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Conspirator - Mary Surratt - Preface

Conspirator - Mary Surratt (Illustration) Civil Wars Geography Trials American History American Presidents Famous Historical Events Film Social Studies Nineteenth Century Life Crimes and Criminals

Like other newspapers, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper covered events surrounding President Lincoln's assassination and the "Conspiracy Trial" which followed soon after. In this sketch, from Frank Leslie's, we see an artist's depiction of "Mrs. Surratt in Her Cell, Attended by Her Spiritual Advisors." Online via the Library of Congress.

 

His irrevocable decision
weighed heavily on him.

Comments about Joseph Holt Judge
Advocate General of the Army 
Recorder/Chief Prosecutor - Lincoln Conspiracy Trial

It might have been a rush to judgment, but on the 30th of June, 1865, Joseph Holt thought he had the facts.  A former police officer, John Lloyd, had testified he knew something about the people who’d planned to kill President Lincoln.

He especially knew something - or so he said - about his landlady (Mary Surratt) and her son (John).  Lloyd testified Mary had alerted him that carbines - hidden at the Surratt farm where Lloyd was a tenant - had to be readied for pick-up.  Those guns, he claimed, were ear-marked for John Wilkes Booth (a famous actor) who came by the Surratt farm around midnight on April 14, 1865. 

Although witnesses said Lloyd was more drunk than usual, when the alleged conversation with Mrs. Surratt took place, a nine-man military commission trying and judging eight conspirator-defendants must have thought him credible.  On June 30, they convicted Mary Surratt and sentenced her to death by hanging.

After the scaffolding was erected, and the noose tightened, Mrs. Surratt died in front of a gathered crowd.  It was only then - after it was too late to save her - that  Joseph Holt began to second-guess himself. 

Perhaps, among other things, he regretted the dual roles he’d had during the proceedings.  How could anyone serve as chief prosecutor (trying to convict the defendants) and legal advisor to the commission (trying to impartially advise the judges) at the same time, in the same trial?

That obvious conflict wasn’t the only issue which troubled many trial observers.  From the inception of the process, people asked:  

Why is a civilian defendant being tried in a court martial instead of in a court of law?

 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Apr 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Nov 09, 2016


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