THE CONSPIRATOR: A Film Review from a Researcher’s Point of View

April 11, 2011: Barry Cauchon

Robert Redford’s film “The Conspirator” hits theaters this Friday, April 15. The producers of the film (American Film Co.) were kind enough to allow me to visit the set for a couple of days in November 2009. I later had a chance to view the film at the World Premiere showing at the Toronto Film Festival. I posted a review of the film on September 18, 2010 on this blog and later published it in the spring edition of the Lincoln Herald. I am posting that review again here today.

I encourage you to see the film. For those of you who believe it is the story of Mary Surratt, the lone woman indicted with seven other defendants for their involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, it is only partially that. This is the story of one of Mrs. Surratt’s lawyers, Frederick Aiken and his battle with the very one-sided military commission that tried her. Whether Mary Surratt was guilty or innocent is not resolved here and the debate goes on between researchers and historians as to the level of her involvement in the crime. In the end, Mary Surratt was found guilty and received the sentence of death which was carried out by hanging on July 7, 1865.

Best

Barry

September 18, 2010: Barry Cauchon

Last week on September 11, I attended the world premiere of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film tells the little-known story of the unjust military trial of Mary Surratt, one of eight people put on trial for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and other members of his cabinet.

Attending the gala was director Robert Redford, writer Jim Solomon and actors Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker, Aiken’s life-long friend), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston, Aiken’s fiancee) and James Badge Dale (William Hamilton, another friend of Aiken).

I am not a movie critic so I won’t be writing this article with that as my motive. For this story, I am wearing two hats; one as a researcher who knows the subject matter and the other is to share my personal impressions of the film!

Rather than reviewing all the specifics of the film, I will direct you to any one of the 80+ online reviews of the film. Here is what one reporter wrote (Kirk Honeycutt: The Hollywood Reporter)

“So the film, seeking a distributor here, is very much a tough sell. It’s an admirable film, mixing history few people know with several real-life personalities well worth knowing. Unfortunately, viewers for such fare are older and less prone to line up on a first weekend. A distributor will need to roll this film out incrementally, looking for feature stories, reviews and word-of-mouth to entice history buffs and the curious into adult venues”.

Kirk Honeycutt makes a couple of factual mistakes in his report but the gist is fairly accurate. Here is the link to his story. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/film-reviews/conspirator-film-review-1004114044.story?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+thr/reviews/allreviews+(The+Hollywood+Reporter+-+All+Reviews)

According to Kurt Graver of The American Film Company, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions has signed on as the distributor for the film and will release it sometime in the spring of 2011. http://www.theamericanfilmcompany.com/about/news/.

Generally speaking, the portrayal is factual, but there are parts that take bold stances where history may not fully support them, so I can imagine that some great debates will result. Here are three that will make you either clap or cringe!

— In her first scene, Mary Surratt is incarcerated in chains, forced to wear a 75-pound ball and chain on her ankles and a pair of Lilly Irons on her wrists. CRINGE…BUT VERY LIKELY. Senior officers and her own legal council (Clampitt) stated that Mary Surratt was never chained, restrained or manacled (except during her execution). However, numerous reports from newspapers and eyewitnesses in the very early days of her trial all state seeing Mrs. Surratt wearing ankle chains and/or Lilly Irons on her wrists. Interesting!

— Some factions of the Roman Catholic Church, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, have a communication pipeline between Mary Surratt and her son, John, who is in hiding in Quebec, Canada. Mary’s own priest, Father Walter, is part of that conduit. CRINGE…BUT PLAUSIBLE! The country was split with allegiances during the Civil War and the Roman Catholic Church certainly had parishioners from both Union and Confederate families. What proof is available about this scenario is not known to me, but I find the idea very intriguing. (Interesting Fact: During the spring/summer of 1865, while escaping to Montreal, Quebec, John Surratt was taken in and hidden by Father Charles Boucher and than later by Father LaPierre, both Roman Catholic priests).

