Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Catholic Plot to Kill Lincoln: The Movie

Mary Surratt
I went the other evening to see The Conspirator, the Robert Redford film on Mary Surratt and the Lincoln assassination.  Some months ago (February 17, 2011) I did a blog entry on Catholic involvement in the plot that took the life of our sixteenth president.  District of Columbia and Southern Maryland Catholics overwhelmingly were pro-Confederacy and anti-Lincoln.  (Alleged) conspirators Mary Surratt and her son, John, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, and  Dr. Samuel Mudd were all Catholics.  So too, by some accounts, was John Wilkes  Booth; his sister was a convert and said that Booth too had converted to Catholicism, though it seems that he was not a committed practitioner of the faith.   
The film, quite good historically (though not meticulous in detail) is clear about Mary Suratt’s religious affiliation but her faith itself is not particularly sustaining to her, much less an organizing principle of her life.  She almost constantly fingers her rosary and (for a Catholic) she is amazingly adept at quoting scripture.  In fact she is perhaps a little too facile with biblical quotes for credibility given the piety of the times. The movie shows her being attended by one priest, Father Jacob Walter; in fact there were two—both Jesuits from Gonzaga—the other being Fr.B.F. Wiget.   Nor does the movie let you know that her Catholic faith could have worked against her. To the contrary—it implies that her defense attorney, Captain Frederick Aiken of the United States Army—tried to portray her as a devout Christian woman in an attempt to gain sympathy for her.  But anti-Catholicism ran strong in mid-nineteenth century America.  Not all agreed that Catholics were Christians—indeed literature such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs portrayed Catholics as the murders of the “Saints”—the true Christians. The Confederate sympathies of so many Maryland and District of Columbia Catholics would have left Mary Surratt vulnerable to guilt by association.    A French-Canadian former priest, Charles Chiniquy alleged that the Lincoln assassination was indeed a collaborative plot between Pope Pius IX and the Jesuits—though these allegations, in printed form, came twenty years after Mrs. Surratt had been hanged.  That only demonstrates the tenacity of anti-Catholic prejudice among certain sectors of the American people.  
Father Walter, the priest in the movie, seems somewhat complicit himself in the plot—at least in so far as he knows where John Surratt, Mary’s son who was a friend of Booth, the one who had invited him into the Surratt boarding house, was hiding.  (This is one of the historical flaws.  The movie implies that Surratt was hiding out in the woods not far from DC while, in fact, he was hiding out—under Catholic auspices—in Canada.  He would go to Europe and serve in the Papal army before being arrested by American agents in Alexandria Egypt).  All in all, it is a good movie and well worth seeing. 

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