Historians Clash on Redford's 'Conspirator' Mystery

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director

The Conspirator, which opened April 15, is Robert Redford’s compelling Civil War-era drama about Mary Surratt, the first woman federally executed in the United States. The film raises sharp questions over the defendant's guilt in President Lincoln's assassination -- and, by implication, our own era's legal procedures for suspected terrorists.

Unraveling the real story about the movie and the trial led me to exclusive interviews with historian Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., and longtime Washington public affairs commentator John Edward Hurley. The two experts differ sharply on Surratt's guilt, leading to further intriguing questions about legal procedures, politics and news coverage today.

Redford directed the movie, which portrays high-level federal authorities railroading Washington resident Mary Surratt to the scaffold on dubious charges of conspiracy. Assassin John Wilkes Booth, her son and other Confederate sympathizers had used her boarding house and nearby locales to plot the death of Lincoln, the vice president and secretary of state. "I am a Southerner and a devoted mother," she says in the film, "but no assassin."  Her defense attorney, who had been a Union war-hero, gave up the practice of law in disgust after her death, and became the Washington Post's first city editor.

The movie’s historical accuracy is creating a dispute far broader than Surratt’s fate. The film suggests that authorities suppressed evidence for fear that a long proceeding might encourage rebels. That kind of result-oriented justice system is a rebuke to authorities and civil rights watchdog institutions of any era, including our own.

Larson, left, author of a book on Surratt, told me she supports the military tribunal’s finding that Surratt was guilty of conspiracy. Further, she says her view is the overwhelming conventional wisdom among historians. A post-production expert consultant for the film’s producers, she conceded that the tribunal’s procedures were “terribly unfair” and that the film’s creators at the American Film Company tried hard to be historically accurate within the inherent limitations of drama. But Hurley, a leader of a number of historical, press and military civic groups including the Justice Integrity Project, believes that Surratt was framed. “A deposition taken in 1866 shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was not guilty,” Hurley told me today.

Larson, Hurley and many others find common ground, however, in assessing The Conspirator as a powerful drama that portrays one of our nation’s pivotal tragedies. That history is particularly striking as I write this column from our Justice Integrity Project’s DC offices at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. A few hundred yards to the northeast is Surratt’s boarding house near Sixth Street. Hurley’s ancestors owned properties on that block during the 1850s, with one of their partners selling the building to the financially troubled Surratt family. The building is still standing, and became (by Hurley’s account) a restaurant that a quarter of a century ago hosted weekly meetings of Republican neo-Confederates from Southern states. During their Reagan-era revival, they reputedly savored the historical significance of the boarding house as they plotted to change politics, business and politics once again. Across Pennsylvania Avenue from us at are the National Archives, where historians this week announced the discovery of thousands of previously unknown letters authored by Walt Whitman. Whitman came to the city from New Jersey to nurse his brother, a wounded Civil War soldier, along with many other wounded vets. Whitman worked also as a federal clerk before he authored such powerful odes to the murdered president as, “This Dust Was Once the Man,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain, My Captain!”

A few blocks to the west on Tenth Street is Ford’s Theater, where Booth fatally shot Lincoln. It now hosts hundreds of school children from around the nation on almost a daily basis. They line up outside the nearby FBI headquarters for a look at the assassination site. At The Conspirator premiere this week, Redford and stars Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, James McAvoy and Robin Wright were there also to walk the red carpet to launch the film.

All this history reminds us that interpretations are rarely simple, even about important episodes in our history. Let’s take a closer look:

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The Washington Post published on April 15 a review by its top critic, Ann Hornaday, under the headline “Revisionist ‘Conspirator.’” The review opened this way:

It’s an engrossing, surprising story that Redford relates with a combination of gauzy, high-toned drama and taut courtroom encounters. He’s enlisted a first-rate cast in “The Conspirator,” including James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero who was assigned to defend Surratt at trial. Kevin Kline is nearly unrecognizable as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But the movie chiefly belongs to Wright, who delivers a bravely unsentimental performance as Surratt, an industrious widow, devout Catholic and staunch Confederate supporter who came from a slave-owning family in Maryland. To her credit, Wright doesn’t resort to any tricks to win the audience over to Surratt; she’s resolutely unsmiling, focusing her eyes on the middle distance, rarely shedding a tear.

The Post’s sub-headline is “Robert Redford’s drama distorts history with myth in retelling of Lincoln’s murder.” The director is portrayed at right in a photo from his film company's website as he directs a scene set at the Surratt boarding house. The newspaper critic, a finalist in the 2008 Pulitzer competition, relied heavily for her review on published assessments by the historian Larson, who was not interviewed. Hornaday wrote:

Although “The Conspirator” hews scrupulously to the public record and doesn’t seem to have played fast and loose with the most important facts, the director uses his artistic license to slightly shade meanings and emphases to meet his narrative and allegorical needs.

