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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Conspirator

This week's movie rental was The Conspirator, a 2010 historical drama directed by Robert Redford, and starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, and Kevin Kline (and Colm Meaney :). It tells the story of the only woman charged with conspiring with others to Kill Abraham Lincoln - Mary Surratt - a Catholic convert (The Catholics and Mrs. Mary Surratt: How They Responded to the Trial and Execution of the Lincoln Conspirator ), a Confederate sympathizer (and slave owner), the owner of a boarding house where the conspirators met, and the first woman executed in the US. The acting was fine, especially that of James McAvoy, and the sets and costumes were very good.

- Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and her lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy)

Robert Redford is said to have made the movie as a criticism against the current military tribunals of Islamic terrorists. I'm not sure, though, that Mary Surratt's arrest/trial fits this scenario. I say this because I read the Wikipedia article on Mary Surratt (which seems to cite some decent sources) before watching the movie, and thus I was aware of some of the discrepancies between what the movie portrayed and what most historians seem to think actually happened. I'm not saying the movie was purposefully misleading and of course it's not a documentary so it can have a pov, but I did think the film shaped information in a way to make Mary seem a victim - an example: it's implied that Mary would not be allowed to testify in her own defense because she in particular was being railroaded, but as footnote #165 to the Wikipedia article on her states ...

Neither Mary Surratt nor any of the other defendants testified on their own behalf. Although some sources claim that they were prevented from doing so, this is incorrect. At the time, the federal government and 35 of the 36 states did not permit defendants in felony trials to testify on their own behalf. See the discussion in Boritt and Forness, p. 352-353, 3721

- Surratt's boarding house, which now houses a restaurant, is located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. - Wikipedia

The film begins with a scene setting up the impeccable character of Mary's future lawyer, Frederick Aiken, then skips ahead to the conspirators doing their deeds, and then their arrests, and the beginning of the trial. The movie has Mary ask lawyer and US Senator Reverdy Johnson to take her case and it seems he does so out of idealism, but I wonder - Johnson's the same guy who made a constitutional argument as counsel for the defense in the Dred Scott Case. At any rate, in real life his two minions, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, handled most of the work of defending her, and the movie focuses on Frederick Aiken as her attorney.

Mary's real-life defense was that she didn't really know what was going on because of her bad eyesight, that she was too good of a person to have conspired (a number of Catholic priests were called to the stand to testify to her good character), that those testifying against her were all liars, and that the military tribunal had no jurisdiction over her, a civilian. The movie follows this. The evidence against her was found compelling by the judges (in the movie it's seen as as a total set-up for political purposes) and she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The movie holds an opinion about her verdict that's commented on in footnote #176 of the Wikipedia article about her ...

It has been alleged by various sources that the federal government did not intend to execute Mary Surratt, but that her death sentence was a lure to bring John H. Surratt, Jr. out of hiding to defend her. But historian Joan Cashin has argued that the scant two days between her sentencing and execution did not provide enough time to lure John Jr. out of hiding, and therefore her sentence was not intended to "bait" her son into returning. See: Cashin, p. 299; Swanson, p. 365.

I'm no American history scholar, but the little I learned from the Wikipedia article would lead me to believe that the evidence against Mary was substantial, though circumstantial. Did she conspire to kill Lincoln - I don't know. Was her trial fair - I'm not sure. Was it right to hang her - I'm against the death penalty, so I'd say no, whether she was guilty or not.


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