Hollywood Highlights Lincoln Conspirator in Exhibit

Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:58pm

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment’s new exhibit spotlights the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — but with a distinctly Hollywood twist.

The museum’s temporary display offers film fans and history devotees a look at the props and costumes from Robert Redford’s newest movie, “The Conspirator,” the story of the only woman charged with plotting to kill Lincoln.

“The Conspirator” will be released on April 15, the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Robin Wright stars as Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others, including her son John Surratt, met to plan the assassinations. The film centers on the Union war hero and lawyer Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy), one of the lawyers who defends Mary Surratt before a military tribunal.

Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer, said she approached the American Film Co. about organizing an exhibition before filming even began. The producers loved the idea and decided to take charge and design the mini-show for the museum. 

The display is divided into three areas — or, in a more cinematic term, acts — focusing on crime, punishment and execution. Each act highlights props and items connected with the movie’s portrayal of Lincoln’s assassination, the capture of the conspirators and the hangings that followed.

“The producers were very hands-on and so passionate about this movie and getting the history out there,” Vaccarello said. “They said, ‘We want to have the best temporary exhibition you’ve ever had.’ They succeeded.”

Although the space is very small — just one room — an array of props are on display. In the first section, museum-goers can see several weapons featured in the movie, including an exact replica of the .44-caliber, single-shot Philadelphia Derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Lincoln.

The corner devoted to punishment sets up a re-created 1860s jail cell, complete with a life-size model showcasing what the conspirators wore during their incarceration. The final portion of the exhibit places the dress Wright wore for the execution scene (with a hooded head) in front of a blown-up historical photograph of the conspirators waiting for their hangings. A noose hangs above the costumed figure.

The museum is a great stop on any Lincoln tourist’s itinerary, Vaccarello said. Mary Surratt’s house at 604 H St. NW — now the site of Wok and Roll restaurant — is just a short walk away, and Ford’s Theatre is easily accessible as well. 

The exhibit, she noted, offers visitors the chance to reflect on this controversial moment in American history. The military commission had recommended Surratt’s death sentence be commuted, but President Andrew Johnson signed her death warrant and she was the first woman hanged by the U.S. government. Surratt maintained her innocence throughout her imprisonment and trial.

And one year after Surratt’s execution, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial of citizens before a military tribunal was unconstitutional. Her son John was later tried in a civilian court for the assassination plot, but he was not convicted.

“The exhibit’s not really about whether Mary was guilty or innocent,” Vaccarello said. 

For those searching for some insight into the story of Mary Surratt — or just wanting to see a little Hollywood magic — the temporary show runs until May.

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment is at 575 Seventh St. NW. Adult tickets, which also include admission to the other exhibits, cost $19.95 at the door or $17.95 online.