Monday, April 18, 2011

The Conspirator: Lincoln's Assassination

Mary Surratt

       Friday night was the opening of the Robert Redford movie The Conspirator. I had been looking forward to the release of this movie for some time. I was cautiously optimistic that it would be historically accurate. I was expecting the movie to cover all the characters surrounding the conspiracy and those charged with complicity in the crime. Despite the fact the movie basically just covers the trial of Mary Surratt, it was overall a good movie. 
       There were a few incidences in the movie that caught my attention of not being totally accurate or maybe not demonstrated in the way I would have hoped. In the trial, I thought they did a poor job with Louis Weichman and his testimony. The movie gave the impression that Weichman had freely given false testimony against Mary Surratt although she had treated him as a son. The truth of the trial is that Weichman worked for the war department and like everyone there, he was terrified of Edwin Stanton. Stanton had pressured Weichman to testify for the prosecution with threats that he could be implicated also if he did not. Weichman actually left the courtroom after his testimony afraid he may have said something to jeopardize the trail for Stanton. In the movie, Weichman appears cool and cold. In reality, he was extremely nervous. 

Louis J. Weichman

       The movie portrayed John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt as the real individual that the government wanted. It would lead you to believe the government would have dropped all charges against Mary if her son would have turned himself in. I believe if the man had turned himself in, there would have been five people on the gallows that day instead of four. Leaving the theater, my wife, Todd Richardson and his wife actually made the statement that John Surratt was a coward. I had to disagree. Stanton would stop at nothing to punish everyone who was even remotely close to the assassination and this was shown when the court voted not to give Mary the death penalty only to have Stanton pressure them to reconsider. 

Edwin Stanton

       Edwin Stanton had been responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of innocent northerners during the war. He was as close to becoming a tyrant as the nation has ever gotten. He told one man that he could ring a bell on his desk and have him placed so far in prison he would never hear the dogs bark again. Some historians actually believe that Stanton was in on the plot to kill the president. If Lincoln, Johnson and Seward had of been killed, Stanton would have been the man with the power. 

Anne Surratt

       A good deal of the movie is devoted to Mary's daughter Anne and her defense attorney Frederick Aiken. These were not wasted scenes to fill time, but actually very good stuff. It shows to what lengths Anne went to help Aiken attempt to save her mother. The movie painted the picture the trial was decided before hand regardless of what Aiken proved because of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, but in reality Stanton was the driving force behind the trial. 
       In the end, nothing was going to save Mary Surratt from the gallows. She was hanged alongside Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Louis Paine), David Herold, and George Atzerodt. The hanging scene was sad. It didn't show how the rope failed to break Powell's neck and he was watched being strangled to death as he kicked violently for almost five minutes. 

Mary hanging beside Lewis Powell

       At the end of the movie, my wife was extremely surprised to see that John Surratt had finally been captured and a verdict could not be reached and he was released. He spent the rest of his life touring and giving lectures on the conspiracy to abduct Lincoln (of which he was a part) and the innocence of his mother. John was actually in Canada on Confederate Secret Service business when Booth shot Lincoln. The origin plan had been for the group to abduct Lincoln and hold him ransom for the exchange of all Confederate prisoners. General Grant had suggested to Lincoln that the prisoner exchange system be stopped to prevent exchanged prisoners from refilling the Confederate ranks. 

John Surratt

       I wish the actual hanging scene would have been exactly as reality. The scene is made extremely sad, but her last words and the remarks of those who hung her were left out. When they bound her arms behind her back, Mary complained that the bindings were to tight and hurt her arms. The secret service agent who placed the noose around Mary's neck replied, "Well, it won't hurt long." 
       As they moved her forward to the edge of the platform to the drop, she asked them to please not let her fall. Lewis Powell's last words were, "Misses Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us."
       When the execution was completed and her body was cut down, Mary's body fell forward over the soldier catching her. Another soldier said, "She makes a good bow."
       All of this was left out of the movie. Another thing that was left out of the movie that I wish would have been told was the fact that President Andrew Johnson and Edwin Stanton claimed to be haunted by Mary Surratt in their sleep for the rest of their days. I find that quite fitting for the two. 



  1. Yes it was a very good movie. I was glad it seemed to hold to the facts more than I expected it to. What is really great is to have a historian whisper in your ear when they get it wrong or can expand on scene and go into detail about facts that are left out! Thank you honey!

  2. movies hardly ever tell the whole story