— After the military commission finds all eight conspirators guilty, the commission privately votes to give death sentences to Lewis Payne, David Herold and George Atzerodt. When it’s time to vote on the punishment for Mary Surratt, the vote for death is taken and a non-majority of only 3 or 4 hands out of nine are raised, resulting in a life sentence. (Note: a two-thirds majority or 6 out of 9 votes were needed for execution). Judge Holt reports the results to Edwin Stanton who states “Well, I guess we’ll just have to change their minds”. CRINGE, BUT AGAIN INTERESTING THEORY! There are no known reports on how the commission voted behind closed doors. Originally, Mary’s sentence was death. But five of the voting commission members wrote a letter to President Johnson asking for her sentence to be commuted to life. The film may misrepresent the facts a little bit but allows for this very interesting position to be tabled about whether Stanton had influence on the commission’s findings or not.

THE FILM OVERALL

The opening fifteen minutes of the film are quite engaging and successfully set the stage with just enough detail to bring the uneducated viewer up to speed quickly. Frederick Aiken as the wounded war hero and lawyer, the assassination of Lincoln, Edwin Stanton’s power and control, the other acts of conspiracy against Seward and VP Johnson, Booth’s capture/death and the rounding up of the conspirators and their imprisonment.

At this point, my hopes are pretty high considering how well this complex part of the story has been simplified and told. The feel and mood are also dead on.

The next hour and a half moves into the courtroom and trial scenes. I’m sure it is very difficult to create a film and display high emotion when the majority of it is in a darkened and sullen courtroom, listening to exchanges and eyewitness accounts. So was the case here. Being that I was familiar with the subject matter, there were many details that I personally found interesting. For someone new to this story, the information may be a lot to take in and understand.

During the trial sequence, there are intermittent flashbacks and scenes shot outside of the courtroom. This helps to break up the trial and add details where needed. Still, some attendees at the premiere commented that the trial made the movie feel ‘flat, drawn out and stagnant on an emotional level’. Very few highs or lows in emotion are expressed during the trial other than the occasional heated exchange. It did seem to drag several times and become repetitive when the issue was made about the military commission being biased and focusing solely on getting guilty verdicts. “Okay, we got it after the first couple of times this point was made”. But the film repeats the action several more times to ensure it is not missed.

Two witnesses are used (Louis Weichmann and John Lloyd) and they do a good job in burying Mary’s chances of getting out of her situation.

Despite Mary’s objections, Aiken tries to make the trial about John Surratt so that he can shift the blame away from his client. From start to finish, Aiken does not accept Mary’s innocence (which was an interesting way to approach it). But he begins to fight for her when he sees how biased the commission is and railroading her and the others to a quick guilty verdict. With the law and constitution blatantly being ignored by the commission, he takes up her fight if only to prove that the law can’t be manipulated as the commission sees fit.

After almost 1-1/2 hours of courtroom drama, the commission adjourns.

The most exciting part of the movie could have been the last 10-15 minutes. The vote on Mary’s sentence is taken; Aiken races to get the Writ of Habeas Corpus, success and then failure when it is overturned, and the final march to the gallows. All this is covered in the last few minutes but it is rushed and appears as if the film makers ran out of time. What a shame because this really could have brought life back to the film after the slower-paced courtroom scenes.

The kicker for me is the scene where Aiken has just gotten the writ on the morning of the execution and is now in Mary’s cell with Father Walter and Anna. Aiken is telling them that the writ will get her a new trial and that she is safe for now. Aiken glances out the window and notices that the scaffold still has four nooses, not three. At that moment, General Hartranft walks into the cell and informs Mary that she must come along with him to prepare for her execution. Aiken argues that he’s just obtained the writ from Judge Wylie but is then told by Hartranft that it has been suspended by the President so Mary must hang! It is the perfect moment for some serious drama (strong music, volatile conversation, some genuine emotion). There is so little of it that the ending is almost anti-climactic. Within the next three minutes of film, Mary is marched to the gallows and hanged. I was left with the feeling of “What happened”! She’s given the bum’s rush out the door, led down row of Federal soldiers, up onto the gallows and executed. A lot more could have been done to save this part of the film and make it a more attractive film to general movie goers. As I said earlier, I’m not a movie critic and have come at this from someone educated in the subject matter. So I am probably showing my own bias here. In any case, in my opinion, more could have been done with the film’s finale.

