President Abraham Lincoln's story is on the rise in Hollywood. Ol' Honest Abe is set to fight the fangs in 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'; director Steven Spielberg is still itching to bring the 16th president's real-life, fang-free world to the big screen with 'Lincoln'; and currently playing in theaters, we have 'The Conspirator.'
The latter isn't directly about Lincoln, but rather the aftermath of his assassination. Though actor John Wilkes Booth killed the president, justice didn't live and die with Booth. After practically anyone associated with the assassin was arrested, eight final prisoners faced a harsh military tribunal, including boarding house owner Mary Surratt, who became the first woman executed by the federal government.
But the story isn't so black and white.
As Redford's film outlines, the American public and government were eager for justice, laced with a healthy slice of vengeance. Lincoln was the first president assassinated, and although some argued for a fair, public trial, Surratt and the other charged conspirators faced a military tribunal quite eager to make the accused eight pay. Though some of the prisoners had direct involvement with Booth's plans for assassination, Surratt's evidence was circumstantial, and it is believed that had she not been hung with the three men sentenced to death by hanging, she would have been pardoned with the rest by President Andrew Johnson four years later.
Three years into the Civil War (which lasted one more year, to 1865), commanding general Ulysses S. Grant suspended the exchange of prisoners-of-war. The South was hurting for soldiers, and Grant realized that this was prolonging the battle. Actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth was none too pleased. He wanted the South to win, and hatched a plan to kidnap the President and hold him hostage until the North resumed the exchange of prisoners. He brought together a collection of Confederates and sympathizers including John Surratt, a Confederate courier and spy. The group met often at the boarding house of Surratt's mother, Mary. Ultimately, however, the plot failed.
Not long after, Southern commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant, and on April 11, 1865, Lincoln spoke of giving voting rights to former slaves. This incensed Booth, who decided on a new course of action: He would assassinate Lincoln. Three days later, his plan to kill Lincoln and the President's successors went into action: He shot the President at Ford's Theatre, conspirator Lewis Powell stabbed Secretary of State William H. Seward (who survived) and George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson (he lost his courage and drank instead). Booth escaped, and was later killed. The rest were immediately captured, eight of whom were tried, including Mary Surratt -- which is the focus of the film.
Mary Surratt, played by Robin Wright Penn
Mary was a devout Roman Catholic who, after the death of her abusive, alcoholic husband, worked to pay off his debts by running a boarding house in Washington, DC. It was there that her son, John, met with John Wilkes Booth and the rest of the conspirators on numerous occasions. It is unclear how much she new about their business.
John Surratt, played by Johnny Simmons
A Confederate courier and spy, John met Booth in 1864, and helped plan the kidnapping of President Lincoln. It is said that the young Surratt was in Elmira, New York during the assassination. When he learned what happened, John went on the run. Though he was later captured and tried, he was ultimately released.
John Wilkes Booth, played by Toby Kebbell
Booth was born to a famous and reputable family of actors. He entered the trade himself, but his Confederate beliefs pushed him down a new path as the South struggled during the war's later years. Booth shot Lincoln and escaped. After a 12-day trek, the assassin was killed on a Virginia farm, though some argue that he survived and lived on in anonymity.
Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline
The Secretary of War during Lincoln and Johnson's administrations, he took immediate control of the situation, ranging from removing wife Mary Todd Lincoln from her husband's side to fervently pursuing those responsible for the murder. It was his decision to have the conspirators tried by military tribunal, and he has since been accused of witness tampering.
Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy
Though the film makes direct links between Aiken and Reverdy Johnson (Senator and Mary's first lawyer), it is thought that the Senator approached Aiken about the military court's jurisdiction concerning civilians. Ultimately, he became Surratt's defense lawyer. His law career ended not long after the trial, and upon his death, he was the first city editor of The Washington Post.
Louis Weichmann and John Lloyd, played by Jonathan Groff and Stephen Root
The lead witnesses in the prosecution's case were Weichmann and Lloyd. The former was a boarder at the Surratt household, who testified about meetings between the conspirators and linked Mary to those meetings, while the latter testified that Surratt had met with him about hidden supplies for the group of conspirators. Both testimonies were problematic, for reasons including possible witness tampering, alcoholism and the circumstantial nature of the evidence.
Evan Rachel Wood as Mary's daughter, Anna Surratt; Danny Huston as Joseph Holt, lead of the prosecution; Alexis Bledel as Aiken's wife, Sarah Weston; Justin Long as Aiken's friend, Nicholas Baker; Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson; Norman Reedus as Lewis Powell, the man who tried to kill Seward, whose later appearance at the boarding house helped spark the case against Surratt.