I hate to spoil the ending, but after all, it's history: Mary Surratt was executed.
Even knowing that historical fact, when watching Surratt's story in the new Robert Redford produced and directed movie The Conspirator, you're never quite sure whether Ms. Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Abraham Lincoln's assassination conspirators met to plot their deeds, was as guilty as the men who killed Lincoln. If after viewing the film you have trouble deciding what she knew or how culpable she was, and whether or not she deserved to die, you will not be alone. To this day, historians disagree on these issues regarding Mary Surratt; indeed, Lincoln's home town of Springfield to this day debates the 150-year-old issue of her guilt or innocence as only a town weaned from politics could.
Most everyone in America knows about the Lincoln assassination, one of the few incidents in our history where people alive at the time remembered exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. The film does a great job of re-creating the pandemonium that ensued following the assassination and helps us appreciate the traumatic, paranoid, national upheaval the incident created.
Lincoln was killed by a well-planned conspiracy. A number of people were arrested for the crime; most were released without charges. Several were tried by military tribunals rather than juries of their peers to insure convictions, since any jury in Confederate-leaning Maryland would likely have found them innocent. As Secretary of War Edwin Stanton puts it in the film, Surratt may have to be sacrificed to restore calm, since the guilt or innocence of one individual is not as important as saving the Union and preserving peace.
The mark of a good historical film is the way it informs audiences and sparks discussion about a little-known aspect of history. The film reminds us what happens when the reverence for law is sacrificed in wartime. The parallels between the Surratt trial and those of Guantanamo Bay are obvious, although the screenplay was written before today's terrorism detainees became an issue.
The film asks important questions, although the history is overly simplified as any film depiction of complex events tends to be. There is also a romantic interest and a sidekick for which there is no historic evidence. But if the story line wanders a bit from the historical record, this presents a valuable teaching opportunity by encouraging further research into the events of spring and summer 1865, a time of shock, outrage and cries for retribution following a national calamity. Sound familiar?
Mary Surratt was found guilty and hanged, joining three men on the gallows to atone for the life of our 16th President. See The Conspirator and judge for yourself whether the verdict and sentence were justified. But also be on the lookout for the day in court Mary Surratt never received, a trial by a jury of her peers, which the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and some of today's top legal minds plan to host later this year in both Chicago and Springfield.
Eileen Mackevich is director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois