Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Having read Kate Clifford Larson’s “The Assassin’s Accomplice,” a book on Mary Surratt and her role in the Lincoln assassination, I was looking forward to hearing her speak at the Surratt Society’s conference, “The Lincoln Assassination, All Things Considered.” But not for the reasons one might immediately suspect. For beginners, I had found three glaring errors while reading the book. Although I’ve read eight books on the assassination, with two more in the future reading stack, I’m not in the same league as serious students of the assassination. Suffice it to say, though, I know my stuff and the errors literally leapt off the page. In the scheme of things they weren’t major factual errors, but they were disconcerting nonetheless. Reading that Mary Surratt was buried in Baltimore, when she was in fact buried at Mt. Olivet cemetery in Washington, made me wince. I have to admit, walking into the Colony South hotel, where the conference was held, I didn’t envy Kate, because I had a feeling she was walking into the lion’s den and risked getting ripped to shreds by assassination groupies.
So, who should happen to be sitting at the row of tables directly in front of me when I took a seat? Why, none other than Kate Clifford Larson. I told her I had read her book and, before I could say anything more, she volunteered there were errors, saying they’d be corrected in the paperback edition. She had worked with two editors and a research assistant, who was supposed to check facts, but, still, no one caught the errors. I found myself sympathizing with her and laughingly advised her to blame the three aforementioned parties when she got up to speak. In the end, all was forgiven, a task made easier by virtue of the fact that she was, be still my beating heart, a very attractive lady and gracious in consenting to autograph my copy of her book.
After awards were given out, including to the youngest conference attendee and the person who traveled the furthest to attend (Hawaii), Kate was introduced. She began by thanking the Surratt Society for their assistance in allowing her access to their archives and then, again, openly admitted errors appeared in the book. Her audience seemed to appreciate that.
Larson, who earned a PhD in history from the University of New Hampshire and currently teaches at Simmons College in Boston, had never heard the name of Mary Surratt until she was close to completing research for a book on Harriett Tubman. She was fascinated by the story, initially believing Surratt had been victimized, but ultimately came to the conclusion she was guilty of complicity in Lincoln’s murder.
The story, as told in “The Assassin’s Accomplice,” is of “an incredibly fascinating character,” both “head strong” and “defiant,” a woman, who, in many ways, defied convention. Better educated than most women of her station, a convert to Catholicism, she became an astute businesswoman by default due to her husband’s own failings, caused in large part by alcoholism and gambling debts. It was also rumored that she was carrying on an illicit affair with a priest. Whether it was true, or she had simply found a sympathetic ear is open to conjecture, but the priest was transferred from his Oxon Hill, Maryland parish, in large part, based on those rumors.
Possessing a poor business sense and sniffing an opportunity to get out from under a pile of debt led John Surratt to purchase a wayside tavern at a crossroads in what is now known as Clinton, Maryland. Even before his death, this “smart” and “capable” woman, with a natural business acuity, took over the operation of the tavern and assumed the duties of postmaster from her husband, a move that, in Larson’s opinion, “ultimately sent her to the gallows.” There’s little doubt about the reputation of Surratt’s Tavern as a safe house for Confederate mail couriers and spies, nestled as it was in an area of Prince George’s County where residents made no bones about their sympathies toward Richmond.
According to Larson, Mary Surratt “had to have known the plot was afoot. I don’t believe she participated in Booth’s plot because she was in love with him. I just don’t believe that.” What Larson does believe is that Mary was motivated by “ideology.” “As you move closer and closer to the assassination the evidence is overwhelming…” “Although the government had lots of evidence against her…the evidence of her guilt was overwhelming,” Larson admitted though, she was “surprised they hung her.” She finds it equally “interesting that people continue to call the witnesses who testified against Mary liars and argue she’s totally innocent.”
In spite of her belief in Mary’s guilt, Larson has deep-seated sympathy for her. “Newspapers painted a very ugly picture of her.” The stories that ran in the daily papers were “very cruel,” but spoke to the anger of both the papers and northerners. Neither “vilified the conspirators the way they did Mary.” Larson speculates that “Mary didn’t help herself by wearing a heavy veil over her face during the trial.” During interrogations she presented as “defiant,” and sought to “protect her son,” and in a sense “overplayed her hand.” Her defiance, demeanor in the courtroom, and “the most incompetent legal representation in history,” all contributed to a finding of guilt. Larson admitted that she was “stunned” at the number of times witness were recalled by defense attorneys “to repeat damning against Mary.” Nine priests, most of who did not know her, were called to the stand. There was little in their testimony, like most witnesses called on her behalf, that served her case.
What Larson wanted her audience to take away most from her book on Mary Surratt was “this is a very strong woman in a man’s world. She never stood in the background.”