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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Assassin's Accomplice, The - Kate Clifford Larson, Laural Merlington The author grabbed my attention at the very beginning by admitting that when she started the research for this book she believed that Mary Surratt was not involved in the assassination. The author must have been exposed of the same conventional wisdom that I’ve picked up over the years--that Mary Surratt was the innocent boarding house owner who had the misfortune of renting boarding space to the conspirators.

The author goes on to state that over the course of reading court documents as well as statements by the witnesses, she came to a very different conclusion. Reading this book leads me to the same conclusion that the evidence against her is damning. Some people still claim that the evidence is circumstantial, but I consider her involvement with the hidden arms at Surratsville more than circumstantial. Furthermore, her interactions with the conspirators was more intimate than what one would normally expect between landlord and boarders (i.e. numerous extended private conversations).

One issue that was hotly debated at the time, and has echos of some of today’s controversies, was whether the conspirators and Surratt should have been tried by a military tribunal or a civil court. I was surprised that the author mostly defended the decision to try them in a military court. It seems logical to me that civilians should be tried in civil court. It is true that the conspirators were motivated by war time loyalties. So in that sense it was a military matter, and during a civil war the differences between who's civilian or military gets blurred.

The book first covers Mary’s pre-war life. She lived in Maryland’s rural area filled with a rural population that was sympathetic to the southern cause, even though Maryland did not secede. In 1862 her husband died, and soon after she decided to move to Washington D.C. and operate a boarding house. The combination of her tavern in Surratsville, Maryland and the boarding house in D.C. provided a convenient set of of resources and contacts that were utilized by her son John and his friends related to Confederate spy activity.

Late in the war her boarding house and Surratsville tavern became the centers of planning for the kidnapping of President Lincoln. That conspiracy didn’t succeed for various reasons. So then John Wilkes Booth developed alternative plans to assassinate the President, Secretary of State, and Vice President. He went through with the assassination of the President, a fellow conspirator badly stabbed the Secretary of State, and the conspirator assigned to kill the Vice President chickened out.

The second half of the book is focused on the investigation, apprehension, testimony, trial and sentencing of the conspirators. After covering the actions in considerable detail in the first half of the book, the drawn out court testimony about those activities was a bit tedious. The author repeatedly pointed out that the lawyers representing Mary Surratt failed to provide a good defense. I agree that they apparently made some mistakes, but I question what else they could have done that could have changed her sentence. The rules of evidence at the time did not require the prosecution to provide to the defense attorneys the transcripts of pretrial interviews between the conspirators and the investigators. I think that might explain some of the mistakes make by the defense attorneys.

It’s interesting to note how public sentiment seems to have switched after the executions. The public apparently was shocked that a woman was executed. Mary Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. Government. That probably explains the multiple myths spread about her innocence which have continued through the years since and influenced my own perceptions.

Within the context of 19th Century standards, the trial and sentences of the conspirators seems reasonable. Of course, if the trial were held today things would be considerably different.

The author Ms. Larson has provided an eminently readable and fascinating review of Mary Surratt's role in the Lincoln conspiracy. This book was used as the basis of the 2011 movie The Conspirator directed by Robert Redford. Mary Surratt was portrayed by Robin Wright. I have not seen the movie.