Hello fellow researchers and connoisseurs of all things historical. Kate here, filling in for Dave who is currently online grave hunting.
On June 16th, I gave a first person presentation on Mary Surratt for the Calvert County Historical Society in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Titled Beware the People Whistling, the presentation is a firsthand look at Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted of helping bring about the death of President Abraham Lincoln. As she languishes, locked away in Washington City’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, contemplating her fate, Mary Surratt recalls memories of her family, the choices she made throughout the bloody American Civil War, and the man who brought her and her fellow prisoners to ruin, John Wilkes Booth.
Beware the People Whistling is a play on the line “beware the people weeping” from Herman Melville’s “The Martyr,” a poem about the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the poem, Melville stated that the convicted conspirators were to beware of the Union (the people weeping) since they would decide their fates. As the conspirators were imprisoned in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, another man imprisoned there, Burton Harrison, recalled regularly hearing a melancholy whistle coming from the cell below his. That cell was occupied by conspirator Samuel Arnold. The title of this presentation, therefore, turns the poem on its head to imply that the people whistling (the imprisoned conspirators) had power too. In fact, the death of Mary Surratt turned the tables on the Union government, who suddenly found themselves attacked by newfound defenders of her innocence.
Please note that this presentation is a historical fiction portrayal of Mary Surratt, not a completely accurate account of her time in prison. While working on my speech for the 2016 Surratt Conference, I studied Mrs. Surratt, her imprisonment, and eventual execution. That speech was a factual, in-depth analysis of the circumstances surrounding her sentencing. I then used what I learned researching that speech to create the framework for this dramatic portrayal. I condensed the timeline to fit everything I wanted to portray and most of all, I added material about Mary Surratt’s time in prison that may not be supported with facts. In short, I took some creative license in order to portray Mary Surratt the way I wanted to. Some of you may disagree with my sympathetic slant on Mary Surratt, and that is perfectly alright. In the end, this piece is more about trying to convey the thoughts and emotions of Mary Surratt, which we will never truly know. I hope you enjoy it.
All the best in your historic endeavors,