Saturday, May 7, 2011

Stories from Surrattsville

Yesterday my husband and I went to the movies and saw "The Conspirator".  I had so many memories flood back to me.  In my last blog I mentioned that for most of my growing up years we lived in Maryland.  Our home was in Clinton, Maryland which is just south of Washington DC (about 10 miles) so we were considered a suburb to DC.  Across Branch Avenue, less than a mile from our home, was Andrews Air Force Base.  And, 1.8 miles in another direction from our home was old "downtown" Clinton and the home of Mary Surratt, the subject of the movie.  Clinton used to have the name of Surrattsville and was changed following the "trial" of Mary Surratt.  I highly recommend seeing this movie, its an extraordinary accounting of history (the murder of president Abraham Lincoln and the following trial of Mary Surratt as a conspirator) and in my opinion a study of yet another case of falsely accused and wrongly convicted.  But then, go see the movie and you decide!!

Growing up in Clinton I attended Surrattsville Elementary, Junior High and High School.  I did not graduate from SHS as we spent my 10th grade year in Florida, then back to Maryland for most of 11th and on to Albuquerque for my Senior year.  I kept in contact with my friends I grew up with and they made sure I had a yearbook for each of the three high school years plus I  was invited to graduation which I wouldn't have missed for the world (although, as an observer).  It was always interesting and a mystery to me why they would rename the city but keep the schools named after the Surratt family.  As a child I understood the Mary Surratt story as follows: 

  • Mary Surratt was the first women hung in the United States.  She helped John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Lincoln.  He had hurt his leg and came to Mary Surratt for help, she took him to Dr. Samuel Mudd and assisted Dr. Mudd in patching up his leg.  The story goes, she did not know she was helping a criminal but that didn't matter they hung her anyway.

Above is the Surratt house.  For all my years living in Clinton it was boarded up, with an historic marker out front (and considered haunted).  Now it is a museum.  Back in the day, it served as the Surratt's home, an inn with a tavern and the local post office.

Below is the boarding house that Mary Surratt owned and ran.  It was in Washington DC and the location where the conspiracy was allegedly hatched.

Over my many years since growing up when somebody asked me where I grew up I'd tell them the Clinton/Surrattsville story (the child's version above).  And of course they had never  heard of it.  Until NOW and  NOW that I've seen the movie (which is historically accurate) I know the story to be different and definitely more complicated.  As you can imagine, the story has peaked my interest for many reasons.  Mary Surratt always claimed she was innocent.  And after watching her hoax of a trial and reading further of the withholding of evidence I recognize a poignant juxtaposition between Mary Surratt's case and my own, as I am sure there is with any case supporting a wrongful conviction.

Based on the movie and an account of the court proceedings I have made a comparison below.  Amazing how 150 years just dissolves when looking at the impact of corruption and deception within the justice system.
  • Both Mary Surratt and I claimed innocence from the start and throughout the proceedings.
  • Mary Surratt was perceived as having too much information and not coming forth.  In my case I did have too much information related to my ex-client's divorce and he needed to destroy my credibility.
  • Our constitutional rights were violated - both cases are lacking in due process.  In my case those violations were outlined in my previous blog whereas Mary Surratt's were discussed in the movie and primarily relate to civilians being tried by military tribunals.  That very issue was pending in the Supreme Court during the conspiracy trials.
  • Manufactured testimony by several witnesses.  Ironically, one of the men who falsely testified against Mary Surratt was Louis Weichmann.  In my own case the computer forensic expert, John Weichmann, was right with us throughout the pretrial hearings, but in my trial he changed his story and was used to neutralize my claim of the computer and its exculpatory evidence.
  • Withheld exculpatory evidence.  In Mary Surratt's case it was the diary of John Wilkes Booth.  In my own case it was the computer files, accounts payable records and bank account Internet access log.
  • The appearance of underhanded deals for those falsely testifying.  In the case of Mary Surratt those deals have been identified.  In my case, the Motion in Limine is blatant and other deals appear to exist.

It's time for us to insist that prosecution no longer enjoy absolute immunity but become accountable, otherwise they will continue to walk all over our Constitutional Rights and nobody is safe in this country.  In the case of Mary Surratt it was the military tribunal benefiting from immunity.  Current day prosecutorial absolute immunity has come about in recent years as discussed in this "Grits for Breakfast" blog posting.  As a voter it is so important you are aware of malicious prosecution and let your representatives hear from you, otherwise you and everybody else in this country are unprotected and the abuse of power goes unchecked.  The founding principles of this country and our U.S. Constitution must be upheld.  The Constitution is not a political tool as some have called it, it is a safeguard put in place by our founding fathers to prevent the tyranny they experienced in England and the very reason for colonizing in America.

