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."

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    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.

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.

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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?

She was part of the conspiracy, and when it comes to women as historical actors, they tend to be overlooked or their contributions discounted. It's the same with Mary.

Telling her story reminds us that even women can do very wicked things. She was a very smart, very capable woman who made a decision to help John Wilkes Booth, and as a result of that a president was killed. The trajectory of the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction – and the nature of how freedom was going to play out for four million formerly enslaved people – changed. She played a role in that, and we need to know about her.

Q. How did her gender play out in terms of her story?

Here's this middle-class woman who was running a boarding house. What a perfect front. No one's going to suspect her of doing anything wrong. It was a perfect cover, but she counted on that cover too much, and she did not anticipate that the power of what happened, the horror of what happened, overrode any kind of Victorian notions people had about women's roles in society. I believe she thought she'd get away with it, and figured there's no way they'd hang a woman, and she was wrong.

Q. What was unique about the trial of her and the other conspirators?

It was incredibly unfair. There's no question about that. There's no doubt that any of them were guilty, but the rules of evidence were stacked against them and everything the defense attorneys tried to do got overruled by the prosecution and judges.

Q. The family of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was accused of being a Lincoln conspirator, has fought to clear his name. What about Surratt's descendants?

They are so quiet. They don't say anything. They have a very low profile, although there are quite a few of them.

Q. Do you think justice was done in Surratt's case?

If they were going to hang any of them, she deserved to hang as well. She could have stopped it, she could have reported that Booth was up to kidnapping or killing, and she did not. It's uncomfortable, but that's the truth.

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If you're in Maryland, consider dropping by the Surratt House Museum at Surratt's onetime home in the town of Clinton. Its website says it "presents a variety of programs and events, recapturing the history of mid-19th century life and focusing on the fascinating web of the Lincoln conspiracy."

Baltimore, meanwhile, is home to a cemetery that houses the Booth family plot. I took a walking tour of the graveyard a few years ago, and the guide told us that visitors like to put Lincoln head pennies into the "O"s in the family's name on the monument at the plot. (Yes, people are strange.)

To read more about the injustices of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators, check out "'They Have Killed Papa Dead!': The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance," by Anthony Pitch. Also, James Swanson's action-packed bestseller "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer" tracks the escape of John Wilkes Booth, while "My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy," by Nora Titone, explores the brother vs. brother rivalry in the Booth clan.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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