“How historically accurate is the movie?”

The facts surrounding the case we explore in The Conspirator, I believe they’re all historically accurate.  They were drawn from the National Archives and transcripts from the trial and other sources. The writer, Jim Solomon, had worked on the script for something like 15 years and was meticulous about his research.  We also hired historians to vet the script but history doesn’t record every single moment, every conversation or thought.  So you have to take some dramatic license and fill in those gaps, and do that in a true and dramatic way.  That is interesting to me.

You also have to honor the way people really spoke at that period of time. But you have to balance that with not going too far in that direction; otherwise it sounds like somebody reading from a proclamation.

Robert Redford

About Robert Redford

Director Robert Redford offers his insight into the talent, themes, and making of The Conspirator, now in theaters (April 15).
This entry was posted in Q&A. Bookmark the permalink.

110 Responses to “How historically accurate is the movie?”

  1. Mary Ames says:

    Thank you for another movie with substance, which in my opinion are too few these days. We look forward to seeing this and learning about this little known corner of history.

  2. Kevin Handy says:

    Yet again another quality Robert Redford movie. I hope this movie shows some of the hypocrisy inside the Lincoln cabinet. Some of those men should have been hanged for treason given their war profiteering. Stanton in particular I have little use for. I will be interested in seeing him discredited.

    • Tracy Stanton Penn says:

      Edwin McMasters Stanton, was a gruff guy, no question. They say he was the only one who would not kiss Lincoln’s bum, and for that reason became a close member of his inner circle. When it hit the fan, he did what he saw needed to be done to secure the Union. There are many stories and theories as to his motive, as many as JFK. As a direct decendent I will reserve judgement till I see the movie.

      • Laurie Verge says:

        Ms. Penn,

        Even if you were not a descendant of Stanton, I would agree with you completely. Stanton and Lincoln formed a close personal bond based on their shared belief that the Union should be preserved. IMO, Stanton and Grant were two key elements in seeing that achieved, and the President recognized and appreciated their individual personalities and achievements.

        I have been told by a Robert Todd Lincoln researcher that Stanton received an invitation to Robert’s wedding. I doubt that would have happened if Robert knew of any bad blood between his father and the Secretary.

        While we may never know the true mastermind behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, if we want to place blame in a Cabinet member, I personally believe we should turn around and look South to see what culprits might be lurking around the Confederate capital.

  3. Elsie Dorrance says:

    Dear Mr. Redford,
    In regard to your movie, The Conspirator, I have some information that you might be interested in.
    My husband’s grandfather, George Edward Dorrance (1843-1892), was in the Ford Theater the night that Lincoln was shot. He wrote a detailed description of the horrible event to his sister who lived in Scotland, CT.
    George Dorrance saw service in the Civil War with the 18th Connecticut Volunteers. He was 20 years old when he wrote the letter.
    I have a copy of the original letter. If you are interested and would like to read it, I will mail a copy to you. I do not want to send it through e-mail. You can contact me by the e-mail address that I am using now.

    • frank scaramuzzo says:

      please send me a copy of that letter
      600 lakeview dr.
      Runnemede NJ. 08078

    • Laurie Verge says:

      I am director of the Surratt House Museum, and we have a wonderful research center at the museum that would love to house a copy of your family’s letter. If possible, could you send a copy to:

      Laurie Verge, Director
      Surratt House Museum
      9118 Brandywine Road
      Clinton, MD 20735

      • Elizabeth Munoz says:

        Dear Ms. Verge,

        My fiance’ is a professor at the University of Milano in Italy – he teaches American history and politics and Abraham Lincoln is his favorite historical figure. I copy of this letter would be an absolute gift! He will be moving here this summer and I would love to present him with it. I can send postage if necessary. Our address is:
        Elizabeth Munoz
        Alessandro mastrorocco
        8936 N. Clarendon Ave.
        Portland, OR 97203

        Thank you in advance!

        • Laurie Verge says:

          Ms. Munoz,

          Just read your request and will send a xerox copy of the letter and its transcript on April 11, when I return to work. Right now, I’m dusting off my shoes in readiness to attend the premiere of The Conspirator at Ford’s Theatre tomorrow!

          • Diane S. Hernandez says:

            Dear Ms. Verge,

            I am very interested in American history and I have always greatly admired Abraham Lincoln. I would feel it an honor to have a copy of George Dorrance’s letter.

            Thank you very much,

            Diane S. Hernandez
            PO Box 1188
            Globe, Az. 85502

      • Scott Horton says:


        I have been an amateur history buff for years with a particular interest in the Lincoln assassination and its conspirators. There is a lot of great books that have been published in the last few years regarding this subject. Two of the most interesting ones that I have read the last couple of years are Blood On The Moon by Edward Steers Jr. and Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer. These two books appear to have a tremendous amount of research that have went into them. What I enjoyed about Blood On The Moon was the fact that Steers went through and told a lot about different theories that surround the conspirocy and why he thought the theory was right or wrong.
        I would love to have a copy of the Dorrance Family letter. If you could send me a copy of this letter, I would be very grateful. Thank you.

        Scott Horton
        2514 East Kinsel Hwy.
        Charlotte, MI 48813

        • Scott Horton says:

          By the way, Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer was written by James L. Swanson.

        • Laurie Verge says:

          I think I may have skipped over your request and Ms. Hernandez’s yesterday, but will get your copies of the Dorrance in the mail tomorrow.

          You have read two very good books on the subject. Manhunt is a great starter book, and Blood on the Moon lays out more details in a readable style. If you get really hooked on the subject, graduate to American Brutus by Kauffman. I have known each author for years.

      • James MacDonald says:

        Dear Ms. Verge,
        I have just finished Louis J. Weichmann’s book describing his first hand account of the conspirators activities at the Surratt home. I found his story to be very believable, and am looking forward to the movie and how the two will compare. Mr. Weichmann is adamant with regard to Mrs. Surratt’s knowledge and involvement in the assassination. I would be very grateful if you would send me a copy of George Dorrance’s letter to:

        Thank you very much,

        James MacDonald
        8620 Redcrest Pl
        Raleigh, NC 27617

        • Laurie Verge says:

          Most historians tend to credit Weichmann with basically telling the truth. Others claim that he was more interested in self-preservation. I tend to think he told the truth in most areas – as did the Surrattsville tenant, whose testimony pretty much put the rope around Mrs. S’s. neck. I stop just short of agreeing that she knew about the assassination. however. But, she was tried for conspiracy. There was evidence to link her to the original plot to capture Lincoln. When one enters into a conspiracy, one is liable for what any member of that conspiracy might do.

          Have you read Kate Clifford Larson’s book, The Assassin’s Accomplice? She comes down even harder than I do on Mary.

          Your copy of the Dorrance letter will leave Surratt House tomorrow. Enjoy.

          • James MacDonald says:

            Thank you Ms Verge,

            I believe that Mrs Surratt’s defense also took the position that Weichmann was just trying to save himself, but an important fact stands out for him. That is he had a full time job at the war department, and would therefore have been busy and out of the Surratt household most every day. Plenty more may have occurred at the Surratt house unknown to him, and this makes his story more plausible. Also, Weichmann’s kind and generous description of Mary Surratt goes against her. She was nobody’s fool, and it seems inconceivable that she would be clueless when the famous actor JW Booth suddenly becomes a bff of her working class son. Likewise, it would be publicly repulsive when an attractive, intelligent woman is sentenced the way she was, which by itself could lead to claims of injustice. Anyway, I will be looking for Ms. Clifford Larson’s book, and thank you again for the recommendation and I look forward to reading the Dorrance letter!

          • Lydia Hill says:

            Dear Ms. Verge,
            I am particularly interested in receiving copy of the Dorrance letter. I teach the era of the Civil War and the circumstances surrounding the assassination to middle school students who are fascinated with this part of American history. Thank you very much.
            Lydia Hill
            14 Sanborn Cir.
            Piermont NH 03779

    • Gerald Orrin Blake says:

      I would be most obliged and honoured to have George Edward Dorrance’s letter in my home.
      Thank you so much in advance.


