2010’s The Conspirator tells the story of Mary Surratt and her alleged involvement in Lincoln’s assassination. Dr. Brian Dirck joins us again to separate fact from fiction in the film. Dr. Dirck is a Professor of History at Anderson University and author of multiple books on President Lincoln, including Lincoln and the Constitution, The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death and Lincoln the Lawyer.
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Dan LeFebvre 01:53
At the beginning of the movie, we see the night of April 14 1865 movie shows three different events happening at the same time, it kind of cuts in between them. One of them, we’re all familiar with john Wilkes Booth sneaking up behind President Lincoln to deliver the fatal shot. The other two were probably not as well known. In one of the shots a man makes his way into Secretary of State William Seward’s house and after killing a few guards, he brutally stabbed Secretary Seward, then the Camera Cuts a few times, so we don’t really see how many times he was stabbed, but I counted at least eight different times that we see him stabbing him in the movie. And then the last scene that we see isn’t quite as violent as the other two, we do see someone sneaking into a house, we see that Vice President Andrew Johnson is there. But then the man ends up making his way to a bar and a party that’s going on in the house, takes a few drinks and then leaves without incident. However, simply because of the violence going on in the other scenes, I’m going to assume that he was there to do violence to the vice president as well. So how well did the movie do showing these three different assassination attempts?
Dr. Brian Dirck 02:58
Overall, quite well. I was actually a bit surprised that they included this because in most Hollywood depictions of the Lincoln assassination, they focus for obvious reasons on booth and Lincoln. When in fact, yes, the idea was to decapitate the leadership of the Northern government all in one evening, there were changes to the details. For example, when pal rushes into the room to stab Seward, it shows his daughter reading to him. That wasn’t true. He had already shoved her one side out in the hallway. The bed was against the wall. And as he was wailing on Seward sewer kind of rolled over to once I mean, he can pick the details apart. And, you know, eight times sounds about right with the, with the film didn’t quite explain was Seward had gotten a broken neck and Kerry Jackson and and he had this wooden kind of chest thing from the permis chin down to the middle of his navel. And pal didn’t know that was there, and he kept whacking away at Seward’s chest and the thing was bouncing off. He’s like, what, by half and five, the knife broke in two, and Seward pallars on mad, mad, mad at us running out of the room, you know, so they left some of those details out. But yeah, that’s exactly what happened. And then and George rods case, and that was quite accurate. He had been given the task of murdering Johnson, and basically got drunk and decided not to do it. So I was impressed with the accuracy on that.
Dan LeFebvre 04:35
Yeah, we did. We do see Secretary Seward laying in bed though they don’t really explain why, but that’s interesting that that it sounds like that almost saved his life.
Dr. Brian Dirck 04:44
They really did. If he hadn’t had that brace, I’m quite certain that Powell would have taken his life because he was hidden with all his mind. And one thing with the movie is the actor who played Powell was quite a bit smaller physically than the others. pal who was always described as this big hulking gorilla of a guy, and that’s why he was able to just beat people out of the way to get to Seward. In fact, one of the things to film left out was and he pistol whipped Frederick Seward, Seward son and very nearly killed him. He him with the back of a pistol as he’s going up the stairs. And they said, part of his brain was actually showing from the injury. I mean, Frederick almost died and that injury, and Seward was never the same. If you look at photographs of Seward, in the 18, late 1860s, early 1870s, entire side in his face, because he got stabbed in the jaw is well in the knife, rip open all of the muscles from the corner of his mouth down to his chin. And you can see that really clearly in the photographs of Seward afterwards.
Dan LeFebvre 05:47
Wow. So I mean, it was a very horrible I mean, it’s a horrible attack in the movie, but it sounds like it was even worse in real life.
Dr. Brian Dirck 05:53
Yeah, it was horribly brutal. And like I said, I was impressed that the movie included that, although on the other hand, I was thinking, Man, if somebody’s not familiar with the Lincoln assassination, there should be gone. What I had was that, you know, but that’s very accurate.
Dan LeFebvre 06:09
There was a little detail in there. Speaking of Lincoln’s assassination, there was a little bit of dialogue that caught my attention with James McAvoy, his character Captain Akin, he seemed surprised he was at the party. He was surprised that Lincoln wasn’t there. I think the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says something about how Mrs. Lincoln prefers an evening of theater to a roomful of soldiers. And so the impression I got was that Captain Akin perhaps others expected Lincoln to be there was Lincoln actually supposed to be somewhere else that night instead of at Ford’s Theater?