For those of you who have seen the movie, you may enjoy these follow ups on the lives of some of the main characters and other small tidbits:
  • John Surratt (son of Mary Surratt) - who was in Elmira, New York at time of assassination, fled to Canada, then on to Europe.  He was captured in Alexandria.  He stood trial in a civilian court, the jury could not agree on the verdict - it was 8 to 4 in favor of an acquittal.  The Judge declared a mistrial.  The prosecutors did not ask for another trial.  By August 1968, Surratt was free.  He married and had seven children.  He taught school and occasionally lectured on his relationship with John Wilkes Booth.
  • Anna Surratt (daughter of Mary Surratt) - had several children.  Four years following Mary Surratt's execution Anna was able to have her mother's body moved to a proper grave.
  • Joseph Holt (chief prosecutor) - became a recluse. "He came to believe that the legal process used to try the conspirators - the military commission - wasn't legal after all."  Not only was Holt chief prosecutor in the conspiracy trials, he was also legal advisor to the tribunal, "impartially" advising them as to same trials (a conflict of interest).  When the trials were over Holt was accused of keeping evidence from the defense and the plea for clemency (prepared by five members of the tribunal) from the President.  One piece of evidence (held by the FBI today) that was notably missing from the trial was John Wilkes Booth's diary.  It was proven that Holt had it prior to the trials.  The diary would have been a key piece of evidence for the defendants.
  • President Andrew Johnson went through an impeachment trial in his second term.  The diary of John Wilkes Booth was used in the trial against Johnson.  There are several missing pages from the diary which have never been found.
  • Andrews Air Force Base is built on what used to be part of Surratt's land.  I think they got it for a steal!
  • In the year following the trials and executions, the Supreme Court decision (Ex part Milligan) held that American civilians could not be tried by a military tribunal. 


  1. How very interesting, Audrey.

    Sam and I will see that movie soon. .... and we'll think of you! (Well, we often do!!!)


  2. Very interesting! Not being familiar with this history, my question is this: What became of Dr. Mudd? Was he hung along with his female "conspirator"?
    Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment, which states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
    Women's suffrage did not end with the right to vote, as we are still not seen as equal in the eyes of the law...even now almost a century later. The good ole' boy mentality still sadly exists, as plainly seen in your trial.
    Such parallels to Mary Surratt!
    Thanks for piquing my interest. I must see the movie!

  3. As it turned out...Mary Surratt did not help Booth to get to Dr. Mudd, instead it was David Herold. Mudd did fix Booth's broken leg and allowed the two men to stay about 12 hours at his country home. There were 8 people tried (7 men and 1 woman(Mary)). Three men were hung along side Mary Surratt. Their names were George Atzerodt, David Herold and Lewis Powell. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life, but only served 4 years because he made "outstanding efforts" in prison when helping with a Malaria outbreak. Dr. Mudd missed the death penalty by 1 vote. To this day Dr. Mudd's descendents are fighting in the courts to clear his name.

    By the way, Mary Surratt also missed the death penalty. The tribunal was made up of 9 Union officers...5 voted against the death penalty for her. But were made to change their vote (by Edwin Stanton - Secretary of State) and told to then issue a clemency petition to President Andrew Johnson which would keep her from hanging. These 5 men signed a clemency request (Hunter, Kautz, Foster, Ekin and Tompkins) but it was not delivered to the President, as promised.

    Of the three other men tried: Samuel Arnold was sentenced to life, Michael O'Laughlen was sentenced to life and Edman Spangler was sentenced to 6 years.

    Go see the movie! It's really done well. The good ole' boy network is clearly demonstrated, and, YES, it still exists as reflected in my own case. I like to sum it up as "those who have, and those who don't". Its all about power and money.

  4. Hey Audrey, we (The Team) are going to wait for it to hit the dollar show and then buy 20 to 50 tickets to give away in the name of history and the prevention of it from repeating itself.

    We will have only one requirement of the movie goer - *take time to tell us what you thought about the movie. If it's ok, we would like to share their thoughts here at WUF? Thanks again for another thought provoking post and as usual we look forward to many more. Thanks.

  5. That's a GREAT idea "Team". I would be honored to post their thoughts in WUF blog. And for that matter I'd love to hear from anybody else right now who has seen the movie and has any reactions or thoughts as a result of seeing it. With all that is going on with The Innocence Project and Project: Not Guilty and the growing awareness among the public at large I can't think of a more timely bring home the impact of malicious prosecution.

  6. I started wondering if this is where the term, "your name is mud" comes from; referring to Dr. Mudd. Here's a link for what I found.

  7. We don't always get to see every film released in the US over here, but I hope this one makes it across the pond because it looks really interesting. Great blog post too! :)

  8. I hope it does make it to the UK. It is quite a study. If not, you'll just have to come visit us for some movie time!