blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Conspirator

Innocent or guilty? That question has been repeatedly asked about Mary Surratt, a widow in her mid-forties, since the death of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. First off, even though I have researched the Civil War extensively, I watched the movie with little knowledge surrounding the events of Lincoln's assassination.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Mary Surratt is the alleged lone female conspirator among eight who were charged with the assassination of President Lincoln. Along with four others, she was hung in July 1865 and was the first woman to have been executed by the U.S. government. In the movie, young attorney, Frederick Aiken, represents her against his better judgment. The movie casts doubt on Mary's guilt, and Aiken tries to uncover the truth.

For the most part, costuming and historical sets were excellent. I have quite a bit of knowledge about military trials of the era, and the movie puzzled me in that regard. It came across as a mix of a military and civilian trial, but the average viewer isn't going to notice that detail. There were many more individuals involved in the actual trial than the movie portrayed, but too many characters would have made the story confusing.

I have read criticisms from historians that Mary Surratt led to her own downfall with lies (since I haven't researched the subject myself, I can't make any conclusion), nor did she defend herself. A defendant wasn't allowed to take the stand in their own defense in military trials during the 1860s. They could bring in as many witnesses as necessary in order to attempt to prove their innocence, but they were only allowed statements to the court.

The biggest criticism I've read about the movie from other reviewers is that slavery was never mentioned. Those reviewers show their ignorance. While slavery was certainly an important aspect of the Civil War, it was much more complex than any single issue. Mary Surratt had owned slaves, but the movie had nothing to do with slavery. In fact, apparently one of her former slaves testified in her defense. This was never mentioned, nor were statements from a co-conspirator, who insisted several times that she was innocent.

Whether Mary Surratt was guilty or innocent is a question that may never be answered. What is clear is that she never received a fair trial, and in that regard, the movie was accurate. But then, even if she had received a trial by her peers, with the judicial system of the time only allowing white males as judge and jury, could she have ever received a fair trial?

I enjoyed The Conspirator. It kept me captivated, and it's message is as relevant today as it was in the 1860s.

Kim Murphy


  1. Great review, Kim! I was hoping the filmmakers did a fairly decent job. As a non-Civil War researcher, I enjoyed the film quite well and wondered how they did on accuracy.

    I love the idea of the Crone Henge site!! I cracked up when I read the blog's description up top.

  2. Sounds like a compelling film... must add it to my list!

  3. Interesting post. I wasn't familiar with this aspect of the Lincoln assassination.

  4. Thanks, all! I'm glad a could lend a little different perspective of the movie than most reviewers.