Dr. Brian Dirck 06:41
know that that scene is pretty much fabricated. Stanton was actually at home with his wife that evening. He wasn’t at any kind of a gathering. I don’t know if we know where Aiken was actually at. But a Lincoln Lincoln had planned that visit to Ford’s Theater, for at least to that day. In fact, that morning, the owner of Ford’s Theater had put a notice in local newspapers that the President would be attending the showing where Yeah, yeah, got a real good move. Yeah, that’s I mean, that’s like violating security. 101. Today, you don’t do that. But that’s how everybody is gonna be there. The real circumstances were that Mary almost as she tried to beg off the truth of the theater the last week, she had one of her headaches, she suffered frequently from migraines. When Lincoln made it clear that if she didn’t go, he’s going to go himself, she kind of changed her mind and went with him. I don’t know if that scene is fabricated entirely for probably Hollywood purposes and introducing the characters, I would imagine that
Dan LeFebvre 07:38
after Lincoln is shot, and almost immediately after Edwin Stanton arrives at that house, where they took his body after he was shot, Stan is given the name by one of the soldiers there of john Wilkes Booth, they say that witnesses identified him since he was a famous actor. But then it also doesn’t take very long, at least as far as the movie is concerned to be given another name, and intimate of boost named john Surat. And that, of course, ends up leading to marry his mother. We’ll get into her story here in a little bit. But after that, we see kind of a montage of newspaper headlines that indicate there’s $100,000 reward. And we see a bunch of the conspirators being rounded up. So all this seems to be happening pretty fast. As far as the movie is concerned after the assassination. Did it really happen that quickly?
Dr. Brian Dirck 08:21
Well, like all movies, and I’m sure you know, this, too, you know, they they did they tend to, they tend to compress time because they have historian, so maybe not quite that fast. But awfully fast. as you point out, yeah. I mean, the dude stood up in front of how many 1000 people or whatever 600 trainers, that would that was a hard thing to figure out. But as you can imagine, in the confusion, it wasn’t entirely clear at first who was working with him, and he he got completely out of Washington DC as the film’s suggests, but one thing that the movie didn’t really show was Stanton set up the investigation literally in the room next to Lincoln. I mean, while Lincoln lane is laying there dying, Stanton is taking testimony from people coming in constantly that he was starting the investigation right there on the spot. The film suggested head Stanton saying, I’m not leaving him as if it was a sentimental thing. And it probably was, but Stanton was not a sentimental man at all. He wanted fresh memories telling him what was going on. So yeah, I’d say compress time a bit. But I’d see within I don’t know the exact timeline within a day or two, they pretty much knew who had been with booth. In fact, if you look at one of the wanted posters that they put up, within like, a few days after the assassination, they had booth they had john Surat and they had Davy Harold, even though they misspelled his name. I mean, they knew who was with him really quickly and because the movies not very flattering to him, but I think you can give him credit. The man was a tireless investigator in and he knew where to ask questions and he got those questions answered quite quickly because it
Dan LeFebvre 09:59
happened. So fast Was there anybody that got caught in the middle that was wrongfully accused, and
Dr. Brian Dirck 10:04
they were rounding up all sorts of people. And I think you could argue that there were some people who were rounded up that probably had at best tangental knowledge of the crime by always think of the man who was holding boots horse who ended up spending quite a few years in prison for simply holding boots, horses, and there’s very little indication that you knew clearly what Booth was going to do. In other words, they were grabbing people, there were only very tangentially on the edges of this. But to the government’s credit, most of these people were soon let go. They you know, they’ve pulled them in the same way, you know, and for the most part, there were some exceptions, but for the most part, these people were just sort of say, okay, fine, you’re good. And they they let them go.
Dan LeFebvre 10:50
After we do see the conspirators rounded up in the movie, there is a scene where we see john Wilkes Booth and David Harold, you mentioned earlier, a corner in a barn. And then we see some Union soldiers show up outside the barn. There’s no communication whatsoever, at least in the movie. They just seem to set the barn on fire. And then before long, Harold comes out with his hands raised and he’s taken into custody. And then we see a soldier can’t really identify who the soldier is, but we see him sticky and gun through kind of holes and wooden slats of the barn and he shoots booth in the back. Is that how Harold was taken into custody and Booth was killed.
