In 1864 Washington, one has to be careful with talk of secession. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy, like Mrs. Surratt. A widow who runs a small boarding house, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he s not escorting veiled spies, he s inviting home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage. But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Based on the true history of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.
Hanging Mary is a wonderfully deep, thought-provoking book which transports you back to 19th century Washington and walks you through the months leading up to the Lincoln Assassination, the assassination itself and, finally, the dreadful aftermath. More than a novel, Hanging Mary allows you to experience the lives of the men and women caught up, however unwittingly, in the conspiracies of John Wilkes Booth.
As the title suggests, the eponymous heroine, Mary Surratt pays the ultimate price for her southern sympathies. One of the 2 narrators, Mary tells the story of how her respectable boarding house and its residents were caught up in the plot to kill the president.
The other narrator is Mary’s boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, a young woman who sees Mary as a surrogate mother. A spectator, rather than a conspirator, Nora watches the unravelling of the lives of those in the boarding house. Caught up in the aftermath, but unable to desert her former landlady, she bears witness to the events as they unfold. Between them, Mary and Nora, reveal the story of the plot to kidnap Lincoln, which eventually led to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre. We watch the comings and goings at the boarding house, are introduced to the dashing actor, John Wilkes Booth, and to Mary’s own son, John H Surratt.
As the story develops we experience the fear of not knowing what will happen, of being imprisoned and of not knowing what is happening in the wider world as the tale moves inexorably to its conclusion.
Nora: ….Mr Wilson came to our room. “Collect your things, Miss Fitzpatrick. You’re to be released, and your father is waiting to take you home.”
“What about the others, sir?”
“The orders concern only you, miss”
I embraced Anna. “They’ll free you and your mother soon, I just know it. They’re investigating and realizing that we’re innocent of all this.”
“I hope so.”
Brushing my eyes I left the dejected Anna behind, I followed Mr Wilson to the office where I had been searched. There my father was pacing around. “Nora!” He took me into his arms. “My darling child, I have been frantic with worry.”
“And she’s safe and sound, just as I told you,” Mr Wilson said. “Can we give you a ride in the ambulance? It’s a dreary day, as you know.”
“Thank you, but I prefer to take my daughter home myself,” my father said stiffly.
You cannot read this book without being touched by Mary’s story. It draws you in, takes hold and refuses to let you go. By the climax of the trial, it was impossible to put the novel down; I read late into the night, feeling that witnessing the end of Mary’s journey was an obligation that had to be seen through. The words paint images in your mind that are vivid, at times horrifying, but which let you know that you are witnessing history and a brutal justice.
The book stays with you for days afterwards, thinking of the dignity of the woman who faced her fate with as much stoicism as she could muster. The novel reminds you of the humanity and compassion of those who stuck by Mary in her time of need; those who supported and helped her and tried to obtain a reprieve, even though they didn’t know her.
Susan Higginbotham has used her extensive research skills to recreate life in 1860s Washington. The book is full of little tidbits of information which will amaze the modern reader; such as that petitioners could walk straight into the White House and ask to see the president (can you imagine that?). The locations are described in vivid detail; down to the graffiti on the prison walls and the crowds outside the White House during the president’s speech. You find yourself immersed, not only in the story, but in the heart of Washington DC itself; in the social life and the politics and in the death throes of the Civil War itself.
The strength of this book, however, is in the characters. Mary Surratt is a sympathetic heroine, trying to make it through life as best she can after her late husband had wasted away most of their money. She is caught between supporting her son, an active sympathiser of the South, and protecting her daughter, Anna. Her all-too-human trait of going with the flow, and her failure to recognise the dangers surrounding the plotters, draws her into the edges of the conspiracy, but how much she actually knew, and whether she committed treason, is open to interpretation.
John Wilkes Booth comes across as a smooth-talking, gallant charmer, who tends to know the right thing to say. It’s easy to imagine how his swarthy, confident manner could draw Mary into his conspiracy, to make her believe she is just being helpful, but doing nothing wrong. However, Booth’s refusal to be taken alive meant anyone associated with him was caught up in the web of conspiracy, and left Mary with no one to attest to her level of involvement – or lack thereof.
The author has used the memoirs of those involved, court transcripts and newspaper reports in order to recreate Mary Surratt’s life as faithfully as possible. Telling the human side of the story the book takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, with moving and powerful imagery. But it is well worth the disturbed sleep, to be able to experience such a wonderful, thought-provoking, poignant story.
This is a book not to be missed and a story that needed telling – I can’t recommend it highly enough. The language, history, the personal stories – even the locations – all combine to make this novel a unique piece of literature and an experience in itself.
Susan Higginbotham‘s meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog, History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham, and owns a bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Apex, North Carolina, with her family.
Pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.