Although historians, including Surratt biographer Kate Clifford Larson, agree that Surratt was almost certainly guilty of conspiracy, Redford needs to court ambiguity in order for viewers to buy in to her plight, so rather than the keeper of “the nest that hatched the egg” of the would-be coup, he portrays her as a martyred mother, going to her grave rather than betray her likely culpable son (who was cooling his heels in Canada while his mother was tried and hanged).

I contacted Larson for comment, and she responded that the Post column fairly summarized her views. Larson teaches at Simmons College and Wheelock College in Massachusetts, and authored in 2008, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Assassinate President Lincoln. Her bio is provided on the website of the American Film Company, which went to extraordinary lengths to confirm the historical accuracy of the movie, as Producer Webster Stone told the press in a sneak preview I attended in March.

Larson told me by phone today that her consulting work was “post-production” (only after the film was shot). She conceded that the film creators accurately portrayed the “terribly unfair” trial procedures and that they otherwise tried hard to hew to the historical record. But she said she believes that Surratt must have been so deeply involved to have deserved her conviction. Larson, best known as a scholar on the life of Harriett Tubman, said she thinks Surratt was complicit enough to deserve an extremely long prison sentence falling short of a death sentence only because Larson opposes death penalties in general.

But Hurley offers extensive support for Surratt’s innocence drawn from his study of Washington and the Civil War era, and cites Mary E. Surratt: An American Tragedy by Elizabeth S. Trindall as the most accurate book portrayal of the conspiracy. Hurley is a founding director of the Capitol Hill Civil War Society and is the commander of the American Legion Post at the National Press Club. A former White House correspondent, Hurley leads the McClendon Group speaker society at the Press Club. On April 13, he delivered the group’s weekly lecture, entitled, “Suppressed evidence shows Mary Surratt innocent in Lincoln Assassination Plot.” He summarized part of the evidence of innocence as follows:

Within two years of Mary Surratt's hanging, the U.S. minister to the Vatican, General Rufus King, took the sworn deposition of papal guard Henri de Sainte Marie. In that deposition, he identified fellow papal guard, John Surratt, son of Mary and a former Confederate agent, as the fugitive wanted in the assassination plot against Lincoln. The deposition describes the chief witness against Mary as a Confederate agent who was passing War Department intelligence to the Confederacy as an employee of Secretary of War William Stanton.

The deposition incontrovertibly shows that chief witness, Louis Weichmann, was lying during Mary Surratt's trial. It leaves little doubt that the Military Commission knew he was lying, as was fellow prosecution witness, John Lloyd, who was tortured.

More generally, Hurley says, “The justice system in the United States has not changed much over the past 150 years.” He notes that General Rufus King's descendant, Judge Rufus King of the Washington, D.C. Superior Court, heard the 1991 legal case by neo-Confederates seeking control of the Confederate Memorial Association that Hurley led for years. As director of the Memorial, Hurley fought the takeover in fear that racists from Southern states would use the now-closed museum’s building, prestige and relics to foster a nationwide political movement with hidden agendas. Hurley regarded its leaders as secret white supremacists and otherwise dangerous.

Hurley's interviews and lectures are peppered with names and other specifics too numerous to mention here where he identifies prominent and near-prominent lobbyists, politicians, lawyers and quasi-journalists involved in under-handed schemes of substantial scope that are seldom exposed in ways understandable to the general public. In sum, Hurley is a man of wide experience and deep suspicion that malefactors are harming the nation’s legal system and other heritage while our watchdog institutions largely remain oblivious if not co-opted.

This creates another dimension regarding media reviews of The Conspirator and similar films that touch on public affairs without the cop-out of  fantasy or other fiction: If stakes are high enough reaction to the film can be political.

Unlike the start-up Washington Post of Aiken’s time or even the Watergate era when Redford starred in All the President’s Men, the Washington Post today embodies establishment perspectives regarding the courts, big business and similar institutions. Washington commentator Sam Smith describes today's mainstream media as removing non-centrist perspectives from public discourse, much like the video industry’s “panning” process adapts widescreen film to square TV screens by eliminating anything on the right or left.

True to form, the Washington Post’s critic  ̶  while doubtless considering herself an arts-focused, tell-it-like-it-is independent voice  ̶  adopted her employer’s usual tone as she panned the new Redford film this way:

“The Conspirator’s” mistrust of federal power doesn’t seem altogether earned and, what’s more, it takes on new meaning seen through the lens of the present day. While Redford clearly began the project with an eye toward Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the movie’s being released in a tea party-fied America, where loathing for government and cries of “Shut it down!” often teeter perilously close to the brink of secessionist fever. What was clearly intended as an allegory about civil liberties instead exists at that paranoid point where Left and Right join in mutual mistrust of a malign, unchecked government.

A column cannot resolve such complex matters, of course. But The Conspirator is a powerful way for those concerned about civic life to understand the stakes.