Dr. Brian Dirck 11:24
They really focused the details on that one. In fact, we was watching with my wife last night I was like, yeah, honey, this is actually not quite right. He’s like, you know, honey, this is washing me Okay, fine. Okay, you know, but whatever. But no, Harold had actually they were traveling into Virginia. They had made it into Virginia who’s hiding out in various places during the day and Davey Harold was going out at night trying to secure them with food and medical supplies. Because again, this isn’t quite clear from the movie, Booth was in considerable pain from having broken his leg. They had holed up in that barn. Harold had gone ahead to the nearest village to get food and medical supplies. And there was a union cavalry patrol in the town. They recognize Harold and arrested him and little Davey sang like a canary and he’s like, Yeah, I know. We’re just out I’ll take you right to it. So he wasn’t actually in the barn. He was with the men as they surrounded the barn that he was fingering booth. them, you know, they they actually went through a considerable negotiation process. The commander of the Calvary said, Hey, booth, you know, you’re in there, man, come on out with us over and Booth was trying to buy time or something. He’s like negotiating. And the fighters got tired of putting on fires gonna believe we do that and look the thing on fire. And the soldier who pulled the trigger, by the way, is a man named Boston Corbett. I’m not even making that name up. Okay, who has a very interesting life. I won’t go into it here. But go Google Boston, Corbin, you’re gonna go well, you know, but Corbett looks between the cracks of the boards, and kind of like the movie showed. So you could see booth hopping around on his crutches trying to put the fire out. And he drew a beat and shot him. Although in there in real life, he caught booth square right in the upper chest. And so you didn’t give him the back end of the chest. And then they kind of dragged him out. Booth was basically drowning in his own blood in considerable pain and died on the porch of the house at the bar blog.
Dan LeFebvre 13:17
So yeah, a little different there. But I guess in some ways, it kind of makes sense. They don’t have to explain Harold giving up the location of booth and all.
Dr. Brian Dirck 13:25
Yeah, you know what, I think the movie made decisions based on sound reasons for changing it. I mean, if they had dragged it out, as long as it took this would have been a four hour this would have been a Netflix prestige TV series that they put all these details and you know, so I get why read for the director did this. He just he had to compact this thing down. He’s trying to get to the real story, so I totally understand it.
Dan LeFebvre 13:48
Thinking of the real story, we do see the trial john serata mother Mary, and even though she’s a civilian, the movie shows that this trial is a military tribunal. Initially senator repartee Johnson takes the case himself. But before long, he hands the case to Frederick Akin Captain Akin we mentioned earlier. According to the movie, the reason why this handoff takes place because Johnson suggests that Mary’s not going to have a chance with an old Southern or defending her, but she might with a Yankee Captain like Akin, despite his inexperience as a lawyer. Now, something that I found interesting as I was watching, this was how the movie focuses so heavily on the trial of Mary Surat which, in some I mean, it’s the kind of the point of the movie, but we don’t see much of the trial for the other conspirators. Did the movie do a good job of setting up how the trial was structured? And was Mary a key focus like the movie implies? Or was this just the movie focusing on her part of the trial and ignoring the rest of the trial for the other conspirators?
Dr. Brian Dirck 14:44
We also did fine because Mary Surat did garner the lion’s share of attention because in an age in which, you know, you don’t you’re not accustomed to seeing women in a docket as she’s on trial as a woman. And that got A lot of attention from the press and also, the evidence for the other defendants was so cut and dry. I mean, there was multiple eyewitnesses to lewis powell doing his thing. Witnesses at synapse rock, go into that bar, get drunk and leave. I mean, is there any inherit, oh my god, he was literally there were all this stuff going on. So I mean, they, their lawyers try to put up a defense but it wasn’t very successful. The movie did a very good job of that Marisol was sucking all the air out of the room because she was a woman.
Dan LeFebvre 15:29
Okay, and from what you’re saying there, it sounds like her case was the only one that actually was a case. Pretty much.
Dr. Brian Dirck 15:35
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, you know, I’m sure if there were experts on the Lincoln assassination here, they’d probably tend to generally agree although, yeah, they did try to you know, the other guys had lawyers who were trying to cast aspersion on this and that witness, but at the end of the day, it was fairly hopeless. Okay,
Dan LeFebvre 15:53
how did the movie do showing Akin as her lawyer being kind of this inexperienced, but a Yankee captain, that one of the reasons why he was picked by the senator to take over?
Dr. Brian Dirck 16:04
They did, okay. I’m a college professor, I would have given a seat. Okay. And again, as with the scene with boots, murder, I get why Robert Redford, who’s the Director of made the decisions that he made, okay, that said, Akin is a much more ambivalent complicated figure than the film seems to let on. First of all, he wasn’t newspaperman more than a lawyer. Yes, he was a lawyer, but he was more a newspaperman. His loyalties were much more compromised and difficult to pin down in the movie suggest because when the war broke out, he actually wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis offering his services as a reporter for the Confederacy. And they never answered him. So he obviously had some Confederate sympathies. But then he turned around the list in the Union Army. Unlike what the film shows, it’s a lot harder to figure out what exactly he did in the Union Army, he was listed as a volunteer aid to a couple of units. And there was a claim in Aikens obituary that he had been wounded, but we’re not even clear which battle he was wounded in. And then after the war is over, he was going to be tagged as one of the defense lawyers for Jefferson Davis the dates that have ever been put on trial for treason. So yeah, his loyalties are much more, much more hard to pin down than the movie suggests as this went behind the years union captain. But yeah, I mean, the point about him being inexperienced is entirely though true, he really wasn’t a trial lawyer. by any stretch of the imagination. He had very little experience with the movies at one scene, or marries meaning one. So how many cases like this? Have you tried? He’s like, Yeah, probably how you would have reacted because he was, you got you gotta remember, damn. Back in those days, it was really easy to become a lawyer, okay, you get a law degree. If you could just convince a judge in order to complete it. And there was even there was even a written exam. Okay, so he was a lawyer and put that in air quotes. Okay, but he wasn’t in by no stretch, any kind of whiz bang lawyer that could take on a murder trial. And in fact, Mary Surat was quite quite incensed that they had given her that kind of a lawyer.
