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On April 14, 1865, in the waning days of the Civil War, 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the head while the President was watching a play from his box at Ford’s Theatre. Booth was a disaffected supporter of the Confederacy who hated Lincoln, but his actions were part of a larger plot. The conspiracy began as a half-baked scheme to kidnap Lincoln that later evolved into a plan to assassinate the President, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Only Booth was successful in killing his target.
John Wilkes Booth (Photo from Wikipedia)
In the ensuing search for Booth and his conspirators, dozens of people were arrested. Just about anyone who had any contact with them was subject to investigation and, at least temporarily, imprisonment. One of those who came to the attention of authorities early on was Mary Surratt, a widow who owned a reputable boarding house in Washington that Booth was known to visit. Her son John, who had fled the country, was a friend of Booth’s and a Confederate sympathizer and courier.
Mary’s role in the crime was less clear. Some of the scheming likely went on in her boarding house. She conveyed instructions from Booth to the keeper of a tavern she owned outside the city, where Booth stopped later that fateful April night. But whether she was a willing accomplice or an unwitting pawn is the subject of debate.
Hanging Mary offers a fictional take on Mary Surratt’s involvement in these events. How did this respectable widow, trusted to maintain a wholesome environment by the families of lodgers that included an unmarried lady and even a ten-year-old schoolgirl, manage to get mixed up in the most notorious crime of the day? Was she a villain or a victim?
Mary gets a chance to tell her side of the story in chapters that alternate with others from the perspective of Miss Honora (“Nora”) Fitzpatrick, one of the lodgers. Between the two of them, a more nuanced picture emerges of the various members of the household and their associates. Booth is handsome and charming, a local celebrity the young ladies are proud to know. The convivial atmosphere in the house belies the darker intentions of some members of the group.
The story of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, his death, the investigation, and the subsequent trials is a complex one, involving many people, some better known to history than others. This novel focuses on a small part of the larger historical picture. There is a vivid sense of 1860s wartime Washington, still lively and hopeful before the assassination but plunged into harrowing uncertainty afterwards. As so often occurs in history, an atmosphere of fear and panic can result in an unsatisfying justice.
Mary Surratt (Photo from Wikipedia)
A copy of this book for review was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark/NetGalley.
“Was Mary Surratt a Lincoln Conspirator?”
Video from Smithsonian: