Wednesday, April 15, 2015

John Surratt - The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away by Michael Schein

John Surratt
Michael Schein has created a page-turner, political thriller detailing the espionage activities of Confederate spy and courier, John Surratt.  Mr. Schein's account of Surratt's activities and complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is documented through an extensive list of footnotes and associated bibliography. The author is candid in revealing where there is some uncertainty about his conclusions.

The story of John Surratt begins with his education at St. Thomas manor and then to St. Charles College. At St. Charles met Louis J. Weichmann, who would first become his friend and then his "lifelong nemesis." When the Civil War began, John enlisted in the Confederate army and was sent for training as a courier.

This led to his eventual introduction by Dr. Samuel Mudd to Mr. John Wilkes Booth in December 1864. Booth revealed his plans to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him for ransom to release Confederate prisoners of war. In a 1870 lecture, Surratt admitted that he was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. The plan seemed to have the blessing of the Confederate government. If Davis consented to the plot to kidnap the president, Schein believes "that a plot to kidnap the President is tantamount to a plot to murder him." Surratt joined the plot that appears to have been in existence since August or September 1864. Booth referred to their plot against Lincoln by the code name, the "oil business."

Surratt recruited George Atzerodot to the group because of his knowledge of the Potomac River and the adjacent country in Maryland and Virginia.  The other members including those in the assassination plot: David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt. An attempt to capture the President in January failed. 

Surratt as a Papal Guard
Surratt denied any involvement with Lincoln's assassination and claimed he was in Elmira, NY. After the assassination, Surratt fled to Canada and reached Montreal on April 17, 1865. A Catholic priest in St. Liboire gave him sanctuary. Surratt remained in Canada while his mother was arrested, tried, and hanged for conspiracy. Former Confederate agents helped Surratt flee to Liverpool, England in September and he lived in the Church of the Holy Cross. From England, he traveled to Italy and enlisted, under an assumed name, in the Ninth Company of the Pontifical Zouave in the Papal States. An old friend recognized him and notified papal officials and the U.S. minister in Rome. On November 7, 1866, Surratt was arrested and sent to Velletri prison. He escaped and lived with the Garibaldians. Surratt traveled to Alexandria, Egypt where he was finally arrested by U.S. officials on November 23, 1866 and returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

Evidence suggests that “all three of the top Confederate leaders (Davis, Benjamin, and Seddon) provided active support to reconnoiter the kidnapping of Lincoln.” There is support that the Confederate leaders might have agreed to the assassination when the code name for Lincoln kidnapping was changed from “Complete Victory” to “Come Retribution” on February 1, 1865. When informed of Lincoln’s death on April 19, Davis responds with: “If it were to be done, it were better it were done well.” Davis told Breckinridge on April 21: “.. And if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton the job would then be complete.”

John Surratt on Trial

Surratt was tried in a civilian court in Maryland.  Supreme Court decision had declared the trial of civilians before military tribunals to be unconstitutional. Judge David Carter presided over Surratt's trial, and Edwards Pierrepont conducted the federal government's case against him. Surratt's lead attorney, Joseph Habersham Bradley, admitted Surratt's part in plotting to kidnap the President, but denied any involvement in the murder plot. After two months of testimony, Surratt was released after a mistrial; eight jurors had voted not guilty, four voted guilty. The statute of limitations on charges other than murder had run out, and Surratt was released on $25,000 bail. Schein carefully examines the trial including the many mistakes made by the prosecution.  To a modern day reader, the courtroom drama may be reminiscent of the O. J. Simpson where the defense attorneys

Michael Schein is an author, attorney, historian, lively speaker, and former professor of American Legal History. His historical nonfiction book, John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away, will be released in Spring 2015 by the History Publishing Company. His two historical novels are Bones Beneath Our Feet (2011), and Just Deceits: a Historical Courtroom Mystery (2008). Mr. Schein taught American Legal History at Seattle University Law School from 1988-2003, served on the speakers’ bureau of Humanities Washington, and is Director of LiTFUSE Poets’ Workshop. His poetry is supported by a grant from King County 4Culture, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in Vermont, Mr. Schein attended Reed College in Portland, University of Oregon Law School in Eugene, and now lives near Seattle.

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