Dan LeFebvre 18:11
That’s completely different. I got the idea that he was all you know, for the union and because when he’s given that like, and firstly refuses, like, Hi, like, how can I go against what I believe?
Dr. Brian Dirck 18:23
I think Redford is using a very common Hollywood trope that you and I are all familiar with, and everybody else who watches movies involved courtroom dramas, the lawyer who takes on the sketchy client that’s going to destroy his practice in his personal life, but he does it anyway. Because by God, we’re gonna fight for the Constitution and the rights. I mean, that could be what every Perry Mason episode that’s ever made, you know, I get that. But the truth is much more complicated. And also that whole sidebar about him basically losing his girlfriend over this he was married when all this was going on, he had no girlfriend. So you know, big refers employees a typical Hollywood way to tell the story that really doesn’t square with the facts.
Dan LeFebvre 19:03
Speaking of Mary Sarah kind of going back back to her part, there is a scene in the movie where she ends up admitting that her son john was involved in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. We even get to see flashback where we see that plot go awry, we see john and some of the other conspirators waiting to ambush the President’s carriage. But apparently Lincoln’s plans change. He wasn’t in a character that doesn’t happen. Ultimately, Mary does admit that her son did conspire to kidnap President Lincoln, so he could be ransom for all the Confederate soldiers in prison. But she insists that the plan was never to assassinate the president. How much of that is true?
Dr. Brian Dirck 19:36
It actually is, although it’s worth pointing out that in the movie that is a conversation between Mary and Akin in herself. We don’t have a good documentation for what they were actually talking about. Most of us, most of what we know, comes from a court transcripts. So we don’t know if Mary told Aiken that. But that said, Yes. The early plan of the Lincoln conspirators was that they were going to wait Lincoln’s carriage on this fairly lonely stretch of road on the outskirts of washington dc they were gonna call for Lincoln tie him up, hauling back to the Confederacy and and ransom him for Confederate Korea pow, which when you actually say it out loud like that you kind of go that’s cray cray. Okay. But and then and it really was I mean, they tried to do it a couple times but they couldn’t time it right. Lincoln’s are past the point they were staying so yeah, the plan was to kidnap now we’re the movie goes a little bit awry is we don’t know when or why booths thoughts turned to murder. We just you can’t document that. At some point, probably in early 65. When the Confederacy’s fortunes are really going down the drain is when he starts thinking darker thoughts about murder. But we don’t know what his thought processes are. We don’t know who he told that to. And we don’t know what Mary would have known about any of that. But then but the Strictly speaking, yes, they were originally going to try to kidnap one of the key things that I saw in the movies, there’s just strong sense that Mary’s just trying to keep her son out of trouble.
Dan LeFebvre 21:09
She refuses to turn over son even though that would likely mean that she would take the fall for his crime. There’s even a few different points. I believe in the movie where we see her getting visibly upset and Akin in the courtroom, when he starts to try to convince the commission that they’re after john Sarah and not his mother, what she really that adamant to keep her son out of it, and so much so that she was willing to sacrifice herself for him.
Dr. Brian Dirck 21:33
That’s some pretty major dramatic license. We really don’t. We don’t know for sure if she even knew where he was. And if she could have given him up even if she had wanted to. Right after the plot collapses. JOHN gets the heck out of Dodge, you know, he’s he gets out of the country. And it’s not entirely clear that she never knew his whereabouts. Akin I think, key points in the trial is of course, pointing to her son as being where the conspiracy stops me as any good lawyer would do. He would you know, he would see the evidence of the conspiracy and say, Well, yeah, but it stops with John’s right. But as to whether or not Mary was trying to protect him, whether you know that that whole mother protecting her son get, which is a major plot movie. It’s Hollywood speculation, we
Dan LeFebvre 22:22
just don’t know. Okay, but john did disappear. And they were still trying to look for him. Like, I mean, the movie implies that so that did happen.