Listed below are selected articles on legal reform, with the most important political, security and media factors. See the full articles by visiting the Project home page's section on News Reports, and clicking the link.

New Yorker, Current Cinema: Casualties of War, Anthony Lane, April 18, 2011. Of the many questions posed by “The Conspirator,” and left unresolved, the most pressing are these: How much did Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) know of the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln? How could she not have known of it, given that some of it was hatched within the respectable boarding house that she ran in Washington, D.C.?

Washington Post, Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’ and the lost Union cause, Ann Hornaday, Thursday, April 14, 2011. There’s something appropriate, if not prophetic, in the fact that the Confederate cemetery in Richmond is called Hollywood. From the inception of American cinema, the Civil War has provided narrative fodder and an inexhaustible supply of action, emotion and heightened drama, leading to a perfect marriage of history and myth.

Washington Post, Newly found papers of Walt Whitman unveiled, Michael E. Ruane, April 12, 2011. On Tuesday, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Archives announced that Kenneth Price, a Whitman expert from the University of Nebraska, had found almost 3,000 pieces in Walt Whitman’s handwriting, a discovery that Archivist of the United States David Ferriero called “astonishing.” The writings are essentially letters authored by various government officials that Whitman copied into record books when he was a clerk in the U.S. attorney general’s office in the 1860s.

New York Review of Books, Private Manning’s Humiliation, April 28, 2011, Bruce Ackerman and Yochai Benkler, April 28, 2011. Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to Wikileaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral. For nine months, Manning has been confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day. During his one remaining hour, he can walk in circles in another room, with no other prisoners present. He is not allowed to doze off or relax during the day, but must answer the question “Are you OK?” verbally and in the affirmative every five minutes. At night, he is awakened to be asked again “Are you OK?” every time he turns his back to the cell door or covers his head with a blanket so that the guards cannot see his face.

April 14

Salon Unclaimed Territory, The two-tiered justice system: an illustration, Glenn Greenwald April 14, 2011. Of all the topics on which I've focused, I've likely written most about America's two-tiered justice system -- the way in which political and financial elites now enjoy virtually full-scale legal immunity for even the most egregious lawbreaking, while ordinary Americans, especially the poor and racial and ethnic minorities, are subjected to exactly the opposite treatment: the world's largest prison state and most merciless justice system. But The New York Times this morning has a long article so perfectly illustrating what I mean that it's impossible for me not to highlight it. The article's headline tells most of the story: "In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures." ddddd

April 13

Legal Schnauzer, The Siegelman Case: Ten Years of Injustice--and Counting, Roger Shuler, April 13, 2011. In April 2001, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman hired a lawyer after articles in statewide newspapers indicated a federal grand jury was focusing on his administration. Today, 10 years later, the case ranks as perhaps the most notorious political prosecution in American history. Justice still seems a long way off and, perhaps most alarming, a veteran federal justice official seems intent on making sure the public never discovers what really drove the Siegelman case.

April 12

Computer World, U.S. police increasingly view private email, instant messages, Jeremy Kirk, April 12, 2011. Law enforcement organizations are making tens of thousands of requests for private electronic information from companies such as Sprint, Facebook and AOL, but few detailed statistics are available, according to a privacy researcher. Police and other agencies have "enthusiastically embraced" asking for e-mail, instant messages and mobile-phone location data, but there's no U.S. federal law that requires the reporting of requests for stored communications data, wrote Christopher Soghoian, a doctoral candidate at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, in a newly published paper. "Unfortunately, there are no reporting requirements for the modern surveillance methods that make up the majority of law enforcement requests to service providers and telephone companies," Soghoian wrote. "As such, this surveillance largely occurs off the books, with no way for Congress or the general public to know the true scale of such activities." That's in contrast to traditional wiretaps and "pen registers," which record non-content data around a particular communication, such as the number dialed or e-mail address that a communication was sent to. The U.S. Congress mandates that it should receive reports on these requests, which are compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Soghoian wrote.

April 11

Salon / Unclaimed Territory, Manning, Obama and U.S. moral leadership, Glenn Greenwald, April 11, 2011. On December 15, when I first reported the inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning's detention, I did not assign any blame to -- or even mention -- Barack Obama. But since then, the Manning controversy exploded into national prominence and Obama has explicitly defended the treatment, leaving no doubt that it directly reflects on who he is as a leader and a person. For that reason, as The Guardian reports this morning, a letter signed by "more than 250 of America's most eminent legal scholars" that "includes leading figures from all the top US law schools, as well as prominent names from other academic fields" -- featuring "Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be America's foremost liberal authority on constitutional law"; who "taught constitutional law to Barack Obama and was a key backer of his 2008 presidential campaign"; and "joined the Obama administration last year as a legal adviser in the justice department, a post he held until three months ago" -- not only denounces Manning's detention but also the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner's personal responsibility for it.

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