Posts tagged ‘Assassination’

Mary Eugenia Surratt (1823-1865)

Convicted Lincoln assassination conspirator

Mary Surratt

Mary Eugenia Jenkins was born in Maryland in 1823. As an adolescent she attended a Catholic seminary for girls in Virginia, but at sixteen she married John Surratt, at least ten years her senior, and in 1840 settled with him in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the early years of their marriage the Surratts prospered as a result of John’s success as a planter, which allowed him to expand his land holdings and open a general store and tavern, making up the core of the community that came to be known as Surrattsville (now Clinton). In 1854, a post office was even established in town, with John as its first postmaster. John’s earlier achievements were undermined, however, by his excessive drinking, which led to neglect of his farm and crops and a steady decline in his fortunes. In August 1862, John died. The Surratts’ eldest son Isaac (b. 1841), having taken a job as a pony-express rider in Mexico, left Mary Surratt alone to care for her two younger children, Anna (b. 1843) and John, Jr. (b. 1844).

Surratt struggled to manage what remained of the family’s holdings in Surrattsville, but she found it increasingly difficult, not least of all because John, Jr. showed so little interest in helping on the farm. By fall 1864, Mary Surratt had moved with John, Jr. and Anna to a house on H Street in Washington, D.C., which her husband had purchased in 1853 and which she converted into a boardinghouse. Happily for the Surratts, the boardinghouse did quite well, with a small number of steady boarders and the constant flow of more transient traffic through the federal capital during the war.

As early as 1863, John Surratt, Jr. – a loyal Southerner like his late father – began serving the Confederacy as a courier. In connection with this work, and with his college studies, John brought a number of people home to H Street, some of whom would later become entangled in the assassination conspiracy. In the spring of 1863, John introduced his mother to a school chum named Louis Weichmann, who took up residence in the Surratt boardinghouse in November 1864. By January 1865, John had met and become good friends with the ardent secessionist and actor John Wilkes Booth. Subsequently Booth was a regular visitor to H Street as well. German immigrant and assassination co-conspirator George Atzerodt also stayed at the boardinghouse for a few days in February 1865, until Mary Surratt evicted him for excessive drinking. Posting as a Baptist preacher, Lewis Powell – later found guilty of the 14 April attack on Secretary of State William H. Seward – lodged at the Surratt boardinghouse for three days in March.

Surratt Tavern in Clinton, Maryland (formerly Surrattsville)

It was not long after the shooting at Ford’s Theater that government investigators first descended on the boardinghouse. At approximately 2:30 on the morning of 15 April, several officials arrived and demanded to search the house in connection with the murder of the President. It appears that these men were looking for John, Jr., whom they believed at the time to have been the one to assault Seward. On the evening of the 17th, two detectives and two army officers returned, this time to arrest Mary Surratt and the rest of the people remaining in the house (Weichmann had slipped out on the 15th and was arrested that day; other boarders, disturbed by the crowds gathering around the house, had moved out on the 16th). Of the five who were arrested, all were women, with the exception of Lewis Powell, who arrived in disguise at the last, and for him most inopportune, moment. John Surratt, Jr., was nowhere to be found, and Booth had already escaped across the Potomac.

Mary Surratt and the others were questioned intensively at the headquarters of General Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the capital, and the women were taken to the Old Capitol Prison, where they were incarcerated. Although the other women arrested with her (including Anna Surratt) were subsequently released, Mary Surratt was not. Instead, along with Atzerodt, Powell, and five others (Samuel Arnold, David Herold, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, and Edward Spangler) Mary Surratt was charged in the conspiracy to assassinate the president and subjected to a trial by a military commission. The trial began on 11 May and ended on 28 June. All eight were found guilty in varying degrees, and on 5 July, when President Andrew Johnson issued his orders in connection with the commission’s verdict, four were sentenced to hang, Mary Surratt among them. Gallows for Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were swiftly constructed, and on 7 July 1865, despite all expectations that her sentence would be converted, Mary Surratt was executed.

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

The legitimacy of a military commission trying a case involving civilians, and the quality of both the investigation and the evidence supplied during the trial (particularly in her case) have continued to be matters of steady debate for well over a century. Doubts about Mary Surratt’s guilt were from the start exacerbated by her own unwavering claims – even to her priest – about her innocence. It does not help the cause of the prosecutors or the commission with its guilty verdict, or President Johnson with his determination to execute Surratt and the others as quickly as possible, that John Surratt, Jr., though finally captured and brought to trial in 1867, walked away free and lived until 1916.

