Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, By Kate Clifford Larson

From H-Net, "Lincoln's Assassination: The Facts and the Celebrity," reviewed by Carol Bundy, an Independent Scholar, published on H-CivWar (September, 2010)  --  Kate Clifford Larson started work on The Assassin’s Accomplice presuming that Mary Surratt was innocent. Larson was interested in whether her story could better be understood when the fact of her gender was considered. She gives us a biographical view of Surratt, showing the confines of her life, its meager choices, and its bad luck. Sympathy accrues to Surratt for her misfortunes in the early phase of her life--neglectful parents, a bad marriage, the failure of her family to assist her in managing an alcoholic and abusive husband, and her valiant efforts to rise above the legacy of debt left by that husband’s premature demise. Necessity and limited options help explain why Surratt worked in the Confederate underground. There is a suggestion that she had, like her daughter, fallen under the spell of the handsome actor. But Larson is careful to give Surratt full agency for her treason, and portrays her as squarely committed to her part in John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy. Surratt was active in the final phase of the plot as Booth changed his plans from kidnap to assassination, privy to his secrets, carrying out his wishes, and proving his most helpful aide. Despite her initial presumptions, 

Mary Surratt collapsing 

Larson concludes that Surratt was guilty. She is convincing in arguing that Surratt, who had worked to earn Booth’s confidence, was one of the few people he fully informed of his plan. (As we know from The Lincoln Assassination there was, in fact, even more evidence of her guilt than was presented at trial.) Larson is particularly good when handling Surratt’s arrogant behavior toward the police during the interrogation and the trial. Surratt believed that she could stonewall; perhaps her motive was to protect her son, and certainly she assumed that as a woman she was safe. Her ultimate collapse just before her execution was affecting if only because it confirms what an act of courage and nerve it had been to steel herself up until that point.

Mary Surratt hanging

The American public was outraged at the execution of a woman, even an assassin’s accomplice, and the belief that Surratt had been innocent quickly began to gain currency. Larson’s book puts such claims in context. It is thoroughly researched, well written, and will doubtless stand as the last word on Surratt for some time. The only drawback with this work is that the ground covered by Larson as she details the development of the conspiracy is covered again as she describes the trial. This redundancy slows the pace of the book. [http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=30925]

The Lincoln Lectures — Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

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