The Conspirator (2010) Looks at Civil War Era “Justice”
The American Film Company has a mission: historically accurate films about America’s past. Their debut effort is The Conspirator, a film directed by Robert Redford detailing the arrest and trial of Mary Surratt for conspiring to kill President Lincoln. Researching the historical data, one finds that The Conspirator is a faithful telling of the story, dramatized to make it an entertaining and thought-provoking movie.
Robin Wright stars as Mary Surratt, the owner of a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and his cronies met, allegedly to discuss kidnapping Lincoln. Surratt, a widow and mother of two, received a military trial, not the jury trial to which she was entitled. James McAvoy stars as Frederick Aiken, one of the men assigned to defend Surratt despite his conviction that she was, indeed, guilty. Kevin Kline appears as secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a man who wants a guilty verdict and death penalty—and nothing less—for Surratt.
Was it possible for a Southern woman to receive a fair trial at the hands of the Union military during the civil war when she’s been accused of conspiring to kill the president? The Conspirator tells us “no,” and presents evidence culled from known facts about the case to support this conclusion.
Apparently, Surratt was arrested because her son, John (Johnny Simmons), who was suspected of conspiracy, had disappeared. Evidence is presented that connects John to Booth. Since the military couldn’t get their hands on the son, it settled for the mother. There was little to connect Mary to the murder of Lincoln yet the Army managed to put on a case with trumped-up evidence and dodgy witnesses. Mary Surratt was found guilty, and although a judge ordered a new trial, President Jackson quashed the order and Mary was hanged. Ironically, John Surratt was later arrested, tried, and acquitted.Continued on the next page