      Gerald Orrin Blake
      4423 Durant Way
      Fresno, CA 93705

    • Herb Swingle says:

      I researched Frederick Aiken and sent two letters to the American Film Co.that he communicated with Jefferson Davis.I teach Rochester and The Civil War for adult continuing-ed.Please send me a copy of your letter.Thank you very much!–Herb Swingle-26 Columbia Court-Fairport,NY-14450

    • M Boldt says:

      Being the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, my son and I are very interested in learning all that we can about our country’s history. I would find reading George Dorrance’s letter extremely interesting and another look into the past. I would greatly appreciate a copy of the letter that he wrote.
      Thank -You so much,

    • M Boldt says:

      Sorry, I didn’t include my address in the earlier reply.
      My snail mail address is:
      M Boldt
      W8969 Hilltop Rd
      Portage, WI 53901

      • Laurie Verge says:

        Mr. Boldt,

        Mrs. Dorrance has shared her family’s letter with me as director of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, MD. I have promised her that I will send copies to those who inquire via this blog. I have taken your snail address and will be sending you a transcript of the letter within the next few days.

        • Mike Moran says:

          I have been an amateur Lincoln History buff having lived in Springfield for a number of years. Could I please receive a copy of the letter. Thank you.

          2806 Locust Ct E.
          Kokomo, IN 46902

          • Laurie Verge says:

            I spoke with Mrs. Dorrance again today, and she is so pleased that people are interested in her family treasure. Your copy will be sent out from Surratt House Museum tomorrow.

        • Barbara says:

          Ms. Verge,
          I would love to have a copy of the letter. I teach American History at a local university and would love to include it in the section concerning that time period. My address is: Barbara McTyre
          3886 Sharon Drive
          Powder Springs, Georgia 30127
          Thank you!

        • Ron Prouty says:

          Could you please forward a copy of Mrs. Dorrance’s letter?
          Thank you!
          Ron Prouty
          PO Box 14044
          Bradenton, FL 34280

        • Kristen Britton says:

          I am an Education major, and have such a passion for the Civil War and Lincoln. I would love to have a copy of that letter if at all possible. And to Mrs. Dorrance, thank you so very much for sharing such an interesting piece of history from your family–what a treasure. Thanks again!
          Kristen Britton
          14290-175th Ave.
          Big Rapids, MI 49307

        • Debby Perry says:

          Please send me a copy as well. I work with children (who went to see the movie in advance of a trip to Washington D.C.) and would love to share this with them!

          Discovery Charter School
          Attn: Debby Perry
          4021 Teale Ave. San Jose, CA 95117

          Thank you for your generous gift!

          • Laurie Verge says:

            Your copy will leave Surratt House on Monday morning.

            Yours is the first school group that I know of that has seen the movie. How did the children react to it? I am much more interested in the story reaching the younger generation and those of an older generation that slept through their history classes. “Learned” historians already know the details. I want new people to become interested in the story.

    • Carol Ann Alrick-Lang says:

      Please send a copy of the letter to 1066 Camellia St., Escondido, CA 92027

      • Laurie Verge says:

        Your copy will also leave Surratt House Museum tomorrow.

        • Timothy McGivern says:

          Ms. Verge:
          Aloha from Hawaii!
          I am a longtime amateur Civil War/Lincoln history buff and would very much appreciate copies of both the Dorrance letter as well as Ms. Christensen’s article about Frederick Aiken. I want to thank you, Mrs. Dorrance and Ms. Christensen in advance for the work you do and the contributions you make toward documenting and understanding such important events in American History.

          I saw Mr. Redford’s film the night it opened here in Honolulu, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am also a longtime Robert Redford fan, and have seen most of the films he’s been involved with, either as an actor or film maker. I can’t think of one that I didn’t like–even his performance as the Angel of Death in that old Twilight Zone episode is still much appreciated.
          Mr. Redford, if you read this–Thanks for a lifetime (I’m 52) of wonderful, thought-provoking entertainment! Keep up the good work.

          To readers of this blog–Besides the Surratt House and other Lincoln-related sites in the Eastern U.S., If you happen to be passing through Redlands, (Southern) California, there is a wonderful Lincoln museum there that is well-worth a visit. They have an incredible collection.

          My address is:
          T.P. McGivern
          P.O. Box 240801
          Honolulu, HI 96824-0801

          • Timothy McGivern says:

            I wanted to add about the film:

            As a former prosecutor, I am especially fascinated with the procedural aspects of the trial. I don’t especially believe in Mrs. Surratt’s innocence. There was substantial evidence that didn’t even make it into the trial but that pointed to her guilt and which makes it very difficult to entertain the idea.

            But from all I’ve read, it’s also clear that her trial in particular (the film doesn’t convey well the fact that the co-conspirators were all tried together even though the others are shown present in the courtroom) was essentially a “kangaroo court” administered by those who had predetermined the verdict. I don’t believe at all that she received a fair trial (or sentence).

            The only other criticism of the film I would offer is that although it does depict Surratt’s illness during the trial, it implies that she was weak from not eating the lousy jail food. Indeed, her illness was much more severe than that, and included severe menstrual bleeding that would not stop. She was so sick and weak that she was excused from attending the last several days of the trial and by the time she was executed, she was almost too weak to stand on the gallows. It’s possible she’d have died soon even had she not been hanged.

          • Laurie Verge says:

            Hi, Tim. I’m just catching up on my reading and will get both the Dorrance letter and the Aiken article to you when I get to work tomorrow.

            Also, I agree that the Lincoln Shrine in Redlands is an excellent museum/research center to visit.

        • Betsy Moyers says:

          My family has been reading books about Lincoln since my son was in the 4th grade and did his history fair project on JW Booth. We would count it an honor to have a copy of the letter. My son is now 26. My husband and I went to see the movie yesterday and feel it is a great reminder how we let history repeat itself. My address is 19 Coleman Dr. Lewisburg, WV 24901

          • Laurie Verge says:

            I will be happy to send along a copy of the Dorrance letter.

            With the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of our Civil War, I hope that more Americans will take the opportunity to brush up on the important lessons that this horrible period in our history can offer to present and future generations.

    • Leslie Klug says:

      Dear Mrs. Dorrance,

      I just received a copy of your husband’s family’s letter from Ms. Verge at the Surratt House. I have emailed her my thanks and wish to extend thanks to you, also.
      Being able to learn about history in such a personal way such as your letter, makes quite an impact. While text books are appropriate, the remembrances of individuals who actually witnessed events are a valuable supplement.

      My husband and I saw the movie over the weekend. I don’t venture out to the theatre very often since DVDs are readily available. There are a few movies per year that I must, absolutely must see on a big screen though. This film was one of them.
      My thanks to Mr. Redford and the others who created this movie. It was engaging from the start until the credits rolled at the end.
      With all sincerity,
      £eslie Klug

  4. Janice Strange James says:

    My grandfather James Aaron Strange was 14 and attended the Fords theater that night with his parents. Also my husband Roger a. James is decended from Capt. Abraham Lincoln, Abes grandfather. Has photos of Abes cousin, who looks like abe. Mary Lincolns silver cup and bracelet. She married a Kelsey, who married a Nickerson. Rogers mom married a James. Roger looks like Abes dad(or was the neighbor his biological father? as he left money for Abe) and Mary Hanks was buried away in the woods and later taken to be buried again next to Abe. Rogers grandma Nickerson looked like Mary Hanks. Just a little fyi from me, Janice Strange James. Touched by a little of Lincoln history.

  5. Martha Edwards Smith says:

    Dear Ms. Dorrance,

    What a wonderful piece of history you have! I think we would all love to see your husband’s grandfather’s account!

    Laurie Verge and The Surratt House Museum would be generous and responsible stewards of a copy of your husband’s letter. She once found a 1902 (I think) Baltimore Sun article for me about the sale of some of Mary Surratt’s furnishings. Helping me to follow up on a story that has been in my family, along with the bed that John Lloyd gave my great-grandfather when my great-aunt lived with John Lloyd and his wife after he returned to Washington, DC.

    Southern Maryland is an amazing place, filled with rich stories that are only discussed within the families, because of the strong ties that still exist, and the shame that still haunts those names and places.

    Our family still has the bed which came from England like the furnishings from the estate sale in1902. Was it really at The Surratt Tavern, and did John Wilkes Booth sleep in it when, as my great grandmother’s cousin told my great grandfather, at the time he gave him the bed, John Wiles Booth stayed at the tavern previous times when he visited.

    My great grandfather was the organist at the Catholic Church at Morganza, MD until he died at 94. He had told the family everyone had seen John Wilkes Booth before the assassination.

    One of my great uncles also followed in John Lloyd’s footsteps and became a DC policeman.

    I am looking forward to “The Conspirator,” as a relative of one of those to give “State’s Evidence” to avoid prosecution and a relative of Charles Perrine, who made The Map of The Confederate States that was found in the pocket of Booth’s coat at The Willard Hotel, in Azterodt’s room, and whose cousin is married to a Richter, the seeming connections abound.

    BUT!!!!! Your husband’s grandfather’s letter is simply too precious not to share!!!

    Could you not post the body, and then let Laurie Verge have a copy for The Surratt House Museum’s archives. It is an amazing place!

    Thank you so much!!

    Martha Edwards Smith

  6. Sam says:

    I caught the preview of the film last nite. One scene showed Lincoln and his wife and the accompanying couple seated next to them. My eye saw that Major Rathbone had “captain bars on his shoulders. This is a mistake.

    • Matthew Dattilo says:

      Rathbone was still a Captain as of the end of 1863. With this in mind, it is possible that his promotion to Major was very recent in April, 1865 and that he did not have a dress tunic with the proper rank insignia. This was not unusual at the time.

      I have tried to find a date for Rathbone but have been unsuccessful. It’s a fairly trivial matter, but interesting nonetheless.

      Matthew Dattilo

  7. Lynn Pattison says:

    Dear Mrs. Dorrance:
    I teach U.S. history at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL, and I, too, would love to have a transcript of your husband’s grandfather’s letter to share with my students. I try to teach them that our view of history is constantly shifting as new evidence and new primary sources of information come to light. Also, I think they might find it interesting that a living connection to the Civil War or War Between the States is not so far in the past!

    • Laurie Verge says:

      To Lynn Pattison: I spoke with Mrs. Dorrance today regarding her husband’s family letter about the assassination. I hope to have a copy of that letter within the next few days.

      E-mail me at laurie.verge@pgparks.com with your snail address, and I will send you a copy. I told Mrs. Dorrance that I would be happy to have Surratt House Museum copy it and distribute it to you and others who have posted about it here.

      In my former life, I was a used 8th grade history teacher, so I am always happy to accommodate the needs of teachers. Have you downloaded the Educational Resources Guide that accompanies this film? It is excellent – like having a week’s worth of lesson plans handed to you on a silver platter!

  8. Laurie Verge says:

    Just a note that research is currently going on to determine whether or not Rathbone was even in military uniform that night at Ford’s Theatre. There is strong evidence that he was in civilian garb. The National Park Service also has several items (both military and civilian) of clothing that belonged to Rathbone. There is one very interesting civilian vest that has staining under the arm and down the side, suggesting that the blood from the arm wound that he received from Booth may have run in that direction — dependent, of course, on Rathbone having that particular vest on that night.
    I also believe that Matthew Dattilo is correct about Rathbone’s rank of Major not being official until the time of the assassination or a little after. I still have a few experts to contact.

  9. Laurie Verge says:

    Here’s information on Henry Rathbone’s rise in rank throughout his military service: He enlisted on 5/14/1861 as a captain and was commissioned into the U.S. Army 12th Regiment. 8/1/64, Henry was promoted to a Brevet Major.

    On 3/13/1865, he was discharged for promotion and commissioned into the U.S. Volunteer Adjutant General Department, serving as an Assistant Adjutant General and becoming a Brevet Lt. Col. This is confusing, because the same day, he also was raised to a Brevet Colonel.

    Henry Rathbone remained with the U.S. Army until 12/31/1870. I will leave it to someone else to figure out what insignia should have been on his uniform on April 14, 1865 — if he was indeed in uniform.

  10. I just returned from London and have been catching up on your comments. While I won’t be able to respond to them individually, I do enjoy reading them and want to thank everyone for their thoughtful contributions. I look forward to you seeing “The Conspirator.”

    • Carol Ann Alrick-Lang says:

      Hello Mr. Redford!
      I have been a fan of yours since the late 60′s. I’m particularly fond of those films which present your clear vision of politics in America. I know that if your name is associated with a project, the end result will be one with integrity.

      I was thrilled this morning when I found out about your latest film, “The Conspirator” and can’t wait to see it. I’m thrilled that you chose to “illuminate” the masses about Mary Surratt. Based on the documentaries I’ve seen, I’ve often questioned whether or not she was the convenient scapegoat. As often occurs, I feel certain the true culprits were powerful people who went un-investigated through political machinations and influence. I’m anxious to see how your film might uncover who those people might of been.

      I have been fascinated by the Civil War period my entire adult life. I feel a very close connection with that part of American history, almost as though I was somehow a part of it. I’m now 56 and look forward to getting into more serious research on the subject as I start preparing for retirement. To start my “formal” research project, I have requested a copy of George Edward Dorrance’s letter (as mentioned on your blog) from the Surratt House Museum.

      I’ve lived in California since I was 8 and have not yet had an opportunity to visit historical sites related to the Civil War. A long visit to that area is on my “bucket list”, along with other places associated with American and world history. I pride myself on my diverse interests in life and have always wanted to “see it all”. Life doesn’t always work out the way we thought it would . . . so, while I may not have the opportunity to achieve everything, the Civil War “tour” is probably most attainable. While I realize your film location is not 100% accurate, I hope to increase my “visual” knowledge of post-Civil War life through your film. I’m hoping the production is historically accurate.

      Thanks for the inspiration you have given though your actions in this life!

      Carol Ann Lang
      1066 Camellia St.
      Escondido, CA 92027
      Phone: (760) 522-3504
      Fax: (760) 740-0452
      email: alrick-lang@cox.net

  11. Marjore Millan (Ruley) says:

    Robert Redford,
    I was born in 1946 in Washington, D.C. and raised in Clinton, Maryland (formally Surrattsville, Maryland). I am disappointed that your filming was done in Savannah and not in the areas that the events were actually done. I was excited to hear about your movie “The Conspirator” and I have always been a great fan of yours. Anyway, my grandmother, Nannie Bell Ruley (fathers side) rented a room many years ago at the Surratt house. The landlord let us see the trapdoors where the guns where hid. It would be nice if you included a couple pictures of the inside of the Mary Surratt House. You should visit the Mary Surratt Museum, it is a special place. Thank you, Marjorie Millan (Ruley).

  12. Christine Christensen says:

    I have done a ton of research about Frederick Aiken and even wrote a paper about him for the Surratt Courier, and am so excited to see him portrayed by James McAvoy on the big screen. One request, Mr. Redford. . .

    Frederick A Aiken is buried in an unmarked grave in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington DC. Would it be possible for you and the film company to put a marker on his grave? The thought of his grave being unidentified after all these years seems like a real tragedy to me.

    David McCullough once said that the phrase ‘gone but not forgotten’ is not true – if they are not forgotten they are not gone. When we research and remember someone from history we bring their memory back to life. Please honor Frederick Aiken’s part in the history of this nation by marking his grave and helping future generations to remember him. Help him not to be forgotten again!

  13. Laurie Verge says:

    Very little was known about Frederick Aiken until last year when, Christine Christensen, a genealogist, decided to research him. None of the assassination researchers over the years had paid any attention to him. She has done an excellent job of documenting his life, and he is a very interesting person.
    If anyone becomes intrigued with him because of the movie, please contact Surratt House Museum, and we will send you copies of the article that Christine did for our monthly newsletter.

    • Laurie Verge says:

      I am repeating the offer to send copies of the great research article that Mrs. Christensen did on Frederick Aiken for the 1400+ members of the Surratt Society. He is a VERY interesting person with many facets, but has been generally overlooked by scholars in the assassination field.

      Contact me at laurie.verge@pgparks.com, if interested. I can attach it to an e-mail or snail it to you, whichever you prefer. It is about ten pages in length if your computer has issues with bytes.

  14. Terry Middleton says:

    I love when we get a new movie that shows us another look into the history of this great land. The struggles it took to make it so great and the people who lived through those great moments in our history. I can only hope to see more of them maybe thats why i love the history channel so much. Its sad when you think that how its lost on our youth today.

