Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Review | The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I've long known that the plan to assassinate President Lincoln was not the act of a deranged loner, but a wider conspiracy involving many accomplices and the highest ranking government officials. However, John Wilkes Booth is the sole name most often attached to the murder, for a variety of reasons; he was a famous actor, he was handsome, he escaped, he was hunted down, he in turn was shot against direct orders, and so on and so on. I also knew that one woman was convicted in the conspiracy plot and also executed, but I knew nothing else of her until now - except that she was supposedly quite innocent of the charges and only had the terrible misfortune of lending rooms to terrible men plotting terrible deeds.

The author had my attention quite early on. She admitted in the introduction that she began in an attempt to clear Surratt's name, so to speak. Though during the trial, Surratt was treated terribly by the public, there was a huge backlash after her death sentence was carried out and she became the first woman ever executed by the US government. What she found instead, was a surprise even to her, in that Surratt was perhaps even more deeply involved in the plot to kill the president than had ever been supposed before. She used a variety of sources - court testimony from witnesses on both sides, the confessions of other conspirators, and even long-lost interviews conducted before and after the trial.

As the subtitle states, this is about Surratt's role in the conspiracy. If you are looking for a full biography of her, this will not satisfy you, as that is not the focus. We do get a brief overview of her early life but the story really picks up when Surratt is widowed, running her boardinghouse and hosting friends she should have sent packing early on. Yet it is pretty clear that Surratt would not have shied away from such a plot as this, or Booth's earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for Confederate prisoners. Surratt's son (a slimy weasel, more on that in a minute) was good friends with Booth, and was only saved from hanging alongside his mother due to the fact that he was on one of his many spy missions for the Confederates and he stayed far away, in Canada, while his mother was imprisoned, tried by a military court, and executed. See, slimy. He could have saved his mother, though it would have mean his own death in return. But seriously, how do you just do nothing? It's not as though the trial last one day and the sentence carried out the next. He had plenty of time to even drop a letter in the mail that said, "Oh by the way, leave Mum out of this, it was all me. Try and find me, suckers". Okay, so it probably would not have said that, but he could have saved her. He did nothing. I wonder what his relationship was like with his sister after that, if she forgave him. Interesting to think about.

As is true of any book on someone whom we do not know a great deal about because they are famous for one specific action or moment in time, we sometimes get a broader picture of the war, the plot and other conspirators, all in order to give some more context. I found that background information to be relevant, because it all served to help me try and understand why someone would risk everything for what would surely turn out to be a very foolish and costly mistake. There is frustratingly little information at times, even regarding Mary and her role. She refused to answer questions or aid her attorneys in her defense, though she repeatedly stated that she was innocent. So, it is not for the author's lack of trying that we are left with so little information at times. When there is sparse information on Mary during the trial, there is plenty to discuss in regarding the other defendants tried with her.

I think the evidence presented against Surratt is strong, and the author did well in this regard. I don't see anything circumstantial regarding help in hiding the weapons at the tavern, and letting Lloyd know when to have the guns ready for use later on. Nor do I think it is circumstantial that Surratt has long and numerous private conversations with the men involved - especially Booth. Whether or not Surratt had any romantic feelings for Booth doesn't matter and if anything, it would have been considered far more inappropriate for her to meet with him privately if she did. If she was merely renting rooms to him and other friends of her son, there would hardly have been the need for such clandestine meetings anyway, and strange comings and goings all the time.

A issue that was highly controversial at the time was the trial itself. Though we of course can not change the venue today, this is still debated as well - and it was hotly contested by Surratt's lead attorney, who was suspiciously absent after the first week of the trial. He railed against the idea of a military tribunal trying the case both in that first week, then in his closing statement which was delivered in absentia from a document read by one of Surratt's two highly inexperienced younger attorneys who were in way over their heads. I can see the argument being made either way. The plot was motivated by the fact that all were Southern sympathizers (or like Surratt's son, actually working for the Confederate government as a courier and spy) who hoped to rally their cause. It was a military matter because even though the war was declared over, skirmishes continued well into the summer. On the other hand, they were all civilians, so was the military tribunal actually correct? In that period of time, I lean toward yes. Would the trial happen this same in the 21st century? Not a chance.

There is little speculation here once the trial gets going. The author presents the facts that are known and does not try to steer the reader one way or another. The key area where this stands out the most for me is in which Surratt's lead attorney all but disappears from the court room. He attends for the first week, then leaves behind a rather inexperienced and rather clumsy pair who do their client no service. Larson does not tell us why she thinks this happens, but offers the facts and leaves it at that for the reader to come to their own conclusions.

A strength of the book also lay in the choice of photographs. Instead of one section lumped all together on glossy paper in the middle, photographs are dispersed throughout. The most haunting to me took my completely by surprise. In a series of photographs, we see the convicted lead to the gallows that had been constructed, tied up, and eventually dead, after they were left hanging for twenty minutes to ensure they were in fact dead. I was taken by surprise by that last photo, in all honesty. I guess I simply did not expect for photographs to be taken, or printed, of the four with their heads covered by hoods, arms and legs bound. It really got to me, seeing it there in black and white.

Overall, I feel like this is great read that is necessary to understanding the role of Surratt in a crime for which she has long been paraded around as wholly innocent of and separate from. Clearly, that is not actually the case. Highly recommended.


  1. I learned much just reading your great review! Thanks.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Judy. The book is a really good read, if you get the chance!

  2. This is another subject I would find very interesting if I had time to read more about it! Great review Sarah!

    1. Thank you Chuckles! I was surprised that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. This period is usually not of interest to me and I have a hard time finishing books - especially about the Civil War and its aftermath. I definitely recommend this one when you can find time to squeeze it in!

  3. I didn't know much more than Booth's involvement prior to this review although I remember reading a similarly focused book about his plotting. As I recall, the main players in that account were all male so I'd be interested in learning more of Surratt's role as unearthed here

    1. I was the same way! I knew that one woman was involved when the movie came out a few years ago (the movie was actually based on this book) but I never saw it, so I never actually learned her name. I was really impressed by the research and all that went into this book. Give it a read if you have a chance!


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