– Elizabeth D. Leonard [Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, pages 1909-1910]

For further reading:

Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth: The True Story of Lincoln’s Murder (1990).

Busch, Francis X. Enemies of the State (1954).

DeWitt, David M. The Judicial Murder of Mary E. Surratt (1895; reprint, 1970).

Eisenschiml, Otto. Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937).

Moore, Guy W. The Case of Mrs. Surratt: Her Controversial Trial and Execution (1954).

Trindal, Mary E., and Elizabeth S. Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy (1996).

Turner, Thomas Reed. Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1982).


Historical Inaccuracies in ‘The Conspirator’

by Jeffrey S. Williams

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Okay, so we know that the James Solomon/Robert Redford film The Conspirator, now entering its second full weekend, has some inaccuracies to it. What are they?

Here are a few obvious ones that I remember from having watched the film a week ago.

Myth: When David Herold and John Wilkes Booth first arrived at the Surratt Tavern and met with John Lloyd, the film shows Lloyd walking out to the two men on horses, handing the rifles and whiskey and then going back indoors.

Fact: Booth stayed mounted on his horse while Herold dismounted and joined Lloyd inside of the tavern. After Lloyd retrieved the rifles and had a couple of shots of whiskey, they walked out and gave Booth some whiskey before leaving. Herold pitched Lloyd a silver dollar to cover the cost of the alcohol. Booth and Herold were at the tavern for approximately five minutes.

Myth: Booth did not break his leg while jumping from the Presidential box to the stage at Ford’s Theater, as has been commonly claimed.

American Brutus

Fact: According to Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, “Booth and Herald had switched horses by then. Sergeant Cobb and others were positive that Booth had ridden away on a bright bay mare, and everyone agreed that Herold was on a roan. But outside the city, everyone who encountered them remembered it the other way around. In light of Booth’s broken leg, the switch made perfect sense. An injured man would certainly have preferred the gentle, steady gait of a horse like the one Herold had rented. From Lloyd’s to Mudd’s, Booth stayed on that horse, and Herold rode the mare, who was now noticeably lame, with a bad cut on her left front leg. Clearly, she had been involved in an accident.” Kauffman also states that the first reference to the fall at the theater came from Booth’s own diary entry written days after the incident. In the same entry, Booth writes that he yelled, “Sic Semper Tyrannus” BEFORE he shot President Lincoln, which, according to eyewitness accounts, was yelled after he landed on the stage.

In James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s killer, Herold told Dr. Samuel Mudd that, “one of their horses had fallen, the man claimed, throwing the rider and breaking his leg.”

Myth: Mary Surratt was put into a prison cell at the Washington Arsenal right after her capture, according to the film.

Fact: She was held at the Old Capitol Prison, currently the location of the U.S. Supreme Court building and formerly the site of the hanging of Andersonville prison camp commander, Henry Wirz, for thirteen days, before being transferred to the Arsenal. She was not at the Arsenal at the beginning of her incarceration but was tried and executed there.

Washington Arsenal on Greenleaf's Point

Myth: The Washington Arsenal has a moat.

Fact: The Washington Arsenal was located on Greenleaf’s Point (also known as “Buzzard Point”) surrounded on three sides by the Anacostia River and the Washington Channel. It is currently the site of Fort McNair and the National War College.

Myth: Mary Surratt was unveiled during the trial.

Fact: With the exception of her plea, she was veiled the whole time, including when her daughter, Anna, was on the stand. It may make for a good Hollywood portrayal to have the heroine unveiled during her trial but it is far from historically accurate.

Myth: Mary Surratt wasn’t guilty of her role in the conspiracy.

Mary Surratt

Fact: This is the whole crux of the debate that has existed since July 7, 1865. The fact is when the detectives first searched the boarding house, Surratt herself was said to exclaim, “For God’s sake! Let them come in. I expected the house to be searched” (Swanson, 119). The movie excluded a lot of other testimony which gave more conclusive proof of Surratt’s guilt and failed to include that. The film IS correct in asserting Reverdy Johnson’s plea that the trial was unconstitutional because she was a civilian being tried in front of a military tribunal, which was the heart of Johnson’s argument throughout the trial, but the defense team examined numerous witnesses which only further concluded Surratt’s guilt. In fact, while trying to portray her as a pious Catholic church-goer, her defense team called up five priests, none of whom could testify that they knew her for any length of time. In essence, her own defense team unknowingly worked against her.

