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The woman accused of helping to kill Abraham Lincoln

Historian Kate Clifford Larson talks about Mary Surratt, the Washington D.C. landlady accused of plotting to kill Lincoln and profiled in new movie "The Conspirator."

By Randy Dotinga / April 22, 2011

Author Kate Clifford Larson calls Mary Surratt "a very smart, very capable" conspirator, who made the mistake of thinking that her status as a respectable middle-aged woman would be the perfect cover.

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No single image fully represents the horror of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. But there is a photograph that hints at the magnitude of what happened next.

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It shows four bodies hanging by long ropes from a gallows as a crowd of soldiers and others look on. Legs are bound, heads are covered, but the human forms remain achingly obvious.

All four stand accused of helping kill the president. One is a middle-aged woman, the first female ever put to death by the federal government.

Shakespeare quiz: Can you match the quote to the play?

Her name is Mary Surratt, a Washington D.C. landlady and Confederate sympathizer. She's virtually forgotten now, nearly as unknown as the entire elaborate conspiracy to kill Lincoln. But at the time, her name was on everyone's lips in both North and South, a woman said to be either devastatingly defamed or definitively evil.

A new movie called "The Conspirator" tells one version of her story, suggesting that she may have been innocent. Historian Kate Clifford Larson thought that was the case too, but the research that led to her 2008 book convinced her otherwise.

Now, her book, "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln," has been reissued to tie in with the movie's release. Larson is speaking about Surratt on behalf of the filmmakers even though she disagrees with the movie's conclusion about Surratt's guilt.

In an interview this week, I asked Larson about the mysterious Mary Surratt, the role played by her gender, and the trial that will forever be a blot on the history of American justice.

Q. Why don't more Americans know about the grand conspiracy to kill not only Abraham Lincoln but members of his cabinet too, even the vice president?

My suspicion is that the story of the conspiracy disappeared by the 1880s and certainly by the 1910s, partly because of this tremendous effort toward reunification of the North and South and the obliterating of the memory of why the Civil War happened in the first place. A lot of that just disappeared and that whole mythology of the Lost Cause took over: You can't keep talking about a conspiracy of Southerners who killed the president. It's better to have John Wilkes Booth as the lone gunman. It's easier to blame one crazy actor.

Q. That's in sharp contrast to how so many people refuse to believe that a lone gunman killed President Kennedy and flock to conspiracy theories. In regard to the murder of Lincoln, why should we take time to understand that conspiracy today?

It's really important that Americans know the real story rather than passing it over quickly and blaming it on John Wilkes Booth. There are real people who were involved. They did this for a reason, and it's all wrapped up in the causes of the Civil War.

Americans don't like to talk about why the Civil War happened in the first place. It's important that we have this discussion and talk about the facts of what really happened.

Q. How is Mary Surratt important in this story?

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