THE PERFORMANCES

A lot has been mentioned about the choice to hire Robin Wright to play Mary Surratt. I personally think she did a great job on the character. Wright portrays Mary as a devoted, unwavering mother, stoically facing her impending fate. She is assisted in interpreting the character by a great make up department, who gives Wright that familiar worn look and feel of Mary. Her youthful beauty is transformed into the comely, mother figure we have grown to know from the few photographs available.

James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, Mary Surratt’s reluctant lawyer. McAvoy plays the character of a strong war hero who truly believes Mary Surratt is guilty of the charges against her (and never really moves from that position). However, as the military commission manipulates the court proceedings to make the trial as one-sided as possible for the prosecution, he begins to fight the injustice of it and, in doing so, almost helps to save her life in the end. Although I am not a Frederick Aiken researcher, the historical character presented seems very plausible on many levels.

Kevin Kline plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Although the character of Stanton is presented as a fear monger and one-man despot, Kline does a great job with him. Researchers will either cringed at, or give praise to, some of the things Stanton does in this movie (depending on how you view him in history).

But for me, the actor who really steals the show has to be Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson. He is outstanding, playing Mary Surratt’s first lawyer who, after getting into a heated debate with the military commission over the constitutional legitimacy of the trial, removes himself in place of the younger, inexperienced Aiken. Mr. Wilkinson shows his talents in this film and gratefully appears throughout from start to finish.

AND SPEAKING OF PERFORMANCES…

Last November, John Elliott and I were invited down to the set of The Conspirator while filming in Savannah, GA. I attended the execution sequences and John attended the trial filming. Both of us played extras as Union soldiers. I am happy to say that John made it to the big screen and can easily be seen escorting Jonathan Groff (who plays Louis Weichmann) to the stand for the first time. Congrats John on your movie debut.

Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann) with John Elliott       Norman Reedus (Lewis Powell) with Barry Cauchon

 [Left photo: Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann) and John Elliott. Right photo: Norman Reedus (Lewis Powell) and Barry Cauchon. Nov-Dec, 2009]

For me, I am buried somewhere in the background during the hanging sequence. If I am there (and not on the cutting room floor) it will take a microscopic forensic examination of the film to find myself. But hey, that is what I do! LOL. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame years ago when I was an extra in a film called “Murder at 1600”. I made it onto the big screen as a uniformed secret service agent. Ah, those were the days! Congratulations to you John. (By the way, I can see myself in the photo used at the beginning of this article….time to play Where’s Waldo).

Finally, I think if you have a working knowledge of this story you will get much more out of the film than if you are new to the subject. In any case, the film is sure to get people wondering about the ‘real story’ of the aftermath of the assassination and that is always a great thing for us in the research community. We love sharing our knowledge with you.

So after saying all this, what did I think of the film? I liked it a lot. Don’t let my disappointment in the ending sway you. As always, I want to see MORE rather than less. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the film when you get your chance to see it.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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144th ANNIVERSARY OF THE LINCOLN CONSPIRATOR HANGINGS (JULY 7, 1865)

July 7, 2009: Barry  Cauchon

Today marks the 144th anniversary of the executions by hanging of four of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The sentences were carried out at the Washington Arsenal Penitentary at about 1:26pm. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell (alias Payne or Paine), David Herold and George Atzerodt had all been found guilty of their involvement in the conspiracy.  This not only involved the assassination of President Lincoln and the plans to murder several other key members of Lincoln’s administration, but also included their failed plans to kidnap President Lincoln in March of 1865.

CU - Execution Party (RTDW)(292)

The day was very hot (over 100 degrees) when the prisoners were marched out to the scaffold just after 1:00pm. After seating the four condemned in chairs on the platform, General Hartranft read the five-page Order of Execution (sometimes called the Death Warrant) which is reproduced here.

CU - Major Hartranft (RTDW)(12)

War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, July 5, 1865.

