Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Assassin's Accomplice

With the 200th birthday celebration of Abraham Lincoln rapidly approaching we can expect a huge flood of books dealing with various aspects of his life and administration. It has already started really with one being The Assassin's Accomplice Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. The work was written by Kate Clifford Larson who is a professor Simmons College and has a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. Don't let these credentials fool you. This is by NO MEANS a scholarly work and is by no means authoritative.

I will admit she gets the conclusion right. Mary Surratt was guilty. Other than that the book seemed to be filled with generalities that were never fleshed out. The killing of Lincoln is given just a brush over and little research seemed to have been done. The old story of John Wilkes Booth breaking his leg during the jump to the stage is given factual status despite evidence that would lead to this having happened during an accident on his horse. How else would a man who had just broken his leg have managed to get out of the theatre with no issue.

Larson spends much time discussing the publics view of Mary Surratt during the trial and the apparent shift afterwards when the realization hits that she is to be put to death. Why this shift of opinion? I still don't know after reading the book. Why did Andrew Johnson no have leniancy for an "old woman"? Beats me. What other options did the military tribunal have when faced with the mounds of evidence? Check elsewhere.

John Surratt is made out to be the scapegoat for Mary being put to death. If only he had come back to the states and surrendered Mary would have been spared the noose. Come on now. The evidence supports the verdict here and John had no more direct participation in the assassination than Mary. John was in Canada at time, depsite the author claiming he fled to Canada after the assassination.

Granted, Mary had poor attorneys. Let's face it in today's world these buffoons probably wouldn't pass the bar exam however that's what there was. They chose a poor strategy of trying to convince a military court that they had no jurisdiction in the case. How about trying to prove your clients innocence rather than arguing something that would be best done on your very limited appeals. They had an uphill battle and they didn't even get to base camp.

While not a bad read (trust me when I tell you if you no nothing about the time frame, the Civil War, or the assassination you won't be lost) my concern is people will read this and take it as gospel. Let's be honest there is no bibliography, only a scant section of notes and less than 10 photos. For those of us who actually look at this type of thing for further reading or research ideas this is a huge disappointment. The lack of review comments from respected Civil War historians on the jacket is also a give away that for top notch research we should look elsewhere. Better places to start are Manhunt by James L. Swanson or perhaps American Brutus by Michael Kauffman. Both of these authors are recognized assassination experts and while the books are not directly about Mary Surratt her life can not be seperated from the assassination.

In addition, for those with an interest in the Surratt family I would suggest checking out the Surratt website. This is a fascinating site with lots of information and the membership rates are more than reasonable.


World of Kris said...

Hey, thanks for the book review. I did lots and lots of reports on Lincoln when I was a kid, but the kids "research" materials at the time where pretty simplified. I don't even remember an accomplice. Thanks for the website, I will probably check that out in depth as you know my list of reading materials is already 10 years behind :)

World of Kris said...

Also, check out my trip to the Ford/Edison Estates. I haven't even been though half of it yet and I find it incredibly cool. With your love of history, I suspect that you will really love it here too. I haven't actually seen the estates yet. When I pay to go back, I want to make sure I have enough time to do the whole thing.