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Expert historian believes Mary Surratt guilty in 'Conspirator'


With its intricate web of conspiracies, the story of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination has fascinated Americans for nearly a century and a half.

In an attempt to shed even more light on the subject, Robert Redford's new civil war-era movie, The Conspirator, explores the lesser known story of Mary Surratt, the only woman tried by the military tribunal for the murder, and the first woman to be federally executed in the United States.

Mary Surratt owned a boardinghouse in Washington D.C., where John Wilkes Booth, and other co-conspirators, including her son, plotted the assassination. Immediately after Lincoln's death, Washington panicked and reacted accordingly. The Conspirator suggests that authorities avoided a long, fair trial for the accomplices in fear that it would encourage rebel opposition.

How historically accurate is the film?

Experts clash over Mary Surratt's guilt and the movie lets viewers decide. However, Simmons Professor Kate Clifford Larson Ph.d., author of The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, provided historical expertise to the film's producers and she believes that Surratt was indeed guilty of conspiracy, but that her trial was "a travesty." She says that Surratt's attorneys lacked the experience to defend her.

"Did Mary Surratt's lawyer, Frederick Aiken provide her an adequate defense, considering the death penalty hung over the trial like a loosely secured guillotine," asks Larson. "The Conspirator's Frederick Aiken is a young idealist, utterly unprepared for the U.S. government's seeming disregard of Surratt's rights as a citizen. This may be an accurate depiction of Aiken. In reality, Aiken and Clampitt, convinced of their duty to defend Mary to the best of their abilities, lacked experience as trial attorneys and were left to defend her against great odds."

Read more from Professor Larson's historical discussion, Frederick Aiken: A Rookie Defender.

You can see The Conspirator, staring Robin Wright Penn and James McAvoy, in theaters now, but the book is always better! Pick up a copy of Professor Larson's The Assassin's Accomplice, from The Simmons Bookstore.

Posted by Amanda Voodre
Category: Faculty Highlights

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This page contains a single entry by Amanda Voodre published on April 20, 2011 9:14 AM.

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