  15. Larry Wilkes says:

    Now a movie that tells it like it was. The rush to convict, the lies, the coverups, the mistakes, the officials involved, elected and otherwise and the ignorance are without equal in American “justice”. John Wilkes Booth did not die at Richard Garrett’s barn.

  16. John B. Pugh says:

    I am eagerly awaiting the opening of this movie. I have recently been reading about John Wilkes Booth and his fellow actors when they are in Montgomery, Alabama performing at the Montgomery Theater at the time of Lincoln’s election and the formation of the Confederacy. His portrayal of Richard III is remarkable prescient of his later actions. Being there at that time and likely hearing many speeches by the “Fire eaters” had to influence him. I was surprised how many of his fellow actors were called in for questioning after the assasination. I find the subject of how a famous actor became infamous facinating as I am sure this movie will be also

  17. Rob S. says:

    I know a little about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. I happen to own a letter signed by Henry along with his carte de visite. The text of the letter reads

    “Washington, D.C., October 5th 1869. H. Dunckel, Esq., Canajoharie, Montgomery Co., N.Y. Sir: Referring to your letter of Sept. 24 (ulto.), in which you requested a certified copy of so much of the records of this office as show the quota assigned to the town of Mohawk, Montgomery Co., N. Y., under the calls of March and July 1864, I have, in reply, to enclose herewith an extract from the records of this office, properly certified under the Seal of the War Department, containing the information desired. I am, Sir, Very Respectfully, Your Obedient Servant, H. R. Rathbone, Bvt. Colonel U.S.A., In charge Enrollment Branch.”

    However, it is another piece of writing that might provide the answer to the questions about what Henry was wearing and what rank he was on the evening of the assassination. A part of what is known as Booth’s Last Diary Entry reads

    “I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg”

    Henry was no doubt proud of his promotion to Colonel. It makes sense to me he would have worn his uniform on a night celebrating Lee’s surrender to Grant while in the company of the President.

    The relationship of Henry and Clara was notable because Henry’s widowed mother Pauline Rathbone had married widower and New York Senator Ira Harris which made the Senator his stepfather and Harris’ daughter Clara Henry’s stepsister and Henry Clara’s stepbrother. They then became husband and wife themselves in 1867. Later on in 1883 Henry tragically murdered Clara but spared their three children one of whom a son became a Senator from you guessed it Illinois.

  18. Kathleen Scanlon says:

    I am in the process of researching a script that is a historical drama like “The Conspirator” set in the mid 1800′s. It is a whopper of a challenge to gather all the data and find the right direction that I want my story to go and create dialogue that fits. I am very curious as to how the writer and the director overcame the obstacles of piecing history with the drama necessary for today’s audience. It’s obvious – just from these comments here alone – that there will always be viewers/fans who will not understand “dramatic licensing” and nit pick. I am wrestling with just how far I can go with the dialogue and play out what I think was said that is not documented. At this point, I would just love to pick the brain of someone who has successfully written and produced a historical drama.

    Looking forward to viewing this movie. I always love the high quality work that is associated with Robert Redford.

  19. Lisa Ross says:

    From childhood I would embarrass my family by pointing yo Aunt Mary in the history books. My grandmothers name before marriage was Roxie Surratt. Aunt Mary was her Aunt.

    I am eager to see the film. She remained in my mind a pawn to wrap up the case.

    Lisa Ross
    110 Kimo CT
    Bastrop, Tx 78602

    • Mary Johnson says:

      Jeff Davis wrote that the victor always records history (according to their point of view)… only now will the “other” side of this dark event be exposed to the cleansing light of day. “The truth will out”… eventually, but better late than never. Your Aunt Mary’s day is LONG overdue!

      • Rick Stelnick says:


        Jefferson Davis also wrote: “The contest is not over……The question naturally arises. On which side was victory? Let the verdict of mankind decide”.

        I also think that another thing came into play in Mary Surratt’s case, some thing called “vicarious liability” [any individual by association can be held liable for the actions of another]. It goes like this: Even if she was only part of the plan to capture, chances were Lincoln could have been hurt or killed while being taken as a hostage. As such, just because Booth changed the plot to a kill shot didn’t exempt her from prosecution.

        To get a good feel for the sentiments in Washington City during April of 1865, in regard to fears of civilian or guerilla action continuing the conflict on behalf of the Confederacy, maybe perhaps U.S. Grant put it best: “The rebels we whipped, as it was our duty to do; they fought us bravely, and I for one have no spite against them. But the copperheads and peace men in the North, the men who, during the war, reviled the soldiers, encouraged the enemy, and did their utmost to stop supplies and reinforcements to our boys in the front – such men I can’t forgive; I will never forget them, or have anything to do with them”.

        However, Grant’s words during the aftermath of the assassination caused an unintended reaction, that of acts of vigilantism and violence against any of those in the North, who dared to publicly express sympathy toward the South or Booth, i.e. businesses, newpapers, and even preachers.

  20. Rick Stelnick says:


    Two excellent examples of Civil War era fiction, albeit the Lincoln assassination, are “The Cosgrove Report: Being The Private Inquiry Of A Pinkerton Detective Into The Death Of President Lincoln” by G.J.A. O’Toole and “The Last Confederate Heroes: The Final Struggle For Southern Independence & The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln” by W. L. Richter. Both books feature fact-filled footnotes and well-researched endnotes, respectively, which has not earned them the respect of fellow peers within the Lincoln establishment that they deserve, unfortunately, but they have received well-deserved recognition from the general public and critics in general.

  21. don welch says:

    Over the years I have read perhaps fifteen books concerning the assassination of President Lincoln and nothing creditable has ever convinced me that Booth did not die in or at the barn. I too, look forward to this movie and not being a liberal, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Redford has managed to arrest his politics on this project.

    • Laurie Verge says:

      Thank you, Mr. Welch, for being a discerning student of the Lincoln assassination in realizing that there is no documentable evidence to indicate that Booth died elsewhere other than at Garrett’s farm in Virginia. At the Surratt House museum, we are constantly dealing with myth makers. Unfortunately, I believe that the push is on once again to prove the facts wrong.

      I have been privileged to see a pre-screening of the movie and will be attending the gala premiere at Ford’s Theatre tomorrow night. I must admit that I was a tad concerned upon learning that Mr. Redford would be the director. However, in my opinion, he has done an admirable job of telling the historical implications of the Conspiracy Trial without blatantly showing the 21st-century ramifications of Constitutional issues that still pertain to this part of our heritage.

    • Gene Vigliante says:

      I have read extensively about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln., and have been a Civil War buff since I was in grade school. I agree about JWB. You , perhaps, have read two excellent books, not only about the assaisnation, but about the Confederate Secert Service; “Come Retribution”, by William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy and “April ,65; Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War” by William A. Tidwell. Much in these two books to ponder, and with some interesting things to say about Mary Surratt. I also am looking forward to seeing the movie, and though I do not agree with Mr. Redford politically, I have always enjoyed his acting and directing. I am in the process of writing a novel about that time in our history, but I won’t, for obvious reasons, say more.

  22. Mary Johnson says:

    The accounts of Mary Surratt’s imprisonment, trial, & execution in both “In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death” & “The Union vs. Dr. Mudd” (which includes photos of the hangings) are some of the most painful reading in our home library. I hope the injustice of her treatment by the War Dept is depicted accurately in this movie… I am anxious to see it!

  23. Don Baker says:


    Another excellent Civil War novel, in which Washington DC figures prominently, is “American Falls” by John Calvin Batchelor. The story is about the leader of the Confederate agents who plotted to burn down New York City in 1864, and a U.S. Army/Secret Service major assigned to foil their plan. The incident really occurred, but the Confederate team’s leader was never captured or identified. Batchelor creates a persona for that unknown man, and his extensive research submerges the reader in that time and place.

    Batchelor writes about how possible it seemed, in 1864, that George B. McClellan might defeat Lincoln in the presidential election, and how that affected political and military activities. He writes convincingly of life at that time, and of confused loyalties and personal betrayals that make his characters real. It’s really an amazing book.

    Here’s a link to a brief review that provides some detail: http://www.enotes.com/american-falls-salem/american-falls

  24. Kathleen Scanlon says:

    Thanks so much for the info!

