Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"The Conspirator" plays false with Surratt case to make a political point

Since he generally swings progressive on most (but not all) issues of the day, I have no real beef against Robert Redford. Still, I find somewhat disturbing Redford’s new film soon to hit theaters called “The Conspirator.” I’m sure people have at least seen the trailer on television, which paints the picture of the “full power of the government” against a poor, innocent little white woman. What we have here on celluloid the revisionist version of history concerning the level of culpability of Mary Surratt in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, for which she was hanged. It is also attempting to make a connection with Gitmo and the military trying non-combatant civilians—although it should be noted that the country was still technically at war, with a few Confederate incorrigibles like Forrest who had not yet given-up the fight after Appomattox; further, given the shock and outrage, the venue of the trial for John Wilkes Booth’s motley band of conspirators would have made no difference in the outcome. 360,000 Union soldiers died—ten percent of whom were black soldiers (Did you know that, Ron Paul? I didn't thinks so), and a Southern fanatic crazed for revenge was trying to make this sacrifice moot. From what I gather from the trailer, one should not accept this as an account about “what really happened,” but as contemporary political correctness run wild. I’m not just talking about the “liberal” version; in fact the right-wing version is far worse. Just take the tax issue; Republicans are not allowed to even talk about tax increases no matter how bad budget deficits are, and in California they are not even permitted to run for office unless they sign a “contract” stating they won’t support tax increases.

Back in 1865, few doubted Surratt’s guilt, but the public was as shocked as she was that she was sentenced to die, because she was a woman and of (at the time) “advanced” age. Today, numerous revisionist historians and various pseudo-scholars claim that Surratt was entirely innocent despite the fact that she, as Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson reportedly said, “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” The basis for proclaiming Mary Surratt’s innocence rests entirely on three notions: One, that everyone who testified against her lied; two, that her actions had plausible alternative explanations; and three, that because she was a woman, she had merely been used and didn’t have any clue about what either her son John or John Wilkes Booth and his gang were up to right under her nose.

Let’s look at the charges. Mary Surratt is alleged to have had intimate knowledge of, and aided, Booth and his designs. Surratt is alleged to have given a spyglass to a certain John Lloyd—who ran a tavern owned by Surratt family—and informed him to provide this and previously delivered guns to a “party” (Booth and David Herold) when they arrived later. What of the evidence to back-up these charges? Conspirator George Atzerodt, a German immigrant, gave a confession that was never introduced at trial; the confession is rather confusing and speaks of Booth’s kidnapping and assassination schemes out-of-turn. Nevertheless, it implicates Surratt; “Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (Two Carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold…I (saw) a man named Weightman (Louis Weichmann) who boarded at Surratt's at Post Office. He told me he had to go down the Country with Mrs. Surratt. This was on Friday (the day of the assassination), Also.” Interestingly, Atzerodt also implicated another allegedly innocent person, Dr. Samuel Mudd: “I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors & provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond, about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd's.” This suggests strongly that Mudd was at least a conspirator in the aborted scheme to kidnap Lincoln.

John Lloyd—whose testimony was declared not to be believed by attorney Frederick Aiken (played with righteous intensity by Scotsman James McAvoy in the film) because he was a man addicted to “intoxicating liquors,” gave the following testimony:

“On the 14th of April I went to Marlboro to attend a trial there; and in the evening, when I got home, which I should judge was about 5 o'clock, I found Mrs. Surratt there. She met me out by the wood-pile as I drove in with some fish and oysters in my buggy. She told me to have those shooting-irons ready that night, there would be some parties who would call for them. She gave me something wrapped in a piece of paper, which I took up stairs, and found to be a field-glass. She told me to get two bottles of whisky ready, and that these things were to be called for that night.

"Just about midnight on Friday, Herold came into the house and said, "Lloyd, for God's sake, make haste and get those things." I did not make any reply, but went straight and got the carbines, supposing they were the parties Mrs. Surratt had referred to, though she didn't mention any names. From the way he spoke he must have been apprised that I already knew what I was to give him. Mrs. Surratt told me to give the carbines, whisky, and field-glass. I did not give them the rope and monkey-wrench. Booth didn't come in. I did not know him; he was a stranger to me. He remained on his horse. Herold, I think, drank some out of the glass before he went out.

"I do not think they remained over five minutes. They only took one of the carbines. Booth said he could not take his, because his leg was broken. Just as they were about leaving, the man who was with Herold said, "I will tell you some news, if you want to hear it," or something to that effect. I said, "I am not particular; use your own pleasure about telling it." "Well, said he, "I am pretty certain that we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward." This last may be just an embellishment, but then again, Booth was proud of what he had done, and seemed genuinely shocked to discover from newspaper accounts that there was near universal condemnation of his act.

