Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bad Woman Lesson

Turns out I spent my formative years in a hotbed of assassins.

So I learned at today's Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society where David Stewart talked about "Family of Assassins: The Surratts of Maryland." You know, the family we all learned in social studies class had aided and abetted John Wilkes Booth after he did the deed.

The usual greatest generation crowd was there with the predictable snorer in the back, the only concessions to Halloween being the VHS president referring to himself as the "chief executive goblin" and the woman next to me wearing orange pumpkin socks.

Stewart, a lawyer before he was an author of histories, said he'd been inspired to write his first work of non-fiction, "The Lincoln Deception," when he read a paragraph that intrigued him while doing research.

In a 40-year old book, he read that the prosecutor in the Lincoln assassination trial had alluded to "Mary Surratt's terrible secret" on his deathbed.

Since the gentler sex are not known for their assassination prowess, Stewart had been intrigued by the idea of a mother/son crime team.

Mary's was very southern family despite living in Maryland and when she married John Surratt, they opened a tavern/inn that aided Confederate spies during the war by taking in mail and forwarding it to help the cause.

It was easy enough to do once John became postmaster and the area around the tavern became known as Surrattsville.

What I learned today was that Surrattsville is in Prince George's county which is where I grew up. How is it no social studies teacher ever told me that?

Well, it was until after the assassination, when it was changed to Clinton, he told us.

Laughter erupted in the audience and Stewart said, "I didn't know that would get a laugh." Clearly he didn't know the VHS audience then.

I'm sure he did know he'd get a laugh when he began telling us about how the Surratts moved to Washington D.C., showing a slide of the still-intact building.

"It now houses an Asian fusion restaurant," he said, gesturing at the image. "It still looks exactly the same as it did then...except for the dim sum table inside."

Humor aside, I learned that the Surratts and Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln, bring him to Richmond and ransom him to get Confederate prisoners of war back.

Their attempt was an epic fail when Lincoln didn't show up so they decided to figure out a way to kill him instead, along with the VEEP, the secretary of war, and general Ulysses Grant.

The member of the gang assigned to kill the VP got drunk and chickened out, the secretary of war got some stab wounds and Grant?

Well, he was tired and went to the beach with his fam, thus making it tough to kill him when he was gone.

But Booth shot Lincoln and got away for eleven days before being discovered in a barn, where he was shot and the barn set ablaze.

The other eight conspirators went on trial with Mary being one of the four who got hanged.

And, remember, we weren't hanging women back in those days, so clearly the evidence didn't look good for the old broad.

Her son John, part of the group of plotters, managed to escape to Canada and then to Europe, leaving Mom to pay the price.

That's a pretty lousy son.

Stewart ended by talking about how different fiction and non-fiction writing are.

"Most of history is silence," he explained. "If nobody writes it down, we don't know about it. This was my opportunity to write the things not said."

So what had he concluded was Mary Surratt's terrible secret?

"I couldn't possibly tell you what I concluded Mary's secret was," he grinned. "My publisher would kill me. But I hope you have a chance to find out."

Probably not given my depleted book budget, but I do have a suggestion.

I think every Prince George's county schoolchild needs to learn about Mary Surratt, the boardinghouse owner who "kept the nest that hatched the egg of assassination" and was the first woman executed by the U.S. government.

Sure would have made fourth grade social studies more interesting.

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