  25. Lorraine Edsall says:

    I would appreciate a copy of the Dorrance family letter my son is a history buff and high school history teacher and I know we both would cherish it. Thank you. My address is
    Lorraine Edsall
    3611 Apple Blossom Ln
    Turlock, CA 95382

    • Laurie Verge says:

      Your copy will leave Surratt House Museum on Monday. Enjoy.

      I used to be a history teacher, so tell your son to hang in there. He will make a difference – even if it’s hard to think so when dealing with his students on a daily basis.

  26. Rebecca Kidd says:

    Mr. Redford,

    I’m a huge fan and wish I could accurately convey how much enjoyment your work has brought to me over the years! But your newest project adds a new element of interest and curiosity for me as I’m a descendent of Mary Surratt.

    I have many memories of my grandmother telling the story of Mary Surratt when I was a child. As the family story goes, Mary was indeed innocent of any wrongdoing and was a victim of a cruel and heartless justice system. For me, as I listened to the family’s version of this story, I was always amazed at how Mary’s strength, dignity and love for her family were details as powerful to the story as the actual events themselves.

    I look forward to seeing the movie! Thank you for telling this story.

  27. Susan Lutman says:

    My husband and I just saw the movie tonight. What a powerful & thought-provoking film. Afterwards, the crowd filed out in silence, something that doesn’t happen everyday after a movie’s over. Thank you for the opportunity to receive a copy of the Dorrance family letter. It can be sent to 1718 Alcoa Drive, Arnold, PA 15068.

    • Laurie Verge says:

      You are about the fourth person I have heard express the silence at the end of the movie. That’s a very good sign to me.

      Your copy of the Dorrance letter will leave Surratt House tomorrow.

  28. James Doyle says:

    Although the movie is fascinating portrayal of these important events, it omits some very significant historical facts. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus as early as 1862 in the northern states. His government ignored the writs of Chief Justice Rodger Taney, who declared this practice unconstitional, in Ex parte Merryman.

    Over 13,000 citizens were detained without due process. So the military trial of the conspirators was not without context. One of the truest statements in the movie is Judge Advocate General Holt’s quote of Aeschylus that truth is the first victim of war. Our civil war involved many injustices, of which the trial of the conspirators was only one.

    From my studies, I doubt that this movie a ‘truthful’ portrait of Mary Surratt. The tavern which she owned was “designated by the Signal Corps of the Confederate Army as an official station on one of the secret lines of communication”. Her elder son, Issac, who is not mentioned in the movie was confederate soldier. John Lloyd who leased the tavern did testify that Mary Surratt told him that the weapons hidden in the tavern would be called upon the evening of the assassination. The frequency of the visits of confederate spies and conspirators to both the boarding house and the tavern, indicate that Mrs. Surratt approved of this use of her property.

    It may be that the truth about Mary Surratt as an active conspirator in the Lincoln plot, was the first victim of this movie.

  29. Rick Stelnick says:


    I’ve asked Ms. Verge of The Surratt Society to address your post. Laurie, with the possible exception of perhaps Mary’s ghost, knows much more about the Surratts than maybe anyone else alive at least that I’m aware of.

  30. Laurie Verge says:

    Everything you have said is factual and is the same history that we have told for 36 years at Surratt House Museum. However, I disagree that the movie made her appear an innocent victim.

    They clearly left you with the opinion that she was on the fringes of the capture plot and was therefore being tried for conspiracy and treason – protecting her son after the fact, yes. but also committing suspicious deeds before the assassination. That is the position of the museum also, and many of our supporters go so far as to pronounce her guilty of aiding in the murder. That’s what makes this history so very interesting to many, many people.

    You failed to mention that the call for a military court is dependent upon the legislative branch – not the executive branch – since Congress is given the war powers by the Constitution. Also, treason is defined as a civilian crime, not a military crime. That same Constitution requires that no one be convicted of treason without the testimony of two reliable witnesses. Even Jefferson did not propose a military tribunal be used in the case of Aaron Burr.

    There is a statute dealing with military courts and a phrase “persons not belonging to the army cannot be subjected to its jurisdiction.” That was used within the past decade to plead the Dr. Mudd case, and it backfired.

    As citizens of a state (Maryland) that had not left the Union, all of the conspirators with the exception of Herold (from D.C.) and Powell (from Florida) were entitled to an indictment by a grand jury and due process of law under the Fifth Amendment and a right to a public trial by an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment. In his excellent book, Civil War Lawyers, author and lawyer Arthur Downey makes a very good point of this.

    Downey also points out that, while the Conspiracy Trial was going on in the military tribunal, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, was being indicted by a grand jury! He also escaped any trial.

    I believe that I am correct that the first suspensions of habeas corpus occurred in Maryland shortly after the Baltimore Riots of April 19, 1861, and were constantly enforced after Gen. Benjamin Butler “invaded” that city in May and placed cannons on Federal Hill pointing into the heart of Baltimore. He also declared martial law.

    That said, as director of Surratt House, I can honestly say that I have spent over fifty years of my life (since I was about 10) studying the assassination and the Civil War in general. I can understand why the U.S. government chose to ignore (or re-interpret) the constitutional rights of the conspirators because of the temper of the times and the fact that it was the first presidential assassination and there were no precedent guidelines as to how to handle the situation. Hindsight is 20/20.

    I notice that the media is trying very hard to overshadow the movie with comments on the 9/11 situation which still is in the news. Since it’s still a debatable subject about trying civilians, enemy belligerents, etc. in a military court after 146 years, maybe it’s time to seriously study past, present, and future circumstances.

    P.S. This is a MOVIE, not a DOCUMENTARY, so please don’t turn it into a criticism of what they didn’t say. I may be a trained historian and museum director, but my motto is: “To learn history, one must enjoy history.” From what I have seen, people are enjoying it and asking questions. I don’t care what purist historians think of it. I want it to interest the 6th grader or the 60-year-old who slept through history class in high school!

    • Laurie Verge says:

      P.S. to Mr. Doyle: I was actually composing my response to you while Rick was throwing the task to me online. Have you visited Surratt House or corresponded with us?

      Most historians within the past forty years have recognized and acknowledged the amount of evidence that went against Mary Surratt. Have you read The Assassin’s Accomplice by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson? Like Kate, I personally feel that both Weichmann and Lloyd told the basic facts – albeit tinged with a desire for self-preservation.

      • Brenan Nierman says:

        I have seen the movie two times in two days. Having been a student of this episode since I was in the second grade of elementary school, I was very, very impressed. The movie raises important considerations about the role of constitutional government when it is under extreme stess.
        My only quibble is that the building from which the condemned prisoners go forth to their execution is not at all like the original bulding, which can still be seen on the grounds of Ft. McNair is SE Washington. (The site of the gallows is now, for better or worse, the location of tennis courts.)
        The movie leaves no doubt that Mary Surratt was guilty of knowing about the plan to kidnap President Lincoln. My own view is that Booth’s change of plans came very late in the conspiracy, perhaps in the five days between Lee’s surrender and the assassination itself. I very much doubt that Mrs. Surratt knew of these changes; and absent any credible evidence, the conjecture that she did so must be considered as precisely that.
        Was this a rush to judgement to satisfy the cries of an outraged people? Yes. In a civil trial, could Mary Surratt have been convicted as a co-conspirator to a plot to kidnap? Probably. But she was not executed for this.
        It is disturbing that, even in this great nation, such injustices have occurred. Is the final product worth the life of one innocent victim? I think not.

        • Laurie Verge says:

          Thank you for agreeing with me – and yes, the use of Fort Pulaski bothered me also; but there is nothing still existing at Ft. McNair except a small portion of the original penitentiary, and it is under renovation. Hopefully, they will continue with their plans to house a small museum there, including a re-creation of the courtroom.

          The first time I saw the film in January, however, the fort looked more like Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas – home to guilty Dr. Mudd for four years.

      • James Doyle says:

        Ms. Verge,

        It is true that of the many citizens whose rights were denied during the Civil War, some were guilty. If she was not an accomplice to murder, it is clear that Mrs. Suratt was active traitor to the Union.

        I appreciate that a movie is not a documentary but there are some portraits, which are just not true to the historical character. Mrs. Surratt is portrayed as a meek nearly saintly figure. She did have several character witnesses at her military tribunal that vouched for her good character and her church attendance but I think the movie goes much too far.