Myth: A secret message was delivered to John Surratt appealing to his mother’s aid.

Fact:  This seems quite far-fetched. It is inconceivable that a message could be sent and received to a person on the run in Canada in the course of 12-hours even using the most modern transportation system at that time. This was most-likely a made-up scene to give intrigue to the film.


Myth: The steam locomotive in the film was the same type that was used in the Lincoln Funeral Train.

Fact: This is partially true. It is a similar reproduction and considering the number of years that have passed, would be nearly impossible to reproduce while keeping the film on-time and on-budget. (The Strasbourg Railroad in Strasbourg, Pennsylvania, often makes reproduction steam locomotives for use


in movies – including the one used in the Will Smith film, Wild Wild West.) The Lincoln Funeral Train was pulled by

4-4-0 wood-burning steam locomotives. From Washington to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – the train was pulled by B&O Railroad locomotive No. 238 with it’s sister engine No. 239 running ten minutes ahead as the advance. From Harrisburg to Jersey City, N.J., the train was pulled by Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive No. 331. The funeral car and Pullman business car were ferried across the river to New York City. From NYC to Albany, N.Y. it was pulled by the “Union” of the Hudson Railroad with the “Constitution” in advance. The Albany to Erie, Pennsylvania leg had the New York Central’s “Dean Richmond” at the helm, though another locomotive might have switched in Buffalo. The next leg was from Erie to Cleveland, Ohio, the duty fell to the Cleveland, Painsville and Ashtabula Railroad’s “William Case.” The “Nashville” of the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad took the train from Cleveland to Columbus with the “Louisville” in advance. I’m not sure at this point which locomotive took the train to Lafayette, Indiana, but that’s where the “Persian” of the New Albany and Chicago railroad took over on the journey to Michigan City, Indiana. From Michigan City to Chicago, the Michigan Central railroad’s “Ranger” took the lead. The final leg from Chicago to Springfield and Lincoln’s final resting place was led by the Chicago and Alton’s engine No. 58 with engine No. 40 in advance.  The train in the film appeared to be a coal-burner of a later vintage than any of these locomotives. I’ll post more information on the Lincoln Funeral Train at a later date.

Myth: Frederick Aiken was a young idealist unprepared for the U.S. government’s seeming disregard of Surratt’s rights.

Reverdy Johnson

Fact: According to Kate Clifford Larson, author of Assassin’s Accomplice, “In reality, Aiken and [John] Clampitt, convinced of their duty to defend Mary to the best of their abilities, lacked experience as trial attorneys and were left to defend her against great odds. But some of that responsibility must be placed squarely with Senator Reverdy Johnson. His actions may have ultimately doomed her. From my perspective, she did little to aid her own defense, and an attorney can only do so much if the client is not cooperative. Indeed, it was later reported that Aitken and Clampitt were frustrated by Mary’s silence.” While little information currently exists about the biography of Frederick Aiken, the stuff that we do have suggests that he was not necessarily a young pro-Union idealist. He was known to have been at-odds with Lincoln and his administration long before he was chosen as Mary Surratt’s attorney by Reverdy Johnson. However, more research needs to be done on Aiken’s biography.

Myth: There were no doctors present at Ford’s Theater.

Dr. Charles Leale, Lincoln's attending physician at Ford's Theater

Fact: Dr. Charles Leale, a 24-year-old Army surgeon, attended the performance that night and was the first to reach the Presidential box to attend to the fatally wounded President. Because he was the first attending physician on the scene, he took the lead in patient care over all the other physicians who were in attendance that night. Dr. Charles Taft was also at Ford’s that night and became the second to reach Lincoln. Taft deferred to Leale at all phases. It was Leale who decided that Lincoln would not survive the trip to the White House on the rutted roads and opted for the boarding house instead. It was Leale’s suggestion that the President be moved out of the theater to the boarding house across the street (the first boarding house was locked and the Petersen House next door was chosen by Leale instead). The other doctors arrived later, but Lincoln was already under the care of two trained medical professionals.

Grant House in Burlington, N.J.

Myth: General Grant and his family were heading to Philadelphia.

