VIENNA, Va, April 21, 2011 — “The Conspirator” is now playing at movie theaters in the area and opinions are flying fast and furious about it. Judging by the number of filled seats when we saw it Sunday afternoon, the public has paid little attention to the mostly negative reviews.
Looking at the events of the Suratt trial juxtaposed against Redford’s telling of it, there are some interesting differences and parallels with the situations within the movie and things going on in our world today, just as they did some 150 years ago.
Today Congress, the President and the general public are still arguing the merits of the trials of the 520 some detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. Most are from Afghanistan, though the tide of incoming men has lessened.
Their theoretical crimes go back several years, and they have been imprisoned there just as long, with various groups calling for them to be tried there, by a military tribunal, while other groups insist they should be brought to America and tried in civilian courts.
And President Obama’s campaign promise to shut down Guantanamo has seemingly been forgotten.
Here in Northern Virginia, the powers-that-be just about had apoplexy at the mere thought that one of the men would be brought here to trial.
Security, traffic increase, and the like were brought up as MAJOR PROBLEMS and ultimately the idea was dropped. None of these criminals have been tried in New York City either, the site of the crime.
Such was not the case in April 1865 in Washington, DC, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the wounding of Secretary of State William H. Seward and others.
Purported conspirators had been rounded up and sent to Old Capitol Prison, and the trials were quickly set, with little or no question as to guilt or innocence.
John Wilkes Booth, the actual assassin, had been shot by Sgt. Thomas “Boston” Corbett inside a burning barn on the Garrett farm near Port Royal, VA, and had died on the porch steps three hours later.
No justice could come from his death. And the public demanded justice.
The coconspirators remained, the names becoming a litany of historic criminals – George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Payne Powell, Edwin Spangler, John H. Surratt and the sole woman accused of the crime of conspiracy, Mary E. Surratt, mother of John.
The original plot had been to abduct the President and hold him for ransom, and when that proved unworkable, the assassination of Lincoln became the viable alternative.
It was at about that point that John Surratt left town for Canada: though a Confederate sympathizer and known courier for the South, he apparently had no interest in murder.
Mary Surratt ran a boarding house, located at 541 H Street, N.E., a business which she had begun following the death of her husband. A three-story building, it had roughly ten rooms to be rented out, and boarders came and went at will.
Did Mary Surratt overhear any of the conspiracy plans? No one knows. She did remove some sealed packages from the house and deliver them to a house in Baltimore, but there is no evidence that she knew exactly what was in them.
Enough to convict here was that she was “there,” she ran a house where several of the conspirators visited often, her Rebel sympathizing son, John, lived there, and in the highly charged atmosphere after the assassination of Lincoln, she was automatically culpable.
In the inimitable words of President Andrew Johnson, Mary Surratt “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” Translation: of course she was guilty and the heck with due process and the like. Even Secretary of War William Stanton argued against clemency for her – she must pay the price.
Even when it meant a total abuse of power by the government of the rights inherent in the U. S. Constitution.
Suratt’s defense counsel was a young Union lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who replaced her first appointed counsel, an older gentlemen with distinctly Southern sympathies, Reverdy Johnson. Johnson felt the defense might go better for his client if a Union attorney handled the defense, or he may not have been willing to accept the scorn that young Aiken was subjected to for defending “that woman.”
It appears Aiken was extremely reluctant to take on her case, but if the movie can be believed, by the end of the story he was on her side.
Today, detainees in Guantanamo have been held for at least three years, awaiting trial before a similarly structured military tribunal.
Mary Surratt and her fellow prisoners waited several months in the stark confinement of the prison. Many normal rules of jurisprudence were thrown out the window for her trial. She was not allowed to testify in her own defense.
In the movie, she was permitted no defense witnesses, except her daughter, Anna, and when that distraught young woman came in to testify on behalf of her mother, four soldiers stood before Mary Surratt so that neither mother nor daughter could see each other.
However, in reading the trial transcript, there were quite a few defense witnesses permitted, though the only relevant testimony was when which one of the co-conspirators appeared at the house, and if she talked with them. Hardly damning in and of itself. She admitted to having cartes-de-visite of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and others, but added that she also had the small pictures of several Union officers as well.
Young Aiken did his best in a situation where it would appear the outcome had already been decided. The writ of habeas corpus had been suspended for the occasion and there would be no appeal.
The nine-member Military Commission wasted no time in rapidly finding her guilty of the charges, though it would be hard to find any actual, constructive evidence that was adduced.
The trial itself, numerous legal experts have said, became a farce with the announcement of the sentence for this woman who had played only a peripheral part in the crime, if any.
However, when you have the Secretary of War, Stanton, announcing in no uncertain terms that, “I want these people buried and forgotten,” the result is a foregone conclusion.
If one can remember this country in the days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, as well as the days after the World Trade Center bombings by hijacked airliners, it is easy to recontextualize to those days in 1865.
After Kennedy’s assassination rage encompassed the people everywhere. Someone must pay and pay dearly. From the leadership to the most mundane citizen, “death to the fiends who did this” was the feeling of the day.
In the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001, many of us would have bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere we thought the perpetrators of these crimes could be found – it was a time of wreaking vengeance.
Similar thoughts hung over the capitol city of Washington that week in April of 1865.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Mary Surratt’s trial, is that a “rush to judgment” may not be the best way to proceed. If she WAS guilty, she deserved the right to a fair trial, in a civilian court, with a jury of her peers, the exception to that premise being that in that era, women could not even vote, much less serve on juries.
If she was NOT guilty, good defense witnesses should have been able to adequately make that case as well. There are dozens of opinions and discussions on the merits of the trial, and now equally as many on the merits of the movie.
Should we get our history from the movies? Even one by as talented a producer and director as Robert Redford probably fails the test for historians.
The setting for what purported to be Old Capitol Prison was, in reality, Fort Pulaski in Savannah, GA. Anyone who has seen Secretary of War Stanton and his wild, unruly beard knows it looked nothing like the fairly neat mutton chops worn by the actor who played him.
And the scenes outside the ‘prison’ where black and white Union troops drilled together was something that would not happen for many years in the future. However, if more people come to a realization of Mary Surratt’s story, perhaps that will be the best acid test of all.
I’ve been warned not to provide the ending to the actual story of Mrs. Surratt, (though I really can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t know it,) so I won’t.
I will say that the lady was a caring mother at heart, and said nothing that might implicate her son, while that young man was safely sitting in Canada when it all went down.
Her only hope would have been a plea for clemency due to her age and gender, but even those would fall on deaf ears.
Two years later, after stints in Rome with the Papal Zouaves and other adventures, John Suratt returned and was brought to trial. That event, not portrayed in the movie, ended with a hung jury (all puns intended) and as the statute of limitations for lesser charges had already tolled, he was released and free.
The discussion forum is now open for thoughts on her trial, the Civil War era in which it was held, the comparison with the Gitmo detainees, and anything else; I’ve written my impressions of the film, and based on the various books on the subject which I’ve read, it was a truthfully sad commentary on the legal system employed at that time, when the Union so many had fought and died to save, forgot all it knew about justice.
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Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.
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