        It’s clear that Mrs. Surratt was supportive of a group of murderous criminals, spies and traitors. She lied about her association with the conspirators and both Herold and Atzerodt are said to have implicated her in their confessions, in addition to the testimony of Weichmann and especially Lloyd. She did deliver a package for Booth with valuable equipment for an escape, the very day of the murder. These are the actions of an accomplice

        Yes I did read The Assassin’s Accomplice and it is my recollection that Dr. Lawson said that she started her research believing that Mrs. Surratt was innocent and by the time she finished the book she had changed her mind.

        I have visited Surrattsville many years ago and have friends who are descendants of Dr. Mudd.

        If there is an appealing and enigmatic character for a movie concerning the Lincoln conspiracy, Dr. Mudd is a much better choice.

        My point is simply that if the primary character of a movie is misrepresented in the portrayal, it’s hard to accept the rest as an honest effort.

        Jim Doyle
        Annapolis Maryland

        • Laurie Verge says:

          Again, Mr. Doyle, I question how you interpreted Robin Wright’s portrayal. I have lived with Mary Surratt for over fifty years, and I feel she did an excellent job. I remember transcribing Mrs. Surratt’s statement upon her arrest nearly 35 years ago. As I sat at my typewriter, it dawned on me that this woman was as cool as a cucumber under interrogation. She told them only what she wanted to tell them, was haughty with them, etc. I tremble when I get a speeding ticket, but she sure maintained her cool under fire.

          I do agree with your assessment of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt, however, and feel that there was enough evidence – GIVEN THE TIMES AND THE PERCEIVED FURTHER THREATS TO THE UNION – to find her guilty.

          As for your preference to Dr. Mudd, I would have hanged him too. He is the one who introduced Booth to John Surratt and got the family involved in the kidnap scheme. He failed to hang by one vote. Have you read Dr. Steers’s excellent His Name is Still Mudd? It is very well-documented and gives the reader a much clearer idea of the REAL Dr. Mudd than what the family and sympathetic media have done over the years.

  31. Brenan Nierman says:

    BTW, The Surratt Society has a John Wilkes Boooth Escape Route tour which is a day-long excursion into the world of 1865. It begins at Ford’s Theatre in the early morning, takes you out the door thorough which JWB escaped, into the alley (which still looks as seedy as it doubtless did in 1865) and ends up on the meridian of a highway, in a wooded area in which markers laying out the dimensions of the Garrett home (on which porch JWB died). It is fascinating and well worth the cost! Highly recommended!

  32. Donny Rhode says:

    I loved the movie, but I was a little disappointed that in order to get Kevin Kline to appear in this flick, they had to give star treatment to a guy that had essentially 2 lines repeated several times: “The country needs to heal” and “We need to put this matter be hind us” or words to that effect. I have known that about Secretary of War Stanton since I was in the 5th grade back in 1968. We have always been aware that he was harsh, expedited the trial questionably and had the ugliest beard in painted history until former debunked Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork combined super glue and shredded wheat into the same breakfast bowl and then bobbed his face in it.

    I expected Redford, who I admire greatly for this and other work, to have pounded the books and records a little harder to give us a different look at Stanton that was previously not in the mainstream of knowledge. From this movie, we know nearly nothing about Stanton and substantially less about President Andrew Johnson. The assassination of Lincoln affected their lives more than anyone, except Lincoln, and the conduct of that trial had a lot to do with that effect.

    I wish Redford would consider making a movie playing off one of the angles in Henry Wiencek’s book about President George Washington, “An Imperfect God”. Kline would be a good choice for Washington since he is a great actor and would not have to wear the remnants of a coon hunt on his face and call it facial hair in order in order to portray our first president. The transformation of Washington from slave-holder to slave-emancipator is worth telling with Wiencek’s primary research.

  33. Rick Stelnick says:

    Like Laurie Verge, my own interest in the Civil War goes back fifty years when my grandfathers took me on my first visit to Gettysburg. My approach for the majority of those years was to restrict my research to two of it’s results; The Confederate Veteran – had he become a “New” Southern Man, and Ulysses S. Grant – had his skill sets as a General served to make him the country’s first modern President.

    Then with the release of “Come Retribution” by Messrs. Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy and the reassurance of a friend and mentor, Bernard Stein, along with the reinforcement of an investigative journalist, Richard de Mille, I like to think that I’d finally found my true calling in life as a crime historian. As a result, I’ve conducted considerable study of, what was considered back then to be “the crime of the century”, the assassination of Lincoln by Booth. As such, I agree 110% with Ms. Verge as regards Mr. Redford’s motion picture.

    The historiographical mission impossible is to “present then and represent when” per a procedure postulated by the late great Congessional Librarian, Daniel Joseph Boorstin, which is the wearing of two hats: “The historian is both discoverer and creator”. In other words, to present the past in a most palatable manner. This methodology, of course, is not new.
    St. Augustine’s Credo Quia Impossibilia: “I believe because it is impossible” and the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, who coined the phrase “wrestling with the angels”. The teaching of history is an easier-said-than-done task. If the film “The Conspirator” opens even one door, opens the cover of just one book or opens only one mind, then it has accomplished its mission.

  34. David Fitzgerald says:

    Dear Ms. Verge,
    I would be most interested in receiving a copy of the Dorrance letter. My interest in the Civil War as well as Lincoln’s assassination stems from my introduction to them approximately 48 years ago. Wm. Henry Seward is our direct family descendant. Having a piece of furniture of his daughter Fanny’s ( a ladder back chair) is a treasured gem for me. Having a copy of a letter describing that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre would be a wonderful addition.

    Thank you so much in advance.

    David Fitzgerald
    110 Derby St.
    West Newton, Mass.

    • Laurie Verge says:

      I shall put a copy of the Dorrance letter in the mail to you tomorrow. And, I envy you your ancestor. I have often wondered if he would have done anything different had he become president.

      A number of years ago, I visited his home in Auburn, NY and was overwhelmed with all the original things still there, including all the gifts and tokens he acquired from his various overseas trips. Our guide told us that there were still boxes of things, mainly papers, that needed to be catalogued. I volunteered to help!!! It didn’t get me anywhere. I’m just glad that I am not the curator that has to keep track of all those accessions…

      • David Fitzgerald says:

        Thank you so much for your interest in this period of our nations history. I too visited Seward’s home in Auburn when I was a teenager. I recall most everything about it, but would love to revisit it again. His birthplace in Florida, N.Y. is still there, but has fallen to neglect mostly. Structurally the building is sound, but I understand some organization is going to restore it to it’s original condition. At least that’s the last I have heard. My father was born and grew up in Florida, N.Y.. Wm. Henry Fitzgerald.

        • Laurie Verge says:

          I just learned recently that the Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman, moved to Auburn in her later years with the support of your ancestor. I believe she’s buried in that area also?

  35. Ed Szewczyk says:

    I have a number of specific questions about the historical accuracy of “The Conspirator:” 1. Were the defendants really prohibited from testifying in their own defense at trial? 2. Did Stanton actually pressure the members of the military tribunal to change their votes and vote for the death penalty? If so, Stanton had to have committed about half a dozen felonies in the process. 3. Did the attorney Aiken actually get a writ of habeas corpus issued and did President Johnson, or people acting in his name, then get the decision reversed secretly, without notice to the defendant or her lawyer? Did they really only find out about this moments before mary was dragged to the gallows? 4. At the hearing, did soldiers actually block Mary Surrat from seeing her daughter while she testified? If so, what was the point of that? 5. Did the attorney Aiken actually neglect to ask witnesses on the stand while they were actually testifying things like, “You never actually saw Mary Surrat attend any of these secret meetings, did you?” or “You were offered leniency to come in here and lie to this tribunal, weren’t you?” I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and thought it really drove home the point that our country has made almost identical errors in abandoning the Constitution in so many ways in the eternal, never-ending “War” on Terror.

  36. Rick Stelnick says:


    Maine was the only state allowing a defendant to testify in his own behalf – Maine’s statute was passed March 25, 1864. Interestingly, the Federal law admitting non-white testimony was passed on July 2, 1864. The law that made the assassination of a U.S. President a capital crime was passed in August of 1865. U.S. Code, Title 18, Chapter 84, Section 1751, 79 Stat. 580.

    In regard to 19th century confessions, an exception to the rule was applicable in cases of treason, which at the sole discretion of the trial judge could be heard in open court [Wharton’s American Criminal Law I:358] The government [Stanton] not the military commission [Holt & Bingham] placed an embargo on “suppressed testimony”.The rule today, generally, is that conspiracy is a felony, and regardless of intention, a death that results will invoke the “felony murder rule”, by which all conspirators are guilty of “felony murder”. In 1865, conspiracy was only a misdemeanor, and in any event, the aim of the original plan/plot was to take a hostage, which was recognized as a legal act of war at the time.

    Note: Brevet General [and dismissed Conspiracy Trial Military Commission member] Cyrus Ballou Comstock believed the accused should be tried in civilian court. Cyrus Ballou Comstock Diary, May 9th entry, Library of Congress.

    19th Century Court Procedures: First and foremost comes the Indication that characterizes the case before the Court. Secondly, the Specification follows which states the subject matters of law before the Court. Then the prosecution and defense present their ‘order of witnesses” [badgering witnesses was allowed, within reason]. Typical topical themes at trial: “temper of the times”, “criminal design results from frame of mind”, “crime committed came about because of the choice of a side”, and “moral considerations”.

    Hearsay was an unheard of objection. “If part of a conversation was admitted into evidence, the entire conversation could then be included”.

    19th Century motions and objections: “dismiss witness testimony due to irrelevancy”.

    Preliminary hearing[s]: held to determine whether the evidence indicated “sufficient cause to believe the defendant[s] guilty of the crime[s]”. Oftentimes, preliminary hearings are rather perfunctory affairs, as defendants concede the inevitability of a full trial (and want not to expose their full hand to the prosecution early in the game) and prosecutors present only enough testimony to meet the legal standard.

    19th century judicial decisions concerning conflicts between armed combatants: More often than not, the rule rather than the exception was “injudicious and censurable act[s] failed to rise to the level of criminal offense[s], therefore no criminality attached to unwise act[s]“.

    In the United States every person accused of a crime punishable by incarceration for more than six months has a constitutional right to a trial by jury, which arises in federal court from Article Three of the United States Constitution, which states in part, “The Trial of all Crimes…shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” The right was expanded with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Both provisions were made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Most states’ constitutions also grant the right of trial by jury in lesser criminal matters, though most have abrogated that right in offenses punishable by fine only. The Supreme Court has ruled that if imprisonment is for six months or less, trial by jury is not required, meaning a state may choose whether or not to permit trial by jury in such cases. The right to trial by jury is exclusively that of the defendant in a criminal case; if a criminal defendant waives trial by jury and chooses a bench trial, the state cannot ask for a jury trial.


    • Laurie Verge says:

      Mr. Stelnick beat me to part of the history lesson because I have to work for a living and am just reading the post. I’ll leave you to figure out his legal explanations, which are correct. In easier terms relative to U.S. citizens (except those in Maine) not being allowed to testify in their own defense, I have been told that that was for their own protection against incriminating themselves at the hand of a skilled, but treacherous, prosecutor. Also, they expected defendants to lie anyway, so why give them the chance to!

      Stanton did not change the vote regarding clemency. According to Holt, the plea was attached to the court’s findings when delivered to President Johnson for his signature on the multiple pieces of court papers. Holt said that he showed the plea to Johnson. Johnson swore he never saw it. For the rest of their lives, it was a “he said; no, he said” debate.

      My strictly personal opinion is that the plea was attached at the end of the papers (and we know that it was attached in a strange manner), but that Holt didn’t call it to Johnson’s attention. President Johnson was no rocket scientist, having learned to read after his marriage with his wife as teacher. I think he searched for the magic line to sign off on the court’s findings and missed (or ignored) the clemency plea. Would he have granted clemency (life imprisonment based on age and gender)? I doubt it; I also think that Mary Surratt would have died shortly had she been confined to prison. Her health was terrible at the time of her execution.

      Moving on – understandably, the movie sort of fast forwards the last ten minutes. The conspirators who were condemned to die were read their sentence on July 6 – which included learning that they were to hang by early afternoon on July 7. Aiken learned of the sentence on the streets and rushed for advice. Thomas Ewing, defense counsel for Mudd, helped prepare the writ of habeas corpus which was rushed to Judge Wylie for approval. The writ was rescinded by Johnson sometime that evening or night because Anna Surratt and Father Walter and others (including the widow of Stephen A. Douglas) spent the morning of July 7 trying (but not succeeding) to seek audience with Johnson to plead for a stay of execution – which never came.

      As the execution hour drew near, relay soldiers were placed along the streets between the White House and the Penitentiary to speed word if a stay of execution came. When none came, the order was given to kick out the props. The question came, “The woman too?” The answer, “The woman too.”

      Artistic license was also used in the placement of Mary in the courtroom. Actually, she sat in the prisoners’ dock with the men, but a little removed from them at one end. There was no shielding of her from Anna’s eyes when the daughter entered the courtroom. In real life, it has been reported that she at first asked, “Where’s Momma, where’s Momma.” BTW: Anna was shaken but rather haughty on the stand.

      As for Aiken’s conduct as a defense attorney, you may go to http://www.surratt.org and read the three-volume posting of the complete Ben: Perley Poore transcripts of the trial. Take a big Excedrine before you plow into it and have more ready after you finish. P.S. Original is about 1600 pages, and a valued associate member of the Surratt Society has transcribed it all for us online to help researchers.

      • Laurie Verge says:

        I should have stated that my comments about the movie fast forwarding and also taking artistic license with some of the history is not a criticism per se. It is a MOVIE, not a DOCUMENTARY, and is designed to educate and entertain and stir up interest in doing more reading.

        If every detail were covered, it would be at least a four-hour movie.

  37. Rosemary Swank says:

    Loved the movie! Two questions: What book would you recommend to read on this subject2 Where was the location of the trial and the prison. thanks!

    • Laurie Verge says:

      My personal favorite on the case of Mary Surratt is The Assassin’s Accomplice by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, who served as one of the historical advisers to the film. Kate thinks like I do as to the questionable status of Mary Surratt’s complicity.

      A second, more sympathetic, book to read is Elizabeth Steger Trindal’s An American Tragedy.

      A new bio is due out this fall on Judge Advocate General Holt. I’m not sure of the title, but it’s written by Dr. Elizabeth Leonard, who also wrote Lincoln’s Avengers. If you visit http://www.surratt.org, we have a Recommended Reading List posted and have indicated which ones are available by mail order through the Surratt House Museum’s Gift Shop.

      The trial and execution took place at the Old Washington Penitentiary on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal. There is but one small portion of the trial building remaining. It is now incorporated into Fort Lesley J. McNair in southwest Washington. The site of the gallows is now a tennis court!

    • Rick Stelnick says:

      Ms. Swank

      Recommended reading:

      American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth And The Lincoln Conspiracy. Michael W. Kauffman.

      April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War. William A. Tidwell.

      Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service And The Assassination Of Lincoln. William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, & David W. Gaddy.

      Sic Semper Tyrannis: Why John Wilkes Booth Shot Abraham Lincoln. William L. Richter.

      The Cosgrove Report: Being The Private Inquiry Of A Pinkerton Detective Into The Death Of President Lincoln. G.J.A. O’Toole. [Fiction]

      The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, And The Great American Tragedy. Thomas & Debra Goodrich.

      The Last Confederate Heroes: The Final Struggle For Southern Independence & The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln. William L. Richter. [Fiction]

      The Lincoln Assassination: Crime & Punishment, Myth & Memory. Holzer, Williams, Sloan, Lowry, Leonard, Turner, Steers, Kauffman, Current & Symonds.

  38. Carol Lockwood says:

    I also am interested in obtaining a copy of the Dorrance letter. Just saw the movie, very thought provoking and has peaked my interest in the history of the Civil War before and after.
    Thanking you in advance,

    Carol Lockwood
    122 Munro Ave
    West Keansburg, NJ 07734

  39. Laurie Verge says:

    For those of you interested in the legalities/illegalities of the Conspiracy Trial of 1865, you might want to find Arthur Downey’s excellent book, Civil War Lawyers. “The Revenge Trials” are covered in Chapter 8. There is a very good, easy to understand, break-down of Reverdy Johnson’s position on civilians being tried in a military court vs. Attorney General Speed’s interpretation of the law.

