The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators

The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators

The Trial: The Assassination
of President Lincoln and
the Trial of the Conspirators

edited by Edward Steers
Univ. Press of Kentucky
423 pp.; $55

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 her essay, that Surratt's home had been used as a staging ground by other conspirators—and it's difficult to believe that she had no idea of the scheme that originally called for the assassination not only of Lincoln but also of Secretary of State William Seward (who was merely beaten bloody), General Ulysses Grant (who opted for a trip to New Jersey in lieu of a play at Ford's Theatre) and Vice President Andrew Johnson (whose attacker failed to stick to the plan). But, as Verge puts it, there is a lack of "clear-cut evidence" concerning Mrs. Surratt's guilt, so another photograph, showing her hooded body hanging from a rope in the presence only of male onlookers, seems all the more dismal. This is an example of 19th-century gender equality we could have lived without.

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Not many readers are likely to settle down to read the 400 pages of small print that comprise the edited transcripts included in The Trial. The book's value as a reference work would be significantly greater if it included an index. But editor Edward Steers has nevertheless produced a valuable work. The stories of Booth's co-conspirators are habitually passed over by American history textbook writers. And even casual perusers will find passages that tell them something interesting about some of the Confederacy's more sinister schemes, as well as the political atmosphere of immediate postbellum America.

Most interesting is the way the essays and trial transcripts compiled by Steers bear out the Preacher's claim that "there is nothing new under the sun." Then, as now, citizens wanted daily updates on the trial, and the press was glad to oblige. Then, as now (concerning "American Taliban" types), there was argument over whether the conspirators should be considered enemy combatants and thus tried in a military court (they were).

Then, as now, terrorists hid behind Canada's placid smiley face, plotting destruction in general and biological warfare in particular. "All these goods … had been carefully infected in Bermuda with yellow fever, small pox, and other contagious diseases," testified Joseph Hyams, who knew of a plot that had been underway among Confederates operating on Canadian soil. The objective, which obviously failed, was to set the disease loose in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Other schemes that failed—thanks more to Confederate ineptitude than to Canadian vigilance or interest—involved blowing up northern hospitals, bridges, and tunnels. One minor operation that did succeed—the raid on St. Albans, Vermont—was launched from Canadian soil. John Wilkes Booth, who had spent time in Canada, was aware of some of these plans.

After Lincoln's assassination, when it was feared that a broader conspiracy to wreck the recently acquired peace between North and South was underway, a "wide dragnet" was cast that pulled "into custody anyone who might have the slightest connection to Booth." Then, as in the fall of 2001, a small number of "civil libertarians" protested; but, also similarly, "there was little objection among the general public" to the actions of an aggressive U.S. attorney general. In threatening times, people concluded (then and after 9/11) that the most important civil advantage is the right not to be slaughtered by terrorists who exploit the freedoms of an open society.

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Preston Jones, a contributing editor to Books & Culture, teaches at John Brown University.

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