A Lesson for our Own Era
April 27, 2011
On the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, five days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
After shooting Lincoln in the back of the head with a single shot derringer, Booth, fended off Lincoln's escort, Major Henry Rathbone with a dagger.
In a dramatic leap from the Presidential box onto the stage, Booth injured his left leg. Holding the dagger high above his head he shouted, "Sic Semper Tyrannis. The South is avenged!" With that, he sprinted out the back and fled the scene on horseback.
While events were transpiring at Ford's Theater, a simultaneous attempt on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward was attempted by one of Booth's accomplices, Lewis Payne. Payne had gained entry into the Seward home, claiming to have a package for the Secretary.
After pistol whipping Seward's son Frederick, he entered the Secretary's bedroom. Present in the room along with Seward was a military aide and female nurse. After stabbing the aide, Payne repeatedly slashed Seward in the face and neck with a Bowie knife as he lay bedridden, ensconced in a neck brace. Seward had been injured in a carriage accident a few days earlier. The metal brace would be credited with saving Seward's life.
Payne had been directed to the Seward residence by David Herold. Herold was to wait outside with the horses and guide Payne to a rendezvous point in Maryland with Booth. During the commotion inside the Seward home, Herold panicked, leaving his colleague behind. Herold would later be captured at Garrett's barn where Booth was purportedly shot.1
As for Payne, after escaping the Seward home, he would be arrested when he showed up the following evening at the Surratt Boarding House. Metropolitan police detectives were questioning Mrs. Surratt at the time. Payne raised suspicions when he claimed he was there to dig a gutter since it was nighttime. When Mrs. Surratt was questioned if she had hired him for the work, she said no. Payne was put under arrest. Later it would be determined that he was actually a boarder at the house, casting suspicion on Mrs. Surratt.
A fourth conspirator, George Atzerodt, had been tasked by Booth to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson that night, as well. Atzerodt, a German immigrant, had gone to the Kirkwood House where the Vice President was staying. Spying some Union officers standing nearby, Atzerodt lost his nerve and began drinking at the hotel bar and eventually left intoxicated, failing to carry out his intended deed.
Had the conspiracy proceeded as planned, the top leadership of the government would have been decapitated, at a time when despite Lee's surrender, numerous Confederate forces remained on the field. The plot, which had been hastily organized by Booth earlier that day, was a last desperate effort on his part to rally the South.
The one thing all four conspirators shared in common-- they had all plotted the assassination at the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt.
The Conspirator directed by Robert Redford opens with the movie's protagonist, a young Union Army officer named Frederick Aiken lying wounded on the battlefield, clutching his close friend Nicholas Baker, who was even more gravely wounded as they awaited rescue. Aiken, played by Scottish actor, James McAvoy, refuses medical treatment until his friend is treated first. This act of selfless gallantry sets the initial tone for his character.
The scene fast forwards two year later to an officer's party, celebrating victory over Lee. A revived Captain Aiken, accompanied by crippled Baker (Justin Long) and another friend Hamilton (James Badge Dale) encounters Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Judging from the conversation between Aiken and the Senator, the two men appear to have a close association with one another. We discover that Aiken is an attorney when the Senator refers to him as "counselor."
Johnson introduces Aiken's friends, Baker and Hamilton to two young women nearby, introducing them as "genuine war heroes," as he takes Aiken aside to discuss matters of politics. The two men encounter Secretary of War Edwin Stanton played by Kevin Kline as he passes by. When the Senator mentions to Stanton that Captain Aiken continued to command despite having two horses shot out from under him, Stanton suggest that they could use someone like him at the War Department.
It's not long before the festivities are interrupted by news that Lincoln has been shot. Aiken and the others rush to the scene of the crime.
Outside Ford's Theater there is pandemonium as a crowd of bystanders gathers to watch as Lincoln's body is carried to a house across the street. After the president has been moved to a room inside, Stanton arrives, forcing his way through the crowd, insisting to stay with the President, despite being advised that he should set up command at the War Department to conduct an investigation into the crime.
It is while near Lincoln's bedside that Stanton is informed that the assassin was an actor named John Wilkes Booth.
Later, Aiken meets Senator Johnson at his office on the opening day of the military tribunal of Mary Surratt. The Senator has been appointed her legal counsel. Aiken accompanies him to the proceeding, where the Senator delivers a rousing soliloquy, proclaiming the trial of civilians by a military commission to be unconstitutional since it deprived the accused of a trial by jury of one's peers and the right to an appeal.
