A Plot, A Gunshot & A Hangman’s Knot

May 31, 2011

The Conspirator, a film directed by the venerated Robert Redford and released April 2011, treats the military tribunal conviction of Mary Surratt for conspiring in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  For those unfamiliar with the story, Mrs. Surratt was proprietor of the boarding house frequented (and sometimes lived in) by John Wilkes Booth, and she was the mother of John Surratt, a Booth confederate and alleged conspirator.  Tried by a military tribunal with more lenient rules of evidence, no jury of peers, and no presumption of innocence, Mrs. Surratt’s case reached a conclusion fairly described as pre-determined.  She was convicted and hanged in 1865.  Mary Surratt holds the unenviable distinction of being the first woman executed by the United States government.

In the aftermath of Mary Surratt’s execution, questions were raised regarding military authority over civilians.  Ultimately, these questions would be answered by a case before the United States Supreme Court in 1866.  The case, Ex Parte Milligan (1866 WL 9434 subscription required), held that martial law was acceptable “on the theatre of active military operations” where civil courts do not function.  However, where civil courts remain in operation, civilians may not be tried by military tribunal; they must be allowed to avail themselves of the courts and of the safeguards of the U.S. Constitution, “a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace.”

Ex Parte Milligan is hailed as a landmark case for its protection of civil rights.  The story of Mary Surratt, once obscure, is gaining in popularity and spawning debate of her guilt or innocence.  Readers interested in reviewing the Milligan case may access it on Westlaw.  You may also find other cases and secondary sources pertaining to military topics in the MIL-TP (Military Texts and Periodicals) and MJ (Military Justice Cases)* databases.   And for you film buffs, take a minute to peruse Roger Ebert’s review of The Conspirator.

Other Sources / Research


*An interesting case NOT found in the MJ database (coverage begins in 1951), does provide some clues as to where to find documents related to the Surratt trial.  See 27 F.Cas. 1367:

 The trial of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt and others for the murder of Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, was by military commission sitting in Washington, D. C., in May, 1865. The trial of John H. Surratt was by the criminal court of the District of Columbia, in June, 1867.

As decisions by the military courts and the courts of the District of Columbia after their reorganization under the act of March 3, 1863 (12 Stat. 764), are not included in this series, the reader is referred to the pamphlet reports of these trials, which can be found at many of the larger libraries. The trial of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt and others it sometimes denominated the ‘Conspiracy Trials.’
For related Journals and Law reviews, try: 

Westlaw Database: jlr

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