Fact: General Grant was heading to his house at 309 Wood Street in Burlington, New Jersey, a house he bought in 1864. The film was correct in that Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, sent the telegraph to Philadelphia. Uninformed movie-goers might interpret this to mean that Grant’s destination was Philadelphia, which was not the case.

Open Graves at the Washington Arsenal - Photo by Alexander Gardner

Another thing that the film got wrong was the “sterilized” look. Everything was too clean. Hey, this took place at the end of four years of war. The uniforms were not new. They were well-worn, torn and dirty. I can tell you that as a long-time Civil War reenactor, my uniform is well-worn, torn and dirty. Every reenactor goes through that, and we are clean by Civil War standards as happy “weekend warriors” who don’t live, march and sleep in the same clothing for weeks on end. If you want an accurate portrayal in the film, make sure that the clothes are worn BEFORE shooting begins, and the dust is everywhere. I noticed that in the courtroom scene, they are thick on the cigar smoke. Is this to cover up a lack of dust? But it gets worse – even the graves are perfectly dug. Even Alexander Gardner, who (thankfully) they properly portrayed in the film, took photos of the three graves. The coffin position was correct in the film, but the dirt taken out of the ground was piled too neatly. This is contrary to the photograph that Gardner took July 7, 1865.

There were things that the film got right.

  • The casting was extraordinary, minus the miscast Booth, who didn’t seem to fit in despite having such a prominent role in the actual plot.
  • The reenactors were used correctly. Unlike other period films with mis-cast reenactors, they blended into the scenery like they belonged there (which they did).
  • Secretary of State Seward’s assassination attempt by Louis Powell was correct. Seward was at home recovering from a carriage accident and had a metal brace connected to him that saved his life. Secretary of War Stanton left Seward’s house an hour before the assassination attempt happened.
  • Reverdy Johnson was a pro-Confederate Maryland U.S. Senator.

If you do go to see The Conspirator, remember to separate the fact from fiction. Mary Surratt was tried, convicted and hanged – probably with good reason.

To see my film review of ‘The Conspirator’ – click here.

The Conspirator Box Office – Opening Weekend

The numbers are in from “The Conspirator” opening weekend gross.

The $25 million budget film for director Robert Redford screened at 707 theaters during the film’s opening weekend.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

April 15, 2011 – 707 theaters – $1,099,750 total gross ($1,556 per theater average)

April 16, 2011 – 707 theaters – $1,577,213 total gross ($2,231 per theater average)

April 17, 2011 – 707 theaters – $832,085 total gross ($1,177 per theater average)

Three day total at 707 theaters – $3,509,048 total gross ($4,963 per theater average/3 days)

Revenue needed to break-even: $21,490,952


The Conspirator [Movie Review]

by Jeffrey S. Williams

I find it quite uncanny to be sitting alone in a dark theater at midnight watching the first viewing of a film about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the very night that he was assassinated. Yes, you read that correctly. I was alone and had the theater to myself. There was nobody else. The night was Thursday April 14, 2011, exactly 146 years after the president was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Shortly after ten o’clock on the night of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre while watching the play Our American Cousin. He was taken across the street to William Petersen’s boardinghouse where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning. An attempt was made on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward at the same time. It was later revealed that Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant were also candidates for assassination. After a trial by a military commission, conspirators George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and Mary Surratt were hanged on July 7, 1865. Of course you knew that. It’s in the history books.

The film The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford and produced by the American Film Company, is about the trial and hanging of Mary Surratt as viewed through the eyes of her attorney, Frederick Aiken. It opens with the assassination attempts and ends with the hanging, just like the story in the history books.

It’s the stuff between those scenes that concerns me.

First, the positives. The Civil War reenactors used did an above average job, compared to some other films like Gettysburg, God’s and Generals, Glory and Cold Mountain where the services of reenactors were utilized, but sometimes are mis-directed. Because this is not a film about a specific battle, reenactors were used as extras and performed wonderfully.

The cinematography was excellent. Even though the actual trial took place in Washington, D.C. in a courtroom constructed on the third floor of the Washington Arsenal, the film was shot at Savannah, Georgia. The reconstructed Arsenal gives you the feeling of actually being there. The courtroom layout was accurate, based upon the descriptions of those who were there and the sketches in Harper’s Weekly.

