What Happened To Those Who Conspired To Kill Lincoln

Host Liane Hansen speaks with writer Anthony Pitch about his new book They Have Killed Papa Dead!: The Road to Ford's Theater, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance. Pitch talks about how President Lincoln's assassination conspirators were tried by a controversial military tribunal, not a civilian court, and how the conditions of their confinement were so harsh that one tried to commit suicide.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. His life and his death continue to fascinate us. Just two blocks from NPR's headquarters in Washington, there's a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. Today, at 604 8th Street Northwest, you can pick up wonton soup and orange chicken. In 1865, as the Civil War ended, this building played a major role in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Historian Anthony Pitch writes about it in his new book, "They Have Killed Papa Dead!" He also includes it on the historic walking tours he gives.

(Soundbite of walking tour)

Mr. ANTHONY PITCH (Writer, Historian): In 1865, there are quite a few boarding houses here, two- and three-story red brick buildings mostly, which were very popular in Lincoln's time. And we're in front of one of those boarding houses that was rented by a principal character in the Lincoln assassination saga, Mrs. Mary Surratt, a widow. And she lived here with her daughter, Anna and her son, John frequently stayed here. And this is a place where John Wilkes Booth visited very often to see some of the people here recruited for the assassination to be as co-conspirators. So, this is where Ruth and others plotted harm to the president. When Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln, Johnson described this place as the nest where the egg was hatched.

HANSEN: Historian Anthony Pitch is now in the studio with us. It's nice to see you again.

Mr. PITCH: Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: The plaque on the house says, believed to have plotted the kidnap of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Surratt was the first woman to be hanged because she was believe to have taken part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Was Mary Surratt innocent?

Mr. PITCH: Many people still subscribe to that. I don't, but I think that the conclusive evidence was what was found in 1977.

HANSEN: And what was that?

Mr. PITCH: Well, that one of the conspirators had said that she was into it, and at that time, another conspirator had said she was in deep as we are. Had I been on the jury, it would be a very difficult thing to decide. But if I'd had the available evidence uncovered in 1977, I would convict.

HANSEN: Yet it's hard to believe that all of these people were in her house and she didn't know what was going on.

Mr. PITCH: Yes, that's another circumstantial part of it. She did meet with Booth on the day of the assassination. He gave her things to take to her tavern, south of Washington. There was very strong evidence that she took that and that she asked the man that she gave it to if the shooting iron's ready, referring to the weapons. It's like a JFK assassination. We will not know, I don't think, ever precisely what happened the same as Lincoln.

HANSEN: Yeah, it's the kind of the lone gunman versus the conspiracy theory.

Mr. PITCH: Yes.

HANSEN: Now, John Wilkes Booth had hated Lincoln from the beginning. He had this whole scheme that he wanted to kidnap Lincoln, take him to Richmond, Virginia and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. How did that plot turn into an assassination?

Mr. PITCH: About a month before the assassination, they were going to kidnap Lincoln on his way north of Washington. And they began to take him off to Richmond and exchange him for captured Confederates. That was the achilles heel. They didn't have the manpower to match the manpower of the North. They were all set to pounce, and Booth went ahead and he learned Lincoln was not going to the theater. So, he didn't actually go to the place where they expected to kidnap him. And then it evolved into the assassination.

HANSEN: The conspirators were brought before a military tribunal and not a civil jury. Why did it end up a military trial?

Mr. PITCH: The main reason is that in the military trial, to convict, they only have to have a simple majority to convict and a two thirds majority to hang. In a civil trial, there had to be unanimity amongst the jurors. That would have been almost impossible to achieve in Washington in Lincoln's time because Washington D.C. was split between devotees of the Union and ardent supporters of the South. And if they'd drawn them from ordinary civilians, I don't think they would ever have got a jury that could agree unanimously on a verdict.

HANSEN: But here is the Union winning the war, and again, America is in the spotlight, and America's system of democracy could actually be called in to question because of...

Mr. PITCH: It was.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. PITCH: It was vociferously attacked not only by Lincoln's first attorney general - he called the military commission unlawful. He said, we are a government of lords and we don't have to be afraid of it.

HANSEN: Yes, talk a little bit about that because the conspirators who were arrested, they were treated extremely harshly.

Mr. PITCH: For six weeks, they had the canvas hoods pulled tightly over their heads and tied tightly around their necks. There was a slit to breathe and to eat. And the idea was that they would suffer unforgivingly. Two months before the verdict was pronounced, they were still each on their cells, clamped to these irons - double-ironed ankles and handcuffs. By the time the prison doctor went round, he did his daily rounds, but then when six weeks were up, one of the man grabbed a metal ball chained to his ankle and started to pound his head in a suicide bid. And the guard rushed in and unfastened it and took it out, and he pleaded with the superiors to allow him to remove these hoods and they were removed and the doctor said, unless you let them out into fresh air, he said the secretary of war is going to have, quote, "a lot of lunatics on his hands," and the doctor described it as a sweat bath to the head.

HANSEN: Was Mary Surratt treated as badly?

Mr. PITCH: No. In deference to her gender, she was neither shackled nor handcuffed nor was she hooded.

HANSEN: Her son, John, who was indeed involved in the conspiracy, he managed to not only escape but served the pope in Rome?

Mr. PITCH: Yes. John Surratt, by Machiavellian means, managed to get a passport pretending to be somebody else. He got it from the Canadian government and he was in Washington on the night of the assassination. He escaped to Europe to Rome and he joined the papal forces and this was the time when the pope's power was crumbling. And amongst the things that the ministry reported back to Washington,was that some of the pope's closest confidants had said that the pope is considering asylum in America.

HANSEN: So, was in then, the Pope's interest to make sure that John Surratt...

Mr. PITCH: I think that this may well have influenced the papal authorities to surrender John Surratt to the American authorities. They brought him back two years after the assassination. They tried him in the civil court, and the judge himself was so biased, he said because John Surratt had once been a seminarian, he couldn't possibly be guilty of what they charged him with.

HANSEN: And yet...

Mr. PITCH: And then he changed his tune and some of the people in the jury box did not believe what the judge was saying, and there was - the jury was split, and he was freed. Many people were upset, but they were unanimous in being overjoyed that he had been tried according to the laws of the country.

HANSEN: Historian Anthony Pitch. His new book is called, "They Have Killed Papa Dead!: The Road to Ford's Theater, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Revenge." Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. PITCH: Thank you very much.

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