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The Hanging of Mary Surratt

Judicial murder and government dirty linen--Part Two

by Al Benson Jr.

The "trial" of Mary Surratt and the Lincoln conspirators is still something that is debated about. Was it a legal trial or not? Reverdy Johnson, Mrs. Surratt's first attorney, had contended that the military court that tried the conspirators was without proper authority to do so as long as the civil courts were sitting. This is something that was argued for nearly a century and I'll bet you could still get a heated debate going about it in some circles. In my opinion, Mr. Johnson was correct. The war was over and the civil courts in the Union were all functioning and intact, so there was no reason to try this as a military case. It has also been contended in some circles that, had the trial taken place in a civil court, Mrs. Surratt would have been exonerated.

Assistant Judge Advocate Bingham argued against this rationale and for what amounted to Stanton's rationale for a military trial: the "rebellion" itself was considered to be a gigantic conspiracy, ( a vast right-wing conspiracy?) with Jefferson Davis as the arch-conspirator. Lincoln, the Commander-in-Chief, had been assassinated by people directly connected to Davis and the Confederacy, and so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah. Current establishment historians are busily resurrecting this scenario. Theodore Roscoe in The Web of Conspiracy took note of historical opinion when he said "By and large, history's consensus is that Mrs. Surratt was not guilty as charged. Which is to say she knew nothing of the assassination plot and was in no way an active participant or intentional accessory. Did she carry messages from (John Wilkes) Booth to innkeeper Lloyd, and deliver to the Surrattsville tavern Booth's binoculars? Possibly, even probably. But she could have done so in all innocence, merely to oblige Mr. Booth. And even if one assumes she suspected some underground project were afoot, nothing in the trial evidence proved she knew the project involved an assassination strike. A few historians concede she may have known about the abduction plot. On the surface of it, such knowledge seems likely." In an article dealing with the authenticity of the Dahlgren Papers, historian Stephen Sears noted that: " the generally accepted rules of civilized warfare of the 1860s, the capture of the opposing head of state and his chief advisors was a legitimate wartime objective, and no doubt was discussed as openly in Richmond as it was in Washington. Assassination of civilian leaders, on the other hand, was regarded as beyond the pale." At least it was for Southern leaders. As for some of the Yankees, influenced by socialists from Europe, well, for some of them, the ends justified the means.

One of the two people chiefly responsible for testimony that was damaging to Mary Surratt was Louis Wiechmann, a government clerk who knew her son, John, and who lived at the Surratt boarding house. Lloyd Lewis, in The Assassination of Lincoln--History and Myth, wrote: "Except for two witnesses there was no case against Mrs. Surratt, but those two hanged her. One was John M. Lloyd...the other was a boarder in her own home, Louis J. Weichmann." Note the two different spellings of Wiechmann's last name. According to Roscoe: "Official records on Wiechmann are confusing. One might well believe them deliberately confused. In them his name is spelled at least five different ways. Dates are curiously juggled. Wiechmann's testimony is garbled, vaguely worded, often contradictory." And, on the other hand, Mrs. Surratt's lawyers felt Wiechmann was way too glib and too ready to hang former associates. Which one is the real Wiechmann?

And yet, Wiechmann may have testified as he did out of a certain amount of fear. Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M Hyman wrote in the standard work Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War that: "Weichmann, too, might very well have been accused of complicity in the plot, and two years later, at the trial of John Surratt, Lloyd not only contradicted some of the statements he had made at the conspiracy trial but admitted that he had been subjected to both promises and threats. That Weichmann was subjected to the same sort of intimidation by Stanton, in the private cross-examination, seems likely from the statement made by John T. Ford, owner of the celebrated theater. Ford, imprisoned with Lloyd and Weichmann, became convinced from what they told him that Mrs. Surratt was innocent and that the two witnesses had been coerced." Really! Would "our" government do such an underhanded thing? Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow???

When Weichmann testified at the trial of John Surratt in 1867 he said he had been "nervous" at the trial of the conspirators, and proceeded to contradict some of his former statements, "thereby putting Mrs. Surratt in a more favorable light." It was however, a little late for that to help Mrs. Surratt very much. But Roscoe has noted that: "At the second trial, which in some respects amounted to a rehearing of Mrs. Surratt's case, Louis Carland, a former customer at Ford's Theater, testified that Weichmann had told him in 1865 that if he had been 'let would have been quite a different affair with Mrs. Surratt than it was'" that his statements had been written out for him and that he had been threatened with prosecution as an accessory if he refused to swear to them." Weichmann, when examined again, denied he had ever made this confession, although he did admit talking with Mr. Carland. If this tale were false, one wonders what Mr. Carland would have had to gain by telling it.

Roscoe also observed that: "John W. Clampitt, one of Mrs. Surratt's lawyers, a number of years after the trial wrote that Weichmann, after testifying, had been stung with remorse because he had committed perjury in implicating Mrs. Surratt in Lincoln's murder. Certain 'authorities' of the War Department had threatened to prosecute him as an accomplice in the conspiracy against Lincoln if he refused to offer testimony. Weichmann claimed, according to Clampitt. Holt had rejected the first statement Weichmann had prepared with the remark that 'it was not strong enough,' whereupon, still under threat of prosecution, Weichmann had written a second and stronger statement, the substance of which he subsequently swore to on the witness stand. The man to whom Weichmann made this confession, wrote Clampitt, was refused permission to testify." Almost sounds as if Weichmann were indulged with a little "friendly persuasion" to say what the Judge Advocate and Mr. Stanton wanted him to say. And then, on his deathbed, Weichmann signed a statement saying that all he had said at the original conspiracy trial was really true after all. Will the real Louis Weichmann please stand up???

Judge Advocate Joseph Holt summed up the preconceived sentiment of the Yankee government when he said: "There have not been enough Southern women hanged in this war." Thus, the great compassion of the Yankee mindset was put on display for all the world to see--and it is this same "compassion" that we still live with today--thanks to the Lincoln administration. That this is the same mindset displayed by the socialists and Communists, both in Mr. Lincoln's government and in his armies is one of the overriding factors that caused Donnie Kennedy and myself to write Red Republicans and Lincoln's Marxists. People today need to be aware that this socialistic mindset is what the Lincoln administration gave us and that it has been passed down to us since that time.

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