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Retrial designed to give Lincoln assassination co-conspirator the voice she never had

Ill. appellate judge Thomas Appleton swears in Mary Surratt (Aasne Vigesaa) during a civilian retrial at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Oct. 3, 2011.
(Dave Blanchette/Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)
Ill. appellate judge Thomas Appleton swears in Mary Surratt (Aasne Vigesaa) during a civilian retrial at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Oct. 3, 2011.

On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman executed by the federal government when she was hanged for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Surratt owned the boarding house in Washington, D.C. where many of the conspirators lived and met. Her own son John was an active participant in the plot. But the depth of her involvement was as hotly debated then as it is now.

A unique collaboration allowed Illinois residents to be a part of that debate and to rewrite a small part of history, if just for the night.

The Parties Surrounding Surratt on Prezi

The idea started with a Robert Redford movie.

"We knew that the film he had produced and directed was going to come out," says Eileen Mackevich, the executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. "Therefore, I thought that there would likely be a great deal of interest in Mary Surratt."

That movie, "The Conspirator," didn't get much attention when it was released in April. But it got Mackevich thinking.

"What we were interested in was into finding a way that Mary Surratt could tell her story as she had been denied," she said.

Mary Surratt was one of eight people charged for various crimes in connection with an 1865 plot to first kidnap, and then kill, President Abraham Lincoln and various other government officials. All were tried by a military tribunal, which sentenced four of them, including Surratt, to death. None had the right to testify on their own behalves. Mackevich wanted to right that wrong, especially for Mary.

The library and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission decided to stage two civilian retrials, one in Chicago and one in Springfield. The military guard would be dismissed at the beginning - Mary Surratt would take the stand, be sworn in, and testify. The audience would serve as the jury.

Attorneys, judges and the  court reporters played themselves. Actress Aasne Vigesaa tacked the role of the condemned.

"I knew nothing about her," she says. "I didn't even know there was a conspiracy."

Vigesaa says she devoured every piece of information she could about Mary. She read transcripts from Mary's interrogation and from the tribunal itself. She watched "The Conspirator," the National Geographic documentary about making the movie, and read the book on which the movie was based.

"I think she's a very complicated woman," Vigesaa says. "I don't know that she was completely innocent, but I think a large part of her M.O. was to protect her son, and I think on some level she was acting as a parent turning a blind eye to what her kid was doing."

Mary claimed to believe that her son John was a cotton speculator. In real life, he was a Confederate courier and spy, and actively involved in the assassination plot. He fled the country after Lincoln was killed, was eventually captured in Egypt, and brought back to the United States for a civilian trial.

"And it was a hung jury, and so he was free," says historian John Lupton. "It could have been proven that she was a conspirator in a civilian trial, but she probably wouldn't have been put to death."

In fact, at both trials - Chicago and Springfield - the audience/jury found Mary Surratt not guilty by an overwhelming margin.

Lupton says it's crucial to understand the environment in which Surratt's arrest and trial took place.

"Most people hated all the conspirators, especially Mary," he says. "They had loads of evidence for and against, but it was pretty much a foregone conclusion what the judgment was going to be."

Lupton was in charge of providing the participants with the historically accurate information to build their cases.

"The points for the prosecution were basically that she knew John Wilkes Booth, she knew all the conspirators, and that she had allegedly given a package to John Lloyd on the day of the assassination. So she's closely implicated to the actual assassination event," he said. "On the defense side, she was being portrayed as kind of a pawn in Booth's grand scheme to assassinate the president."

For one night, federal prosecutor Gregory Harris found himself on the other side of the courtroom as a member of Mary Surratt's defense team.

"I think it comes down to the fact that she had the boarding house where the plot was hatched and they didn't have John Surratt," Harris says. He calls the retrial a great experience for the attorneys and the sold-out crowds in Chicago and Springfield who acted as jurors.

"I would hope that people would take away how fragile our judicial system can be, and how much we've evolved into a much fairer system that bases the decisions not on the time, or what's going on outside the courtroom, but on the evidence that's presented in the courtroom," he says.

Lincoln Museum executive director Eileen Mackevich says the museum and the Supreme Court's preservation commission are already working on their next collaboration - plumbing the issues raised by the involuntary commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Click here to see photos from the Springfield retrial at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.