My most recent audiobook read was The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, by Kate Clifford Larson. Published in 2008, it is a comprehensive study of the role Mary Surratt played in the plot to kill President Lincoln.
Larson begins her story with her belief that Mary Surratt was innocent of the charges that she was tried, convicted and hanged for. It is a fair assessment; there certainly are plenty of people who believe that Mary was caught up in the public fervor to swiftly find and punish the guilty parties. But then, she begins presenting the research, and the evidence stacks up.
Larson methodically presents the case, beginning months prior to the assassination, going over Mary’s role and what she knew, and how her actions convinced investigators of what she knew. She interweaves the story of Mary’s family life, abusive marriage and eventual life as a widow trying to clear her alcoholic husband’s debts after his unexpected death. It has the rhythm of a novel, so you are never bored with the numerous records that she introduces and the facts she describes. She describes Mary in vivid detail for the reader, so you really end up feeling like you know her as a person.
She describes the arrest, the subsequent investigation and interrogations, and the trial of the conspirators before the military tribunal. She doesn’t glorify either side, pointing out the flaws in both the prosecution’s and defense’s case, and explaining the part that media and public opinion played in the trial. She detailed the fragile emotional state of both Mary and her daughter Anna, and how it influenced observers both in her favor and against.
She matter of factly describes the shortcomings of Mary’s inexperienced attorneys, and how Mary’s own unwillingness to provide any sort of alternate explanation against the mountain of evidence was critical in sealing her fate. And of course, one cannot ignore that fact that Mary basically took the fall for her son John Surratt, who undoubtedly had significant knowledge of the plot, but remained hidden after Mary was arrested, tried and executed. Would the outcome have been different had John come forward to stand before the tribunal? We will never know.
Larson also describes the execution, making the reader feel that they understood what happened, without making it into a gory scene. And finally, she examines the debate about Mary’s innocence by firsthand witnesses and her attorneys that continued well into the early 1900s. The pendulum swung from the public believing in her guilt, to outrage over what was thought to be the execution of an innocent woman.
In the end, Larson has made it clear that the project did not reaffirm her belief in Mary’s innocence, as she expected it would, but led her to a deep understanding of Mary’s guilt and her knowledge of the plan.
Well researched and well written, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to more fully understand a humble, pious woman’s role in the conspiracy to kill the President.