Afterwards, he requests Aiken's assistance with the case. At first Aiken is repelled by the idea of representing one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, but the Senator convinces him to take the case, on the proviso that, "if you can prove that she's guilty, you can take yourself off the case." A somewhat reluctant Aiken agrees to these terms.
Aiken first encounters Surratt sitting on the floor of her dungeon-like jail cell. Surratt is played by actress Robin Wright, the estranged wife of actor and political activist Sean Penn. Her performance is compelling because of the understatement with which she portrays the austere Surratt, who we learn through gossip "always wears black."
When Aiken asks her if she was a participant in the plot to assassinate Lincoln, she responds: "I am a Southerner, a Catholic, and a devoted mother, but no assassin."
At first Aiken is skeptical of Surratt's claim of innocence, but over time he becomes sympathetic to her plight and the injustice of the legal proceedings imposed by the military commission.
The prosecution headed by Judge Advocate Holt (Danny Huston) uses every trick in the book to deny Surratt a fair trial. Her counsel is given only one day to prepare a defense, her witnesses are turned by the prosecution to testify against her, and she is not allowed to speak on her own behalf.
Despite these obstacles, Aiken gives a spirited defense, the actual transcript of which can be read here: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/defenseofsurratt.html,
His passionate defense of Surratt causes Aiken to lose the approbation of Washington society. He is viewed by many as a traitor. After losing his membership to The Century Club for Gentlemen, "for conduct unbecoming," his fiancée Sarah (Alexis Bledel), disgraced and embarrassed by the experience, abandons him.
His only true friends are Baker and Hamilton, who remain loyal throughout, although even they express reservations about his decision to defend Mary Surratt.
With no other witnesses to call on, Aiken turns for help to Surratt's daughter Anna, portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood, who bears a striking resemblance to the actual Anna Surratt. He asks her to testify against her brother John, who is away in hiding, in order to show that it was he, and not Mary Surratt who was responsible for Booth's presence in their house. She agrees to testify; however, when she enters the courtroom, a compliment of soldiers stand in front of her mother to block her view. When she asks why she can't be allowed to see her mother, a bewildered Aiken responds, "I don't know."
We discover that Anna Surratt was partially responsible for implicating her mother in the conspiracy. She had been told by her brother to tear up a photo of Booth that she kept in her possession. He had warned her that Booth would get them all in trouble. Instead, disobeying his dictate, she hid the photo behind a picture on the mantle. We can perhaps surmise why. Booth was a handsome actor who had a reputation for being a ladies man.
This photo would later be discovered by investigators following a search of the boarding house in the aftermath of the assassination. It would be used as evidence, connecting Mary Surratt to the Lincoln's assassin.
The Conspirator is a timely indictment of the military commission system, particularly in light of the upcoming military tribunal of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, and four other co-defendants. A date for the trial, which is to be held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has not been announced.
Just as the trial of Mary Surratt was a sham, so too are the current legal proceedings of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and co-defendants.
Even before the decision by the Justice Department to scuttle a civilian trial for the accused 9/11 conspirators, Attorney General Eric Holder had stated that even if the accused were to be acquitted by a jury, the government would continue to detain the defendants on other charges. ("Heads I Win, Tails You Lose': In 9/11 Case, KSM Won't Walk Free Even if Found Not Guilty;" Michael Isikoff; November 18, 2009; http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/declassified/2009/11/18/heads-i-win-tails-you-lose-in-9-11-case-ksm-won-t-walk-free-even-if-found-not-guilty.html)
America's legal system was a mockery of justice then, as it is now.
The Conspirator is a tightly wound drama that focuses narrowly on the case of Mary Surratt to the exclusion of all else. One consequence of this is that John Wilkes Booth, who was the central figure behind organizing and carrying out the plot, is treated as little more than card board cutout. This may have been a deliberate decision on Redford's part to downplay Booth's role in the affair, but it makes the story less compelling and Tobby Kebbel's performance as Booth less credible.
The villain of the film isn't Booth, but rather Secretary of War Stanton. Stanton is intent on delivering swift and merciless justice to the conspirators even if it means sacrificing the truth. Stanton makes clear his motives. He is afraid that any wavering on the part of the military commission to deliver harsh retribution for Lincoln's murder might reignite rebellion in the South. As he makes clear throughout, he is willing to do anything to preserve the Union.
In his own day, Stanton was an unpopular figure. This reputation has carried forward to the present. During the 1930s, he achieved special notoriety with the publication of a book by Otto Eisenschiml entitled, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? In it, Eisenschiml contends that Stanton may have been behind the plot to assassinate Lincoln. He based his theory on circumstantial evidence such as:
- General Grant's last minute decision to decline an invitation by Lincoln to attend the performance at Ford's theater the evening of the assassination
- The refusal of Stanton to allow Major Thomas Eckhart to escort Lincoln to Ford's Theater, despite Lincoln personal request
- The fact that the sentry hired by Stanton to guard Lincoln, left his post, allowing Booth entry to the Presidential box
- That Booth escaped Washington, D.C. through the only exit out of the city left unguarded.
- Booth was "conveniently" shot and killed by a Union soldier, who disobeyed orders
- After retrieving Booth's diary, Stanton tore several pages from the book before making it public
Eisenschiml's research has been the basis for further investigations purporting Stanton's involvement in Lincoln's murder. Otto Eisenschiml, an industrial chemist by profession, not unlike a certain 9/11 whistleblower and researcher we all know, attributed his background in chemistry as the reason behind his desire to pursue facts in the Lincoln assassination.
In a book published in 1977, The Lincoln Conspiracy, authors David Balsiger and Charles Sellier claimed to have obtained transcripts of the missing pages from Booth's diary from a collector who had obtained them from Stanton's heirs. According to the authors, the transcripts implicated Stanton and other prominent Americans in a prior plot by Booth and his conspirators to kidnap Lincoln.2
Although The Conspirator avoids speculation of a broader conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination, Redford allows one hint to slip through. It is during the Aiken's cross examination of Louis Weichmann, a boarder at the Surratt home, who was a key prosecution witness. Weichmann claimed to have overheard conversations by Booth and his co-conspirators that raised his suspicions about a possible plot being conceived. When Aiken asked him then why he had not reported his suspicions to the authorities. Weichmann responded that he had. That he had been in constant communication with a Captain Gleason of the War Department. 3
Interestingly, following the publication of The Lincoln Conspiracy the FBI became so concerned with conspiracy theories about the Lincoln assassination that they began collaborating with mainstream historians to debunk such outlandish notions. 1977, the year the The Lincoln Conspiracy was published, William Sullivan, the former head of the FBI's Intelligence Division was shot and killed. He allegedly was mistaken for a deer. He was one of six senior FBI officials involved in the JFK assassination investigation who died under mysterious circumstances within a six month period that year. 4
Twice during the film, first Stanton and later Aiken referred to the Lincoln assassination as the "the unspeakable." Was this a veiled reference to James Douglass's book, JFK and the Unspeakable?
One year after the trial of the Lincoln conspirators, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial of civilians by military commissions to be unconstitutional.
After the trial, Frederick Aiken left the law and became the first city editor of the newly formed Washington Post.
The Conspirator is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in investigating the Lincoln conspiracy or concerned about the loss of civil liberties in America then and now.
1 "DNA test urged to see if Lincoln's assassin escaped death;" Nick Allen; December 27, 2010; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8227196/DNA-test-urged-to-see-if-Lincolns-assassin-escaped-death.html
2 Conspiracy Theories in American history: an encyclopedia, Volume 1; Peter Knight; p. 440; http://books.google.com/books?id=qMIDrggs8TsC&pg=PA439&lpg=PA439&dq=Otto+Eisenschiml+theory&source=bl&ots=tfaeVRzou5&sig=9p2ZKL3dgeJNDFU7LNu9MinnSx4&hl=en&ei=pwW4Tcj6MMaitgfmj6XeBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDQQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=Otto%20Eisenschiml%20theory&f=false
3 In 1865, Captain Daniel H. Gleason signed a deposition that he had been in contact with Louis Weichmann prior to the assassination about a suspicious plot underway at the Surratt residence. The plot was later determined to have been an earlier attempt to kidnap Lincoln. In a memoir he wrote in 1911, Gleason reiterated these claims. Mainstream historians have dismissed Gleason's allegations since there is no government record of his War Department reports. ("The Vindication of Edwin Stanton;" http://www.cincinnatiskeptics.org/blurbs/vindication-of-stanton.html)
4 "William C. Sullivan;" Spartacus Educational; http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKsullivan.htm