To Major General W. S. Hancock, U.S. Volunteers, Commanding Middle Military Division, Washington D.C.

“Whereas, by the military commission appointed in paragraph A, Special Orders, No. 211, dated War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, May 6, 1865, and in paragraph 91, Special Order No 216, dated War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, Washington May 9, 1865, and of which Major General David Hunter, U.S. Volunteers is President, the following named persons were tried, and after mature consideration of the evidence adduced in their cases were found and sentenced as hereafter stated, as follows:

1st. David E. Herold

Finding

“Of the specification. Guilty except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler, as to which part, thereof, Not Guilty.” 

“Of the charge – Guilty, except the words of the charge that he combined, confederated and conspired with Edward Spangler; as to which part of said charge; Not Guilty.

Sentence.

“And the commission does therefore sentence him the said David E. Herold, to be hanged by the neck until he be dead, at such time and place as the President of the United States shall direct, two thirds of the members of the commission concurring therein.”

2d. George Atzerodt.
 
Finding.

“Of the specification Guilty, except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler: of this Not Guilty.”Finding.

“Of the charge, Guilty, except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler; of this not Guilty.”

Sentence.

“And the commission does therefore sentence him, the said George A. Atzerodt, to be hung by the neck until he be dead at such time and place as the President of the United States shall direct, two thirds of the members of the commission concurring therein.”

3d. Lewis Payne.

Finding.

“Of the specification, Guilty, except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler: of this Not Guilty.”

“Of the charge Guilty, except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler; of this Not Guilty.”

Sentence.

“And the commission does therefore sentence him, the said Lewis Payne, to be hung by the neck until he be dead at such time and place as the President of the United States shall direct, two thirds of the members of the commission concurring therein.”

 4th. Mary E. Surratt.

Finding.

“Of the specification, Guilty, except as to receiving, entertaining, harboring, and concealing Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlin, and except as to combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler: of this Not Guilty.”

“Of the charge Guilty, except combining, confederating and conspiring with Edward Spangler; of this Not Guilty.”

Sentence.

“And the commission does therefore sentence her the said Mary E. Surratt, to be hung by the neck until she be dead, at such time and place as the President of the United States shall direct, two thirds of the members of the commission concurring therein.”

And whereas, the President of the United States has approved the foregoing sentences in the following order, to wit:

“Executive Mansion, “July 5th, 1865. “The foregoing sentences in the cases of David E. Herold, G.A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, xx, xx, xx, Mary E. Surratt, xxx, are hereby approved, and it is ordered that the sentences in the cases of David E. Herold, G.A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, and Mary E. Surratt, be carried into execution by the proper military authority under the direction of the Secretary of War, on the seventh day of July 1865, between the hours of ten o’clock a.m. and two o’clock p.m. of that day. x x x x x x x ” Andrew Johnson, “Presd.”

Therefore, you are hereby commanded to cause the foregoing sentences in the cases of David E. Herold, G.A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, and Mary E. Surratt, to be duly executed in accordance with the President’s order.

By command of the President of the United States.

(signed) E.D. Townsend, Asst. Adjt. Genl.

——————————————————————————–

After the reading of the Order of Execution was concluded, the ministers were allowed to speak and pray on behalf of their charges. Dr. Gillette spoke first on behalf of Lewis Powell, then Dr. Olds spoke on behalf of David Herold and finally Dr. J. S. Butler prayed on behalf of George Atzerodt.

Photo courtesy of Betty Ownsbey

Photo courtesy of Betty Ownsbey

People often wonder why Mrs. Surratt’s two priests did not speak publicly to the crowd. In the case of Father Walter, he was not allowed to.

Father Walter, who strongly believed in Mary Surratt’s innocence, became so outspoken over the military’s decision to hang Mrs. Surratt, that he was given an ultimatum from Secretary of War Stanton’s office. It gave him what we would call today “a gag order”, stating that if he wished to be on the scaffold with Mrs. Surratt, he would cease his verbal attacks and rabble rousing publicly. This included that he would not be allowed to speak on the scaffold. Swallowing his anger for the time being, he agreed to this and was present with her at her time of need. Neither Father Walter and Father Wiget spoke that day.

