Sunday, April 10, 2011

Robert Redford on the Most Famous Non-Pardon?

The Editor is intrigued to learn that Robert Redford will be releasing a new movie this week, The Conspirator, which will cover the story of the trial of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. Many are surprised to learn that several of those convicted in the conspiracy (Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Edward Spangler) were recipients of executive clemency via the hand of Andrew Johnson. But, in many ways, the most intriguing story is that of the presidential pardon that was not given, a pardon that was intended for Mary Eugenia Jenkins Surratt, the first female executed by the U.S. Government and, actually, the last, until Ethel Rosenberg. So, it will be quite interesting to see how director Redford will handle this critical aspect of the story.

Detectives searched Mary Surratt’s house only a few hours after John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot at Ford's Theater, but her arrest did not take place for another three days. At the time of her arrest she was asked if she recognized a man who had been captured. Surratt responded, "Before God, I have never seen this man before." As it turned out, the man was one Lewis Payne. Payne had stabbed Secretary of State William Seward three times on the night of the Lincoln assassination.

Surratt was then tried along with Payne, Mudd, Arnold and Spangler and three others (David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Michael O'Laughlin). And government agents generally concluded that the conspirators used Surratt's house as a headquarters or meeting-place. Thus, her supposed complete lack of knowledge of their various plans seemed implausible.

But the "wild card" of the investigation had to be Surratt's son, John. He was the one who brought John Wilkes Booth to the Surratt house. Indeed, it has often been suggested that the trial of Mary Surratt as a primary conspirator in Lincoln's murder was nothing more than a prosecutorial ploy to get John to come out of hiding. In theory, the son would surely come to save his mother from a harsh imprisonment and a hellish trial. If not, he would certainly turn himself in and save his mother from the gallows. As it turned out, John did not rescue his mother from anything.

For a brief period of time, Mary and her fellow prisoners were kept on board two ironclad warships and in solitary confinement. With the exception of Mary, each was forced to wear a canvass hood with a single hole provided for breathing and eating. Guards were instructed to have (and allow) no conversation with the prisoners. Surratt, on the other hand, was allowed visits from her daughter and two catholic priests. The prisoners were then transferred to the Old Capital Prison before going to the Old Penitentiary Building on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal.

As the trial got under way, tight fitting hoods made of inch-thick cotton replaced the canvass coverings. In the courtroom, most of the prisoners were laden with steel anklets and heavy iron weights. Their hands were also fastened to heavy, ten-inch-long iron bars. Guards were placed between each prisoner. The distinguished Dr. Mudd wore only ordinary handcuffs. Mary Surratt was generally free of restraint.

On May 9, the presentation of the evidence against the conspirators began before a Military Court of eight generals and two colonels - one of the generals, Lew Wallace, would go on to write Ben Hur. According to the formal charges, Mary Surratt:
on or before the 6th day of March, A.D. 1865, and on divers other days and times between that day and the 20th day of April, A.D. 1865, [did] receive, entertain, harbor, and conceal, aid and assist [the] confederates, with the knowledge of the murderous and traitorous conspiracy [and] with intent to aid, abet, and assist them in the execution thereof, and in escaping from justice after the murder [of] Abraham Lincoln
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt and his assistants steered case throughout the six-week trial. Over four hundred and fifty witnesses were subpoenaed and there were three hundred and sixty-one appearances on the stand. The testimony took up four thousand pages and the arguments of the lawyer accounted for another seven hundred.

Reverdy Johnson attempted to conduct Surratt's defense. Johnson was a United States Senator and, formerly, Attorney General under President Tyler. He had also represented slave owners in the infamous Dred Scott case. He also made a powerful case for the position that the Military Commission had no real jurisdiction in the case since the criminal courts were open. General T.M. Harris responded by objecting to Johnson's very presence in the room. Harris noted Johnson did not support the "moral obligation" of oaths as tests of loyalty. Harris' objection was overruled, but Johnson played a more secondary role in the defense after the sweeping attack on his character and his two assistants found that quite detrimental.

Witnesses clearly placed various conspirators in Mary Surratt's home, but none demonstrated or even professed that she had knowledge of the assassination. Louis Weichmann, a former fellow student of Mary's husband (John) at St. Charles College, testified that Surratt would "sometimes" hold private conversations with Booth. He also said Booth once gave him ten dollars to hire a carriage for Mrs. Surratt. But, after the trial, Weichmann claimed he exchanged testimony for the promise of a job!

John Lloyd, a former policeman turned tavern-keeper (and frequent user), was also called to testify against Surratt. The widow's husband had once asked Lloyd to store (hide) two army carbines, ammunition, rope and a monkey wrench. On April 11, Lloyd passed by Surratt and Weichmann on a country road. Surratt supposedly asked Lloyd to get the "shooting irons" out and have them ready since they would be "wanted soon." Weichmann, sitting right next to Surratt, could neither confirm nor deny such words were spoken. Lloyd also claimed that, on Good Friday, Surratt again reminded him to have guns ready. Lloyd had been drinking heavily that day, but was confident of the exact content of the conversation, even more so than he was about the content of the earlier conversation along the roadside. Long after the trial, he would make the astounding claim that he was forced to testify against Surratt under the threat of death!