Another witness, Louis Weichmann, lived in Surratt’s boarding house. Weichmann (who like Lloyd had been arrested along with everyone else even remotely connected with Booth—including the owner of Ford’s Theatre and Booth’s brother Junius) could not be dismissed as a drunkard, and gave clear and candid testimony. After acknowledging that Surratt was “lady-like in every particular” and claimed he did not believe that she was “disloyal,” he went on make to make claims that were damaging to Surratt. She had of late been “in the habit of saying something was going to happen to ‘Old Abe’ which would prevent him from taking his seat,” probably in reference to the kidnapping plot. He claimed to have talked about Booth’s kidnapping plot with both Mary and her son John. Weichmann wondered why Surratt allowed such low-lifes like Herold and Atzerodt in her home; he was told that they were there to do her son’s “dirty work”—supposedly to clean his horses. Surratt, of course, knew her son was a Confederate spy who would be executed if caught. Weichmann testified that he accompanied Surratt on her trip to meet Lloyd; on the return journey that evening, he commented on the lights of Washington, to which Surratt predicted that there would be “mourning” in the city by daybreak. She declined to elaborate on her meaning. Weichmann also recognized Booth as the man she had a secret meeting with an hour or so before the assassination (other sources claim that this man was actually John Surratt, but both Weichmann in his sworn affidavit and daughter Anna Surratt stated that it was Booth); Mary Surratt and Booth apparently met several times that day. Weichmann claimed that Surratt had told him earlier that Booth was “crazy” on one subject that she wanted to “scold him on.” When Booth left the boarding house that evening on his way to Ford’s Theatre, Surratt seemed agitated, but refused to say why. When informed of the assassination, Weichmann claimed to have overheard her say that Booth was “was only an instrument in the hands of the All Mighty to punish this proud and licentious people.” Daughter Anna was also heard to wax frightened about what would happen to them if it was discovered that Booth had been in the house only hours ago.

There was more. Mary Surratt had two meetings with Richard Smoot, a Confederate officer and farmer who “rented” a boat to Booth initially for the kidnapping scheme, and then was alleged to have been told by Surratt to have it ready the night of the assassination for Booth to make his escape. Surratt also lied when she claimed not to know Lewis Powell, who had been tasked to assassinate William Seward; he had lodged in her boarding house for four days, and in fact was seen conversing with her. It was Surratt the dim-witted Powell (who had declared “I am mad!” as he left the bloodied Seward home) sought out when he went in search for help after Herold had abandoned him. It was the fact that Powell knew Surratt that tipped-off police that she could be implicated; when he made the odd midnight appearance at her boarding house enquiring for her, telling an officer Morgan that he was there to “dig a gutter in the morning.” Surratt’s overly strenuous denial that she knew the man standing at the door seemed to Morgan to be a highly suspicious defensive contrivance.

Two army sergeants, Dye and Cooper, who were passing the boarding house shortly after the assassination when the streets were still quiet, testified that Mary Surratt thrust her head out a window exclaiming what the commotion was downtown. Dye and Cooper were certain that news of the assassination had not yet made its way to this location. What was she doing sitting in her parlor at that hour—10:30 p.m.—anxiously waiting for news? What news? And finally, although the dull Powell would give-in to Anna Surratt’s desperate pleas as the execution date neared and claim that Surratt was innocent, Herold before his execution would (like Atzerodt) implicate Surratt as a party to their schemes.

Booth, Mary Surratt and her son John shared a bitter enmity toward Lincoln. Booth, according to Weichmann, had a “close” relationship with Mary, and a secretive one; when John Surratt wasn’t around, Booth would seek out her out for “private” meetings. We can’t know exactly what was said, but she was certainly aware of her son’s predilections and activities. Although John Surratt claimed to be in New York on the day of the assassination on Confederate spy business, others placed him at various locations that day in the capitol.

On the surface, the particulars of the various testimony can be turned into commonplace banalities, but taken in totality were altogether damning against Mary Surratt. Still, Surratt said little in her defense except declare her innocence, believing that because she was a woman it was certain she was not on trial for her life regardless. In the end, the question of Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence as an accessory to the assassination hinges on the question of “reasonable doubt.” It’s a bit hypocritical today to convict people for murder on circumstantial evidence, and then turn around and pick apart in isolation the circumstantial evidence that led to Surratt’s conviction, for contemporary political reasons; “reasonable doubt” hinges on that view of the case. But the fact remains that the “dots” in the Mary Surratt case connect too well to be merely random occurrences with easy rationalizations.

What seems entirely rationale is that after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, the kidnapping scheme that had already been aborted on one occasion was now pointless. Four days later, Booth told his cohorts that there was a change in plans: assassination. The question was when and where. Mary Surratt was almost certainly made aware of this new plan, which she would give him a “scolding” about, and was apparently unable to dissuade him from during their last meeting. Did Surratt lie when she claimed to know nothing about the assassination plot? Probably. It does seem reasonable to conclude that not only did she know of the assassination plot, but told no one in authority of Booth's intentions. If we accept Lloyd and Weichmann’s testimony, and Atzerodt’s confession, she may have initially taken a pro-active view of the proceedings given her close relationship with Booth, but then became frightened when the consequences of such actions began to weigh on her mind. Whether or not she deserved to be hanged for mere foreknowledge must be judged by those times, not by today’s standards; after all a war had just ended that cost the lives of 600,000 men, and now here was a fanatical cabal which would not accept reality, and attempted vengeance. Who knows what was next if these people were not punished?

Of course, as I previously mentioned, Surratt is not the only person who has benefited from revisionist history to clear Southern guilt. The family of Dr. Samuel Mudd and his supporters have agitated for the abdication of his guilty verdict. Atzerodt’s confession, however, implicates Mudd in the kidnapping scheme, and other evidence unearthed points to the strong probability that Mudd—who was a Confederate operative involved in an underground network running supplies from Maryland into Virginia—set-up Booth with the escape route and contacts that he would later use following the assassination.

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