Following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth, the well-known Shakespearean actor who regretted his earlier failure to fight for the Confederacy, was killed while resisting arrest. His cronies (or some of them)—Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt—were soon rounded up and hanged, but not before they had been vigorously defended in court, and not without some controversy.
We can be thankful that CNN, Fox News, and their ilk didn't exist at the time. This "trial of the century" wasn't surrounded by the kind of glitz that now attracts decency-busting lawyers on the order of F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran, who don't mind getting rich killers off the legal hook in exchange for lots of attention. Indeed, one of the co-conspirators' defenders, the respectable Reverdy Johnson, was a former attorney general, a U.S. senator, and a future diplomatic minister to Great Britain. His colleagues, Frederick Stone and Walter Cox, became capable judges in the course of their careers, and, as if purposefully to twist the tail of irony, Cox would preside over the trial of Charles Guiteau, President James Garfield's deranged assassin.
Readers will note that one of four executed co-conspirators was a woman. The Trial, which combines transcripts of the proceedings with interpretive essays by several historians, provides us with a photograph of Mary Surratt, a Marylander of strong secessionist sympathies. In the photo she's well groomed, well dressed, serious and brooding; one hand rests atop a Bible, on the cover of which is a cross. That symbol may be appropriate, for whether Surratt was executed on flimsy grounds remains a matter of discussion. It's true, as Laurie Verge points out in ...1
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Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Terrorists on Trial
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