The military judges deliberated for two days. Death sentences were given to David Herold, George Atzerodt and Lewis Paine. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin were sentenced to life imprisonment. Edward Spangler was given a six-year sentence.

Before the verdict, Surratt's legal counsel assured her daughter, Anna, that imprisonment would be the worst-case scenario. Other members of the bar were predicting acquittal. But Mary Surratt was also sentenced to be hanged by the neck until she was dead "at such time and place" directed by the President of the United States. Upon the announcement of the verdict, Surratt collapsed and was said to have never really acted quite sensible again. Newspaper boys ran through the streets shouting, "The execution of Mrs. Surratt! The execution of Mrs. Surratt!" The Washington Evening Star noted the verdict "occasioned some surprise." Two of Surratt's lawyers raced to the White House in hopes of capturing a Lincoln like last-minute pardon, but guards with bayonets turned them away.

Author Francis X. Busch concludes Surratt would, "in all likelihood," have been "promptly acquitted" before an "honestly selected jury" in a civil court. More pointedly, author John Cottrell agrees that no civil court would have convicted Surratt on the "unsupported evidence of a drunkard" (Lloyd).

Later, one of the Military Commission's members, General David Hunter, supposedly reported that the first vote actually resulted in a life sentence for Mary Surratt. But Judge Advocate General Holt and Assistant Judge Advocate Bingham conducted a re-reading of the testimony and pressed for the death sentence with a recommendation to the President for mercy. So, the Commission recommended death and five of its nine members (General Robert S. Foster, Colonel C.H. Tompkins, Major General David Hunter, General A.V. Kautz and General James A Ekin) signed a plea for clemency. It read:
To the President: The undersigned, members of the military commission appointed to try the persons charged with the murder of Abraham Lincoln, etc., respectfully represent that the Commission have been constrained to find Mary E. Surratt guilty upon the testimony of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States, and to pronounce upon her, as required by law, the sentence of death; but in consideration of her age and sex, the undersigned pray your Excellency, if it is consistent with your sense of duty, to commute her sentence to imprisonment for life in the penitentiary.
Interestingly, the existence of the plea was kept secret until two years after the hanging of Mary Surratt. President Andrew Johnson, already somewhat embarrassed by the fact that he had arrested Jefferson Davis as a conspirator in the assassination on the basis of evidence that was entirely fraudulent, had previously referred to Mrs. Surratt as the person who "kept the nest that hatched the egg." Later, Johnson denied ever seeing the petition for clemency signed by the judges. Judge Holt claimed, however, that the President saw the document. Brigadier General Harris likewise claimed "the record was carefully considered and discussed by the President and a full cabinet" and, "without a dissenting voice," "the sentences of the Commission were confirmed, and the prayer of the petition was rejected." Johnson and Holt would rekindle their argument in a public dispute throughout 1873.

But, at the moment, the most sensational story was that of Anna Surratt, Mary's sister. Anna attempted to visit the President herself on July 7, but was prevented from doing so by various officials. Newspapers could not resist describing her trauma and desperate act in elaborate detail. The widow of Stephen A. Douglas also attempted to persuade Johnson to save Surratt from the gallows.

On the day of the execution, the prisoner's were marched to the scaffold at bayonet point. Famed photographer Mathew Brady was given permission to record the scene. Harper's Weekly sent two artists. Surratt was shielded from the sun and ninety-two degrees by an umbrella as she ascended the thirteen steps. Authors Brandt Aymar and Edward Sagarin suggest Surratt "expected intervention" from the President "until the moment that she stepped upon the scaffold."

Cottrell suggests that even at that stage, "the prison commandant and the executioner could not quite believe that the widow was really to be hanged." The executioner did not have enough rope to finish Surratt's noose but rested confident that it would not be used anyway. General Hancock delayed as long as possible and had set up an elaborate network to expedite the communication of a last minute pardon. The delay, of course, served to further fuel the rumors that some sort of reprieve was, in fact, on the way. Finally, Hancock gave the orders to proceed. The executioner immediately asked, "Her too?" The General said there was no further hope for Surratt, but left the scaffold and positioned himself on the side of the building where he could best see approaching messengers.

It must have been more than Surratt's soul could bear to hear Louis Paine's last words. He protested that she was innocent. It is reported that the last words of the first woman ever executed by the United States Government were, “Don’t let me fall.”

1 comment:

Michael_Ali said...

I got here by asking . Did She pen Ben Hur? See no reference to that question here.

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