knowledge on the assassination is limited.

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  • sic-semper-tyrannis
    08/19/2011 at 9:01am


    I appreciate the timing of this movie, not just for its coming out on the 150th ann. of the start of the Civil War, but also because it comments on how we reacted, as a nation, to the events of 9/11 and the rights taken from those imprisoned at Gitmo and other facilities. When we see this movie we think "oh well, things were different back then", but this is not true at all. The exact same thing has happened today; and for those that never really cared or believed, let this be proof that history does, in fact, repeat itself.

    Also, I am extremely glad that a film company is devoting itself to making accurate historical films because so many sacrifice historical accuracy and distort the facts for entertainment purposes and for the sake of "the story." I've always felt that fact is far more compelling, even entertaining, than fiction; and it usually does not need to be improved upon, if ever. With that said, hurry up an get to filming the other ones! But please dont make John Brown look like an awe-inspiring man of god; the man was a terrorist!

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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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