    If you wonder about the trial of her son in 1867, that’s covered in the same chapter.

  40. Rick Stelnick says:

    The Expansion & Extension of the Executive Privilege in Wartime Washington

    Traditionally, the President and his Cabinet do not have to claim “executive privilege”, but rather instead they are able to rely on the common law deliberative process privilege or the “privilege of secrecy”. The stakes are obviously much higher if the constitutionally-based executive privilege is invoked. The doctrine of executive privilege, while not explicitly stated in the Constitution, is founded upon the basic principles contained within Article II, Section 1, Clause 1. History and precedent recognize Congressional power to oversee – and after all, the Constitution by no means contemplates total separation of each of the three essential branches of Government; Executive, Legislative and Judicial. The power of Congress follows from the system of checks and balances favored by the framers of the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has been careful to limit Congressional power. The Court has found that Congress must have a valid legislative purpose. In addition, the Court has of course recognized the existence of executive privilege, but the Court has also found the privilege is not absolute. That being said, however, the Supreme Court has never been called upon to render a decision whether executive privilege can overcome a congressional demand.

    Presidents will attempt to increase their power at the expense of other branches of government and even the people. This despite those provisions of the Constitution that make it clear that powers not granted specifically should not be inferred. That this proclivity should increase in time of war should surprise nobody. Presidents for the most part seem to take the Constitution seriously but unquestionably war will strain their abilities to live within its bounds. War will strain the ability of all its participants to uphold values that routinely pertain in normal times. Presidents use wars and security concerns to replace the old Constitution, which limited federal powers, with a new one that does not. The argument could be made more simply without sacrificing much accuracy: The federal government expands its powers by all available means, and the written Constitution has little power to prevent this. An excellent example of the enabling of the expansion and extension of executive privilege ensued after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln when the executive branch [which still existed, of course, in the form, manner, and shape of Stanton] not the legislative or judicial, controlled the trial of the so-called conspirators.

    “The Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime president,” wrote Francis Biddle, F.D.R.’s attorney general during World War II. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and in several states he ordered the trial of civilians by military tribunals. “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” [Article 1, Section 9, clause 2, U.S. Constitution]. During the Civil War, once Congress classified the conflict as a “Rebellion” it clearly had the right to suspend hapeas corpus. Although Congress explicitly authorized Lincoln to suspend the writ, it was a draconian measure that the president believed essential to preserve the Union. “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” he asked. Lincoln, of course was responding to an armed insurrection which threatened the nation’s survival. Most historians have judged his action as commensurate with the threat. There is an old legal maxim that in time of war the laws are silent: Inter arma silent leges. But the critical and crucial issue is the extent to which the nation is threatened.

    In the case of Lincoln, the survival of the United States hung in the balance. A president will be forgiven by his contemporaries, though not necessarily by later generations and historians, for acting outside the law when that is the case. As more than one Supreme Court justice has said, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. When national survival is not threatened, however, it is essential for a chief executive to resist an unwarranted enlargement of his powers. Though the best case for the Confederacy to succeed was still a long shot, does anyone seriously argue that suspending the writ of habeas corpus for the supposed “enemy within” in the North materially influenced the outcome of the Civil War? I seem to recall that the Supreme Court reprimanded Abraham Lincoln when he ignored a writ of habeas corpus, and he continued to do so in spite of the court’s decision: ex parte Merryman. Therefore, it’s no accident the one president who had legitimate Constitutional authority to do what he did- Lincoln- is remembered as the greatest President of them all.

  41. Chris Lorenc says:

    Thank you all for this thread — and thanks to everyone involved in making the film. My wife and I saw it tonight, and as we walked out of the theatre, I said: “That’s the thing with an historical movie — the responsibility for being accurate is very high.” I understand the distinction Laurie makes above — that this is a “movie” and not a “documentary.” Still, the reality is that this film will now shape, even define, most people’s view of this event in history.

    That’s why I appreciate this thread. For me, it’s been a necessary counterpart to the film. It’s allowed me to continue appreciating the film while re-enlivening the historical debate and questions.

    I, for one, was grateful for the film’s contemporary subtext. It’s hard to have even a breath of this without it coming across as heavy handed — and you could feel the film trying hard to avoid this. It might not have been altogether successful in this regard — but that’s more than offset by the virtue of being reminded of the need for real moral clarity in our own day, too.

    • Rick Stelnick says:


      A brief word here about Ms. Laurie Verge. As a life member of the Surratt Society I can say that there is no one I know who has consistently gone beyond the call of duty to clarify for others comprehension of what was called “the crime of the century”. To say anything less, as regards her 24/7 committment to serious students and scholarly sleuths would be, in my learned opinion, an understatement.

  42. Nicholas Mameo says:

    I saw the movie last week and have to say that it is nothing less than a piece of art. It is indeed a portrait of those days that is chillingly real. Mr. Redford is no stranger to recreating scenes of a bygone era in great detail. You may recall “The Great Gatsby” in which Mr. Redford played Jay Gatsby. Another stunning recreation. I recently traveled U.S. 301 near Port Royal, Virginia and passed the site of the Garrett Farm where Booth was captured. There is nothing left of the buildings but it is a chilling experience to stand on the sight of such an event as Booth’s capture. Hollywood needs to produce more films that tell our history in such great detail. Thanks to Mr. Redford and the entire production company for a job so well done!

  43. Billy Morris says:

    As I watched the hanging scene, I noticed 1) that the number of turns made on the rope noose to hang Mary was only five; whereas, the men’s ropes had twelve or thirteen. I can only assume this was an allowance made for Mary’s lighter body weight. 2) I also noticed that the nooses were draped directly behind the victims’ necks and not—as is more usual—beside the left ear. 3) I have read that none of the four suffered a broken neck; hence, they all died from strangulation—maybe, because the nooses were placed to the back rather than beside the left ear of the hanged. Is this all of this historically accurate?

    • Laurie Verge says:

      Actually, the soldier in charge of preparing for the execution, Christian Rath (and yes, that’s his real name – appropriate isn’t it?) said later that Mrs. Surratt’s noose was the last one that he did and that he was tired and did not do a complete wrapping, mainly because he did not expect the woman to hang. Like others, he expected at least a stay of execution. I believe that I commented elsewhere that relays of cavalry were placed on the streets of Washington between the White House and the penitentiary in anticipation of that stay coming from President Johnson.

      The placement of the nooses was a little off in the production. You are correct that the knot should be towards the left ear in order to snap the neck at the edge of the skull.

      Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt did die instantly. Lewis Powell and David Herold had to strangle to death.

      P.S. Thanks for the compliment. I am so glad that I am able to answer questions and make helpful comments.

  44. Billy Morris says:

    I would also like to thank Ms Verge and Mr Stelnik for their educated and informed posts. Your posts have already addressed many of the questions I had regarding artistic license in the movie.

  45. Rick Stelnick says:


    Thank you very much for your kind remarks. It is indeed a privilege to post here and share the results of research with serious students and scholarly sleuths such as yourself.

  46. Tom Schiera says:

    As one who has always been very interested in Lincoln history, I have always paid attention to those people who were associated with and surrounded Lincoln during his years as president. From a physical standpoint, why did Kevin Kline, who portrays Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War under Lincoln, have such a short beard? During the Lincoln years at least, Mr. Stanton wore his beard quite long; in fact, down to the middle of his chest, I believe. All photos that exist of Stanton during the Lincoln presidential years point to Stanton as having a long, flowing beard.
    When I first saw Kline in the movie, the thing that struck me about his appearance was the fact that his beard was not at all like the beard Stanton wore in real life. Perhaps Stanton trimmed the beard at some point, I do not know. Regardless of this, I thought the movie was excellent; well done!

    • Laurie Verge says:

      Almost everyone who has seen a picture of Stanton has had the same comment about Kline’s lack of a proper beard. I first saw the movie in January at a pre-screening in D.C. It was the one time in the show that I almost screamed! We all agree that hair extensions would have worked wonders if Mr. Kline did not want to spend months in a Stanton beard.

      I was amazed, however, at how closely his eyes resembled those of Edwin Stanton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>