Book Review: "The Assassin's Accomplice."

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

Kate Clifford Larson's book The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln is a well-researched narrative exploring the prosecution of Mary Surratt. The Assassin’s Accomplice details the events that revolved around Mrs. Surratt in the days and weeks leading up to the assassination of President Lincoln.[1] Naturally, Larson provides a brief historical account of the last months of the Civil War. More importantly; however, she makes clear the depth of loyalty and level of devotion maintained by Confederate sympathizers during that era. Through telling Surratt’s story, Larson depicts the social attitudes of the time and clearly illustrates that the American Civil War was not just a battle between the states, but rather it emphasized the sharp division between people willing to kill and be killed for their ideals.

Immediately, the author makes clear her purpose in taking on this endeavor; to confront the controversy of “Mary Surratt’s complicity in the assassination of Lincoln, the fairness of her trial, and the justness of her punishment.”[2]Larson tackles these questions one at a time. Regarding the question of Surratt’s complicity in the assassination plot, no new evidence is provided from which a definite conclusion could be drawn. Regardless, the author unmistakably states her thesis in the book’s introduction: “Mary Surratt was not only guilty, but was far more involved in the plot than many historians have given her credit for.”[3]Based on this statement, the reader will tear through the pages in search of the new, definitive evidence to support this claim and end this one hundred-fifty year old controversy. There is none. The author speculates and supposes throughout the book, quite logically, but is unable to provide primary source evidence to substantiate her claims. Ironically, she discusses in great detail the superficial evidence that was presented against Surratt at her trial with no indisputable truth with which to defend the accusations.

The question as to the fairness of the trial is discussed at length by Larson. Given the factual testimony she presents, there is no doubt that Mrs. Surratt, or any of her alleged co-conspirators, did not receive a fair trial. The author describes the reasoning behind then U.S. Attorney General James Speed and President’s Johnson’s decision to try the accused before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. Larson correctly points out that although Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th, the war still continued beyond the 14th, when Booth shot Lincoln; the same night assassinations were planned for Johnson, General Grant, and Secretary of State Seward. Also a factor in this decision was that there were many Southern sympathizers living in Washington, D.C. which would have provided a biased venue. Alternatively, the emotional distress of Lincoln’s murder created an intense hatred toward the defendants, which also would have provided a biased venue. Larson makes these great points which seem obvious but may not be to some prior to reading this text.

Mary Surratt

The ineptitude with which the defense lawyers acted is appalling. Guilty or innocent, everyone deserves a fair trial; this was not afforded to Mary Surratt. According to 1865 law, the accused were not allowed to testify in their own defenses; another fact of which students of the Civil War may be unaware. Larson raises yet another question by so vividly pointing out the defects of counsel; did they intentionally throw the case? This is yet another mystery to add to the conspiracy pile.

John Wilke's Booth Wanted poster.

The third question addressed by Larson is whether the punishment for Surratt was just. Again, this is something historians and legal scholars will continue to debate. The author does this throughout the book; she poses questions and leaves the decision to the reader. When discussing Mary Surratt’s possible romantic inclinations towards John Wilkes Booth, she asks, “Could this have contributed to her deep involvement with his plans to kidnap and later assassinate Lincoln?”[4]She pointedly states there is no evidence to support this hypothesis but plants the seeds of further questions in the mind of the reader.

Larson is to be applauded for taking on the task of trying to dissect Mary Surratt. The author provides a nice blend of historical fact and the events of Surratt’s life, showing how they interrelated to each other. Her descriptive work is wonderfully accurate as she creates the atmosphere of 1865 Washington; “It was Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, and Washington, D.C. was exploding with Union victory celebrations.” She continues to describe the scene of the city as being “alive with soldiers, newly freed people, civilians, and a scattering of defeated rebels.”[5] Her descriptions of the courtroom and finally the gallows are equally accurate and enticing. She stays with her underlying theme that the division among people was as great as the division between armies on the battlefield. By noting that even after Lee’s surrender, “the war was not over, physically, politically, or emotionally, for many Confederates,” she expounds on the premise that Southern loyalty was, and is, deep and enduring.

Yankees were elated that the war was over and were preparing for the future. When Lincoln was assassinated, however, mourning quickly turned to rage. When a Massachusetts man stated that Lincoln’s death was the “best news he had heard in four years,” he was summarily “tarred and feathered” by fellow northerners.[6]Larson, a history professor at Simmons College in Boston, who received her PhD from the University of New Hampshire and lives in Winchester, Massachusetts, provides what I feel to be an unbiased account of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The questions surrounding Mary Surratt’s involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln remain unanswered. Larson’s book; however, provides detailed notes for reference, a thought-provoking read, and a trip back in time to one of the most tense and emotional times in the history of the United States.

References

  1. Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
  2. Larson, xiii.
  3. Larson, xiv
  4. Larson, 50.
  5. Larson, 1.
  6. Larson, 120-21.

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