Dr. Brian Dirck 22:29
Yeah, he went to Canada, then you wouldn’t believe he went to Canada first. Then he went to Europe. And the funny part is will funny, he ends up as a soldier in the Vatican bodyguard, and there’s a photograph of him in the outfit of a Vatican body guard. And then they figure out who he is. And he has to flee that job. And that’s when he gets arrested. And the thing about it is, after Lincoln was shot, there was this vast conspiracy theory out there that the pope had ordered the hit on Lincoln because the Pope was mad at Lincoln. And they pointed that picture as exhibit eight. They’re like, Hey, man, this guy was on his body. I mean, it fed a lot of the grassy knoll, JFK type theories for the Lincoln assassination well into the 20th century. What did the Catholic Church know? And when did they know it? And that kind of thing
Dan LeFebvre 23:15
that would never have guessed that he went that he that that would be a job that you would get after?
Dr. Brian Dirck 23:23
You look at you, you can’t make this up, man. Again, again, the pictures online, it’s easy to find. He’s sitting there lounging in a chair. Where was this very ornate outfit for the Pope’s body? carnico. Well, you know, but but you didn’t actually happen. And then as the movie accurately portrays, he does eventually get arrested and extradited back to the United States and put on trial, but they can’t convict him because the statute of limitations and run out of nearly all of this stuff. They tried to get him for murder, but he wasn’t directly involved in Lincoln murder at all. Really, I mean, he’s peripherally involved and he walks he walks away for
Dan LeFebvre 23:58
Wow, there was something I want to ask you about that in the movie where we see a character named Captain Cottingham, and he seems to change his testimony. There’s one point where Akin talks to him he talks in one day, we don’t really see what he says specifically to him. But then, when he calls him to the witness stand in the courtroom, cutting him changes his story. Then Akin starts to accuse the Judge Advocate Holt, and the prosecution of turning witnesses either by jail or by threat of it. Was there really the sort of witness tampering that the movie seems to imply on the trial?
Dr. Brian Dirck 24:31
We don’t know. Possibly, um, the whole point about coding and changing his testimony is quite true. The film pretty accurately depicts that he can have talked to cardium Cottingham had never mentioned any kind of confession by by Mary or any of the quotes that he that he later brings up and he really didn’t mention that which is why we’re making calls him to the stand the next day, and then right there on the stand. cardium changes his story all that is quite true. It was To put it mildly low moment in Aikens defense of married because the witness went out there and just basically eviscerated Mary’s whole story. whether or not there was an active witness tampering by the military court or by anyone else. We don’t know, we just we really, we really don’t know. There were certainly people who felt that that was the case. There were also people who felt that like moon and Lloyd, the other two men who testified that they were that they that they were trying to save themselves. Let’s give them Mary okay, because they were obviously involved. I mean, weichen was in that boarding house along with everybody else, and Lloyd literally gave booth shotguns and whiskey and all that. And I’ve seen people argue that their testimony is unreliable, because they got some immunity deal. They were never prosecuted for anything. So there may well have been witness tampering, but it’s not documented in any kind of reliable way.
Dan LeFebvre 25:55
That probably wouldn’t be something that gets documented.
Dr. Brian Dirck 25:59
Write that down, write my dark Dear Diary, I tampered with the witness tonight. Yeah, we don’t we don’t get that history, I’m afraid so.
Dan LeFebvre 26:08
We talked about this a little bit earlier. I want to kind of narrow in on that a little bit because it is something that the movie focuses on, where we see Aikens life outside of the courtroom getting affected by his defense of Mary Surat mentioned that the movie has a love interest. Sara Weston, and there is a letter at the door of the century club talks about how Aikens membership is being rescinded. How is his life outside the courtroom affected by his defense of Mary survived?
We do know
Dr. Brian Dirck 26:35
that right after the trial was over. There was another lawyer that he was partnered with it was never mentioned in the movie, because he wasn’t really involved in the trial. He had a law partner and their partnership dissolved. Right after the the trial is over. I’ve seen some scholars speculate that the social pressures of the trial and the notoriety that Akin would have garnered by doing this meant their business broke up. Maybe Maybe not. We have no documentation of that the film is doing what films do, it is plausible, that he was being subjected to all sorts of social pressures and all sorts of informal, you know, my neighbors are looking at me funny, maybe I’m losing business, you know, but me, how would you even document that kind of thing? You know, we just don’t have that level of primary source evidence for much of anything and the time period. All he knows that he broke up his partnership after that he left and he left the law. Not long after that. But was it because he was forced out of the profession? I doubt it. And he seems to have always had his heart in being a newspaperman. Rather than a lawyer. This was not at all uncommon and wasn’t uncommon for partnerships to dissolve themselves for all sorts of reasons. You know, I wrote a book on Lincoln’s law practice he, he had partnerships with three different lawyers, when he had little informal partnerships all over Central Illinois, they would come together to try cases and break apart this was not that uncommon.
Dan LeFebvre 28:00
It sounds like it’s that easy to become a lawyer that Yeah,
Dr. Brian Dirck 28:02
you know, you know, I’ve told friends of mine who went to law school, how easy was to be a lawyer back then they get mad, you know, like, man, for three years. Dude, what? Are you kidding me? You know,
Dan LeFebvre 28:12
according to the movie, the case against Mary Surat really kind of boils down to three key things. And they do give an overview towards the end, but we see it throughout. One of them is just her acquaintance with booth. Another is that when she allegedly told Mr. Lloyd to prepare to rifles and bottles, whiskey for visitors, she said, we’ll be coming that night. And the last is when one of the computers, Louis Payne showed up and then claimed that she didn’t recognize him. They you know, I guess it was it was dark or something you didn’t recognize him? Were those the three primary things in the case against Marisa?
Dr. Brian Dirck 28:41
Absolutely. The film’s quite accurate on that. Although if it were me, I would put a little more emphasis on second of the three things, the whole quote about her hand and guns and whiskey and all of that to Lloyd, that probably got her hung. The other stuff? Yeah. You know, and it is true that Aiken was making points in the courtroom that Well, sure her eyesight was was horrible. And it really was. And, you know, he could have so reasonable doubt, although that wasn’t a standard. This is a military commission, but he could have sewn doubts into the into the minds of the generals on those other two points. But if you believe what, you know, and if you believe Lloyd is telling the truth, that she did say that. And in fact, if you believe Cottingham because Connie and later said Lloyd told me something to the effect of that vile woman has ruined us all. I mean, if you believe the witnesses about her doing that, that’s probably basically the kill shot. That’s what that’s what gets her found guilty.
Dan LeFebvre 29:38
Wasn’t it Lloyd in the movie where he said that they kind of distance themselves from other people. So when she was talking to him, nobody else was around. It seemed kind of convenient to me that that was you know, they just happen to be the only two there. There was no other witnesses.
Dr. Brian Dirck 29:55
Yeah, people, people defending Mary pointer that, you know, more generally, I mean, there’s a pretty serious Divide in the story and community over whether she was guilty or innocent. There’s a good book called The judicial murder of Mary Surat not hard to figure out how bad guy feels. On the other hand, I know very reputable Lincoln scholars who say no, she was guilty. And these witnesses testimony is an impeachable. And it’s also worth pointing out that Mary was much more morally ambivalent than the film suggests. She was not just happened to be a southerner, the movie kind of glosses lightly over that she was pretty passionate, pro Confederate, as were most of the people that were involved in this. And they were pro slavery as well, which is, I’ve seen colleagues who have criticized this movie for never once mentoring slavery. Although I can see Redford’s point in not doing it, it’s not really directly germane to the trial. Nevertheless, Mary Surat is a little more morally sketchy. Perhaps the best way to put them when you allow?
Dan LeFebvre 30:57
Yeah, the movie seems to really try to push the the mother son relationship and play on those emotions. Yeah.
Dr. Brian Dirck 31:03
And the truth is, we’re not entirely sure what kind of relationship she had with her son, we just don’t know. You know, the evidence is always colored by the assassination and what you do or don’t think about Surat or Mary or whatever. We don’t know what their point of view was towards each other. We really don’t Well, she mad at him for leaving her as he left, or did she tell him to leave? Or when we don’t know. I mean, there’s evidence either way. And this is hard to say.
Dan LeFebvre 31:30
That makes me wonder talking about her relationship with her son there because we also have her relationship with her daughter who is in the movie. And she’s at the boarding house there. And there’s a part where I think they found like a photo of john Wilkes Booth in her daughter’s room, which would be John’s sister, was there. Was there any sort of documentation like is that that was found or any any sort of suggestion that the way the movie kind of implies, like the daughter had a soft spot. And so if john was working with him, then the impression I got you know, that well, Mary being the mother and make sense that she would just kind of overlook these company. We are conversations that are going on in the boardinghouse.
Dr. Brian Dirck 32:12
Right. Right? Well, I mean, it is true that Hannah Surat really, really really tried to get her mom clemency after the she very, very much in the movie, as it suggests she was working hard to try and despair her mother from the gallows. It’s quite true. There’s no evidence about any relationship, as I know of with jungles booth. On the other hand, that dude had women chasing him around the block. I mean, it’s if you really think about booth, my God, he had more girlfriends than then you can count, including women that were absolutely infatuated with him because he was considered to be extraordinarily handsome. So it’s totally plausible that you I mean, he’s famous, my God, the man’s arguably one of the handful of most famous theatrical people in America at the time. So you can imagine this young girl, she’s nothing. Oh, you know, seeing this very, me imagine, you know, my daughter’s 20 years old. I mean, if Tom Cruise is coming into my living room every night, you notice, I mean, for heaven’s sake, you know, so there’s that. There were some suggestions. During the trial. We don’t know if this is true or not that she was actually romantically involved with Whiteman. We don’t know if that’s true or not. The movie, I think wisely didn’t go down that path, because that way, who knows where that tangent would have led, the movie implies that there might have been some relationship with booth. We know nothing about that at all. Okay.
Dan LeFebvre 33:32
Ultimately, at the end of the movie, Mary is declared guilty of conspiring to kill and murder President Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and William Seward. Akin then prepares a writ of habeas corpus, calling for re trial with a civilian court and jury of peers. And he actually manages according the movie, he actually manages to get it signed by Judge Wiley. But then President Johnson suspends the writ at the very last moment and Marisa is hanged alongside the other three conspirators. How well did the movie do showing the end of Marisa rats trial,
Dr. Brian Dirck 34:00
more overall, again, within the context of Hollywood having to create drama and the need to tell a gripping story fairly well. Now, whether they literally received that news while they’re celebrating in her cell that they’ve actually beat the rap. I don’t think there’s documentation I’m it’s possible, but I don’t I don’t know that we’ve got good documentation for that. But the rest is quite true. It can did secure a writ of habeas corpus from a local judge. That was ignored because President Johnson basically suspended the writ for these for all these prisoners precisely to head off that possibility. And then there were last minute attempts from a fair number of people to get marry off largely because she was a woman and the idea of the federal government executing a woman was just a pour into a lot of people.
Dan LeFebvre 34:51
The timing of that also caught my attention to in the movie because it is a very much like a roller coaster, our you know that finally, finally we got this. It’s going to be you know, read trial. And then right there, it crashes down again. Yeah, I
Dr. Brian Dirck 35:03
think like inversing earlier, I think they probably compressed the time a bit. But it still is essentially true.
Dan LeFebvre 35:10
We touched on this a little bit earlier, but at the very end of the movie, it talks about being 16 months after Mary’s execution, and we see her son john being held as a prisoner. Akin does come to visit, we find out that he’s no longer a lawyer. And this is when john tells Aiken that he had no idea they were going to kill his mother. He seems to be regretful, but the impression I got was more that he was not so much regretful of what happened with President Lincoln, but really just what happened to his mother. And then at the at the very end, there is some text explains a year after Mary’s trial, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens were entitled to a trial by jury, and John’s trial ended up with a jury that couldn’t decide on a verdict. So he was set free. That pretty much what happened.
Dr. Brian Dirck 35:54
Well, there’s no documentation for Akin visiting Surat none. That whole scene is is a Hollywood, you know, recreation or fabrication or what have you. That said, we don’t know what Jon’s Ross mindset was about all this. We simply don’t know. When you when I watched that. And this is just me because I’m a bit of a movie buff. And it reminded me of the last scene of another great classic courtroom drama film called Judgment at Nuremberg back in 1960. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. But at the very last scene is about the Nuremberg trials. The Berlin casters characters has been convicted for crimes and is talking to adventure Tracy, the judge you convicted him and saying I didn’t know is going to come to that. You know, it kind of felt like that scene to me. I liked the scene, actually. Although that whole part of the scene where john Surat says here, you keep my mother’s rosary, you were more of a son to her. That’s pushing it because we don’t know what Marisa Rock’s exact opinion of Aiken was she always felt like he was a lightweight, she should have gotten a better lawyer and more time to prepare her case. And we don’t know if they were personally fond of each other or not. The film seems to suggest that makes sense because Hollywood needs to tell a story about human relationships. But that’s that’s Hollywood fabrication. Now the rest of it’s quite true. Just shortly after this trial, in ex parte Milligan, Supreme Court rules that you cannot try civilians in a military court of law if the civilian courts are in operation, which is a landmark decision still stands to this day. I mean, yes, as I said, John’s rock did walk on all charges.
Dan LeFebvre 37:34
Another thing I touched on briefly earlier, we’re talking about Akin and initially refusing the job of defending, but then by the end of the movie, we, we see a character arc like when he gets the writ of habeas corpus. He’s, he’s still not sure if she’s innocent or not. But he is convinced that the case against her is a farce. And she’s not getting a fair trial. And so that is the impression the movie gives is why he’s fighting so hard. Did he have this sort of character arc where he started to feel like the trial was almost rigged against her?
Dr. Brian Dirck 38:04
Probably, um, hard to say? If you look at courtroom transcripts, he’s doing pretty much what a lawyer any lawyer would do, whether or not their client is guilty or innocent. You know, again, whenever the book Lincoln, the lawyer looked into this, you know, lawyers, especially criminal defense lawyers, even today aren’t actually going to ask very often if their client is actually guilty or not. The point is to give them the best defense, regardless of whether they’re guilty or innocent. And so what we have what we have taken are mostly the court transcripts and Mandy’s obituary when he passes away and secondhand testimony that may or may not be accurate. I don’t know if that particular character arc is accurate. But I do think that that is the way to use the word agenda. But that’s Robert Redford’s agenda. I mean, the film I thought did a fine job of walking in a careful line between saying whether Mary was actually guilty or not. And I actually like that scene where somebody just asked a can straight up yet think he did it. And he says, I don’t know. That’s not the point. I think that’s the heart of the movie right there. The movie is an indictment of the legal system for basically giving Mary no hope of getting a fair trial. I don’t know if Redford has ever actually said this. I believe this is a movie that he made in the shadow of the debates about what we do about the war on terror and what we’ve been doing with suspects from the Iraqi war, getting a Guantanamo Bay detainees and all of that, I think I think that is what is in Robert Redford and as you will know, you know, hollywood will sometimes make movies with historical content to try to make a point about the present day. What Redford cares about in making this movie, is to ask the question, are we going to allow government to do this sort of thing to its citizens in the name of quelling fear, and I think it does a really nice job with that because you can watch this whole movie and wonder even as Mary goes to the gallows, man Where she guilty or innocent? I like how the movie didn’t come down very decisively when we’re there. We don’t know this date, we have no idea.
Dan LeFebvre 40:07
That is actually my, that’s gonna be my last question for you. Sorry. No, no, you’re you’re good. I mean, just because the movie does that it at the very end, you don’t know if she’s guilty or not. And is there a general consensus as to whether or not she was actually guilty today? Or like just looking back on it through history?
Dr. Brian Dirck 40:26
You know, there’s a huge sub literature sub genre, maybe of Lincoln assassination books, I mean, Oh, my God. I mean, it’s everything with Lincoln’s like that. I mean, there’s there’s books on his door, like, okay, there’s like books on everything on Lincoln. And there is a spirited argument among people who, like I said, there’s a book called The judicial merit murder of Mary serrata. But then, there’s a really good book by one of my favorite authors, it steers blood in the moon. This is the exhaustive study the assassination. I know that my professor at Rice University when I was there, getting my master’s here alignment, and I remember him literally reeling in the corner. And in the classroom, Mary, Sarah was guilty as hell, they were all guilty of sin, you know. So, you know, I would say, probably, I wouldn’t characterize it as the consensus. And I don’t think, frankly, unless somebody finds some treasure trove of letters buried in somebody’s backyard someplace or something. I don’t think that we will ever know the actual truth about this interesting side note Whiteman, from one of the witnesses, actually, after you let this move to my neck of the woods, you moved to Anderson, Indiana, and he’s buried not far from my office, of all places. Yeah, he actually moved to my little town and my college is that kind of follow them the rest of their lives.
Dan LeFebvre 41:42
there anything in the movie that wasn’t in there that you wish had made it in?
Dr. Brian Dirck 41:47
Given that you’ve got to make a movie that fits under two hours or three hours? Well, and like I said earlier, I can see why they would compress the events of booth death, for example, I can see why Redford needs to get to the meat of the story. If it were me, I would love to seen a bit more moral ambivalence about the Aiken character. And he’s a little two dimensional to my feeling, especially with the real ache and maybe heartbreak Confederate symphonies, I would have loved if they’ve done that. But they want to turn this into a really long endeavor. This is the sort of thing that I think would have loaned itself well, to these days, a multi season Netflix series that you can really play with all this stuff. But within the context of a short film, I think they did a fine job.
Dan LeFebvre 42:36
Well, thank you so much for coming on to chat about the conspirator. I know, we’re talking about books, you’ve written a number of books about Lincoln, can you share an overview of your books for someone listening and where they can pick up a copy?
Dr. Brian Dirck 42:46
Yeah, yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time with Dave, you know, on a first name basis, actually. Yeah. It’s been good to me. I tried to, you know, yeah, I’ve written I’ve written to date eight books, almost all of which have something to do with link in one way or the other. The book most people know me for is Lincoln, a lawyer. I did a study of his law practice. That’s sort of an overview of what you have his law practice affected his leadership. My most recent book is called the Black heavens, Abraham Lincoln and death sounds like a creepy topic. Like my kids are always in a Dan Ellsberg Lincoln death book going, you know, that kind of thing, you know, but I look at his attitudes towards death and dying. I don’t do much with the assassination very little. It’s mostly about how he handled the deaths of his mother, his sister to have his children and and how he dealt with all those many, many 1000s of corpses that were part of the war. So that’s kind of where my scholarship is at right now.
Dan LeFebvre 43:35
Thank you again, so much for your time.
Dr. Brian Dirck 43:37