However, after the hangings, Father Walter went on the attack again, this time gaining valuable allies that would eventually help in forcing Secretary of War Stanton to resign during the political upheaval that involved impeachment proceedings against President Johnson.

Here are the three prayers that were spoken that day as recorded by the New York Times and published July 8, 1865.

Dr. Gillette’s prayer:
The prisoner, Lewis Thornton Powell, known as Payne, requests me on this occasion, to say for him, that he thanks, publicly and sincerely thanks, General Hartranft, all the officers and soldiers who had charge of him, and all persons who have ministered to his wants, for their unwavering kindness to him in this trying hour. Not an unkind word nor an ill feeling act has been made toward him. Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we pray thee to permit us to commit this soul into thy hands, not for any claim we have to make it in ourselves, but depending as we do upon the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant, O Heavenly Father, we beseech thee that his spirit may be accorded an easy passage out of the world, and, if consistent with thy purposes of mercy, and thou delightest in mercy, receive him. This we humbly ask, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Redeemer. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Olds’ prayer:
David E. Herrold, who is here about to undergo the extreme penalty of offended law, desires me to say that he hopes your prayers my be offered up to the Most High God for him; that he forgives all who may at any time have wronged him, and asks of all forgiveness for all, the wrong or supposed wrong he has done unto them, that he thanks the officers who have had charge of him during his confinement in prison for their deeds of kindness toward him, he hopes that he dies in charity with all the world and is convinced that his soul is in the hands of God. Amen.

Rev. Dr. J. S. Butler’s prayer:
George A. Atzeroth requests me thus publicly to return his unfeigned thanks to Gen. Hartranft, and all associated with him in this prison, for their uniform courtesy and kindness during his imprisonment. And now, George A. Atzeroth, may God have mercy upon you. The ways of the transgressor is hard. The wages of sin is death; but if we freely confess our sins, God will in mercy pardon them. Christ came into the world to save sinners—even the chief of sinners. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. The blood of the blessed Redeemer, Jesus Christ, cleanseth from all sin. You profess to have thus believed to have peace in your heart; and may God be with you in this hour of trial and suffering; and may you be enabled so to commend your soul to the Creator of it that you may have peace in this last moment of life. The Lord God Almighty, Father of Mercy, have mercy upon you, and receive you into His heavenly keeping. Lord God, Redeemer of the world, have mercy upon this man. Lord God, Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, have mercy upon him and grant him thy peace. Amen.

After the prayers had ended, there was nothing left to do but carry out the sentences. The four prisoners were commanded to stand and moved onto the hinged platforms. Although already wearing wrist and ankle irons, their bodies were tied with strips of canvas to secure their limbs. The nooses were adjusted around their necks and white canvas hoods were placed over their heads.

CU - David Herold and George Atzerodt (ATR)(40)

CU - Lewis Powell (ATR)(15)

At this point the soldiers, ministers and other men on the scaffold stepped back and on a signal that probably came from executioner Captain Christian Rath, the two vertical posts holding up the traps were knock out by soldiers below the scaffold. This sprung the traps and the four condemned conspirators dropped. Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt are reported to have shown little to no movement and were presumed to be unconscious. However, David Herold and Lewis Powell did not lose consciousness and for the next few minutes painfully struggled in vain until mercifully, they too lost consciousness.

CU - Scaffold (RTV)(47)

After about 20 minutes or so, doctors checked each body for signs of life and finding none, pronounced the prisoners dead. The bodies would remain hanging for a few minutes more before being ordered taken down. Once cut down, the bodies were laid on their pine coffins and checked by the doctors again to determine whether any of the prisoners had broken their necks and if there were any other signs of trauma. Once recorded, the bodies were placed in their coffins with their hoods still in place and then buried in the graves that had been dug  just to the right of the scaffold.

CU - Pine Gun Boxes & Pre-Dug Graves (TPB)(596)

All of this occurred 144 years ago today, on the very hot and early afternoon of Friday, July 7, 1865.

Best

Barry