by Al Benson Jr.
Awhile back Robert Redford made a movie about the hanging of Mary Surratt which was called The Conspirator. Although I have not seen it, I have been told it was fairly good. Redford, I guess, didn’t get it all right, but he got some of it right–almost a first from someone from Hollyweird. Redford has never been one of my favorite movie entertainers. I’ve always felt he was a bit left of center and I am curious as to why he chose the topic of Mary Surratt’s demise by the U.S. government to make a movie out of. When the DVD gets down to an affordable price, if I can find it, I will pick one up to see exactly what he did with Mary Surratt and her tragic story.
After the assassination of Obama’s spiritual ancestor, Abraham Lincoln, eight people were put on trial and found guilty–four sentenced to long prison terms and the other four sentenced to hang. One of those sentenced to be hung was Mary Eugenia Jenkins Surratt, the first woman ever to be hung in the United States. John Wilkes Booth had supposedly been shot (that’s another whole story in itself) and John Surratt, Mary’s son, had escaped to Canada. Eventually he would make his way to Europe. These eight seemingly were all that were left and the government wanted to make sure they talked as little as possible to anyone.
Historical opinions have been divided as to whether Mary Surratt was really guilty as one of the Lincoln assassins. Author Nathaniel Weyl has called Mary Surratt “…an innocent woman hanged for conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.” My own opinion is that this is pretty close to the truth. That doesn’t mean that Mrs. Surratt was totally without knowledge of all that went on. She may well have been aware of the proposed attempts to abduct Mr. Lincoln. After all, they were discussed in her rooming house. But, as far as assassination went, I don’t think she had a clue.
When it came to the conspirators’ “trial” (if such it can really be called) Mrs. Surratt had a good lawyer to start out with, Reverdy Johnson, a former U.S. senator and, in 1849, U.S. Attorney General, and at the time of her trial, a Maryland Senator. According to the book The Lincoln Conspiracy: “He was such a formidable opponent, it was immediately apparent to the prosecution that he must be removed. Johnson was to be assisted by Frederick Aiken and John W. Clampitt, each in practice only one year and each trying his first big case. Clampitt was 24 and Aiken even younger.” After some judicial maneuverings, the prosecution succeeded in getting Johnson to remove himself and so Mrs. Surratt was stuck with the two younger, more inexperienced lawyers. While they did the best the could, they were no match for the legal scalawags the federal prosecution brought forth to handle them.
The way the federal government dealt with Mrs. Surratt was strongly reminiscent of the way it would later deal with the Plains Indians in the far West–it flat out broke its word, but then, what else have we come to expect from government? In our own day “our” government (it’s not really ours) has lied to us, through the president or various other federal stooges, about Benghazi, the IRS targeting conservative political groups, the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal, how much the NSA spies on its own citizens, Obamacare, and the list goes on–and on, and on.
Otto Eisenschiml wrote in The Shadow of Lincoln’s Death “When the Washington authorities put hoods over the heads of the men accused of conspiracy against Lincoln’s life, they committed a strange act. When they added stiff shackles–manacles which made writing impossible–and forbade all intercourse with the outside world, there arose a misgiving that the purpose was not punishment, but the enforcement of silence.” Eisenschiml also duly noted that the government changed the prison locations of those not hung from Albany, New York to the far-out Dry Tortugas, where the convicted men were confined,literally for years in solitary cells and were prevented from conversing with any outsiders. You really have to wonder what the government was afraid these men would have to say, and whatever that might have been, they were going to make darn sure no one ever heard it.
One man on Edwin Stanton’s staff was Colonel William P. Wood, the man who ran Old Capitol Prison. Though he worked for the federal government, it appears that Colonel Wood still had some modicum of conscience left. In 1883 he wrote a series of articles for the Washington Sunday Gazette, in which he sought to tell all he knew about the conspiracy trial, most of which, he said, had never been revealed to the public. Again, what else is new? Even today all we get are sanitized versions of everything from who killed Kennedy (it was that “lone gunman, Oswald, don’t you know”) to the War in Iraq.
Wood wrote of Mrs. Surratt that: “…there were guarantees made to her brother by the writer, upon authority of Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, that she should not be executed.” Wood hinted that such guarantees were given “…in exchange for information by Mrs. Surratt’s brother regarding (John Wilkes) Booth’s probable course of flight. The fact that the War Minister made such a promise gives food for thought. Very likely he had, at no time, intended to live up to his promise.” And Wood, calling attention to this rank betrayal, said: “…those conditions were violated, and…this deplorable execution of an innocent woman (followed).”
The court announced the guilty verdict on the morning of July 6th. Mrs. Surratt was not informed of it until the middle of the day, at which time she found out she was to be hung at noon the following day. Eisenschiml observed that “Such a short space of time between a sentence and its execution is practically unheard of.” Apparently what Mrs. Surratt and the others knew, the government was going to make sure they had no chance to pass it on to others.
John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater, followed all these events as long as he lived. I guess you could say he had somewhat of a consuming interest, so he gathered what facts he was able to. In 1889 he revealed something most people had never heard. He said that: “The very man of God who shrived her soul for eternity was said to be constrained to promise that she should not communicate with the world. Mr. Clampitt, one of her lawyers, confirmed what Ford stated. Mrs. Surratt pleaded with the priest to be allowed to tell people before she died that she was innocent of the crime of which she had been convicted. The priest refused her. It seems he had been made to tell her, after absolution and the sacrament, that she should be prevented from making any declaration as to her innocence. The priest later denied this. If Stanton and the government had nothing to cover up, allowing her to make a last statement would have hurt nothing and no one.
However, Eisenschiml has noted that: “What was vital was this: the condemned woman must not be permitted to harangue the crowd from the scaffold. There she might go beyond the mere question of her guilt, and every one of her words would be broadcast by news-hungry journalists.” The powers that be at that time could not allow that to happen. How interesting that our so-called “history” books never reveal any of this. The winners of the War of Northern Aggression have deemed that all of this is information we are much better off knowing nothing about. “Nothing to see here, folks, move along.” If the public has no clue about any of this then they can’t ask embarrassing questions about it can they? And that’s the goal of many of today’s educator/change agents–a population that knows nothing about nothing but has been taught that they are brilliant.
To be continued.