The casting was excellent. Robin Wright gave a stellar performance as Mary Surratt. Kevin Kline surprised me. It wasn’t until they flashed the credits that I realized that he portrayed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It was a fabulous performance. Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt) and Johnny Simmons (John H. Surratt Jr.) gave great performances which made me feel as if I was actually watching the events unfold inside the Surratt boardinghouse. The casting of the remaining conspirators and major characters was well done – except Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth). Kebbell did the best he could, so this is not a criticism of him. It’s in his looks. The other actors each had a strong likeness to their respective character. Kebbell seemed to be mis-placed. I give Avy Kaufman high marks for her abilities as a casting director.

Now for my criticism.

It wasn’t accurate. Even with the Dr. James McPherson as a historical consultant, there were so many inaccuracies that I could drive a Mack Truck through the holes in this film giving it the appearance of Robert Redford’s attempt at revisionist history. He tries hard to assert the innocence of Mrs. Surratt and make Secretary of War Stanton to be the bad guy. He ignores a lot of historical detail, including the fact that Surratt rarely uncovered her face. When her daughter, Anna, took the stand, a key moment in the film, it has been recorded by numerous sources at that time that Surratt sobbed while holding a white handkerchief to her veiled face.

Right after her arrest, Surratt was thrown into the same cell at the Arsenal that she remained in for the duration, according to the film. Historically, she was brought to the Old Capitol Prison for thirteen days before getting moved to the Arsenal. Furthermore, her feet were not bound by iron manacles, as the film suggests on a few occasions.

Lastly, regarding the legality of the trial, which is where Redford spends the most of his effort, it was a point repeatedly brought up by Senator Reverdy Johnson, her lead attorney. This is historically accurate, but there were more witnesses and questioning from other defense attorney’s which would have given us a more accurate picture of the trial.

The most accurate point of the film was the hanging. The gallows looked real and felt real. Other than mounds of dirt near the coffins looking a little “too clean” (again, looking for historical accuracy here), it felt like I was watching the hanging of the conspirators.

Overall, I give this movie five of ten dollars signs ($$$$$) because of the great job in casting and cinematography. It gives you a feel that you are in an  1865 trial. Unfortunately, as somebody who has studied the Civil War for nearly two decades, I find that there are too many historical inaccuracies to overlook.

Should you see this movie? It depends. If you are looking for accuracy, no. If you are looking for what it might have looked like, yes. If you are looking just for pure entertainment, it will probably bore you.

If you are looking for a list of the inaccuracies in this film, click here.

I would recommend reading Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus AND Kate Clifford Larson’s Assassin’s Accomplice before watching this film.

This day in history: Abraham Lincoln shot

Today is Thursday, April 14, the 104th day of 2011. There are 261 days left in the year.

Information courtesy of the Gaston Gazette from Gastonia, N.C.

On this day in 1865, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer, fatally shoots President Abraham Lincoln at a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The attack came only five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his massive army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.

Booth, a Maryland native born in 1838, who remained in the North during the war despite his Confederate sympathies, initially plotted to capture President Lincoln and take him to Richmond, the Confederate capital. However, on March 20, 1865, the day of the planned kidnapping, the president failed to appear at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait. Two weeks later, Richmond fell to Union forces.

In April, with Confederate armies near collapse across the South, Booth hatched a desperate plan to save the Confederacy. Learning that Lincoln was to attend a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on April 14, Booth masterminded the simultaneous assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. By murdering the president and two of his possible successors, Booth and his conspirators hoped to throw the U.S. government into disarray.

On the evening of April 14, conspirator Lewis T. Powell burst into Secretary of State Seward’s home, seriously wounding him and three others, while George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Vice President Johnson, lost his nerve and fled. Meanwhile, just after 10 p.m., Booth entered Lincoln’s private theater box unnoticed and shot the president with a single bullet in the back of his head. Slashing an army officer who rushed at him, Booth leapt to the stage and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants]–the South is avenged!” Although Booth broke his leg jumping from Lincoln’s box, he managed to escape Washington on horseback.

The president, mortally wounded, was carried to a lodging house opposite Ford’s Theater. About 7:22 a.m. the next morning, Lincoln, age 56, died–the first U.S. president to be assassinated. Booth, pursued by the army and other secret forces, was finally cornered in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died from a possibly self-inflicted bullet wound as the barn was burned to the ground. Of the eight other people eventually charged with the conspiracy, four were hanged and four were jailed. Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, was buried on May 4, 1865, in Springfield, Illinois.

%d bloggers like this: