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Conspiring to Assassinate an American President

On July 7, 1865, three men and one woman were hanged for the crime of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. After the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the announcement that Lincoln would serve a second term as president, John Wilkes Booth, a young southern actor and patriot of the Confederacy, began plotting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After hearing the announcement that President Lincoln would be attending a performance at the Ford TheaterBooth assigned the tasks of assassinating both Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson to a group of fellow conspirators. Although it was Booth who fired the bullet that killed the 16th president, this group of eight lesser-known conspirators aided Booth his scheme. 

In the new historical thriller The Conspirator, director Robert Redford focuses on Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the first woman to be executed by the U.S. Federal government. Surratt owned the boarding house in Washington where John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators met to plan the assassination. Frederick Aiken was a Union war hero and attorney who reluctantly decided to defend Surratt when he realized she may be innocent of the charges against her. "There was no guarantee she was involved. They were not able to prove it," said Redford. "She was stoic in the defense of herself. And they put her in a military tribunal, which should have been a civil trial." 

The complete story of all eight conspirators is told in the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The documentary follows the 12-day manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and the trials of the remaining conspirators. "It was with the assassination that the myth of Abraham Lincoln was born, says author James L. Swanson in the documentary. "Lincoln was not universally liked or beloved during his presidency. Millions of people hated him. Once he was assassinated, everything changed." The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln features actor Will Patton (Numb3rs, A Mighty Heart) as the voice of Booth and is narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation).

It is no coincidence that The Conspirator is being released this month; April 12, 2011 marked the 150 anniversary of the start of the Civil War. According to the film’s reviews, The Conspirator is historically accurate. The film's screenwriter, James Solomon, took 14 years to research the story; Much of the dialogue in the script is based on actual trial transcripts, and producers consulted with historians during filming. Yet one stark difference between Redford's Conspirator and The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is that Redford ignores any discussion over the causes of the war. The word "slavery," or the fact that Surratt was a slave owner herself, is not mentioned once throughout the film.

Have any viewers of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE seen the film? How does it compare to the facts offered in our The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln? As the 150th anniversary of the war dawns on us, I am looking forward to reading literature and watching films such as these that encourage us to reexamine our country's past.


Bianca Wythe is a student at Northeastern University and is currently an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. 


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