UT Grads Produce Cliffhanger Documentary On The Plot To Kill Lincoln (Watch)

If you know nothing about the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government — an alleged conspirator in the Lincoln assassination — you’re likely to learn more soon. Robert Redford is coming out with a movie on her, The Conspirator, and a trio of Longhorns helped make the documentary that goes along with it.

The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln airs tonight on the National Geographic Channel. It focuses on Mary Surratt, who owned a boardinghouse where John Wilkes Boothe, her son Johnny, and others met and plotted to assassinate the president.

Surratt was a devout Catholic but a Confederate sympathizer, and her guilt remains debated to this day.

UT Radio-TV-Film grads David Tillman, BS ’04, and Jason Tobias, BS ’05, were integral to the documentary — Tillman as editor, Tobias as post-production supervisor, and both as producers.

Tillman’s high school friend, Butler School of Music graduate student Ethan Greene, composed the original score.

Although Tillman says he didn’t necessarily go into the project as a history buff, he gained an appreciation for archival research through the Library of Congress.

His most amazing find: photographs of Surratt’s hanging by Alexander Gardner, a famous photographer of the day. They were so detailed that by zooming in 100 times, Tillman could make out the expression on Surratt’s face through the black hood that the condemned woman wore — something that had never been seen without today’s technology.

Surratt had been sick before the hanging, Tillman learned, and she was so weak on her execution day that she had to be shielded from the sun by umbrellas to keep her from fainting.

“It was eerie to see someone who was about to die in a way that no one at that time could ever see it,” Tillman says. “You get a sense of this broken woman who really didn’t deserve what she got.”

Despite a military judge’s recommendation that her sentence be commuted to life in prison because of the widow’s age (42) and gender, as well as the pleas of her daughter, her priest, and her attorney, President Andrew Johnson signed Surratt’s death warrant. Johnson is reported to have said that she had “kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

Was Mary Surratt in on the assassination? Could she have stopped it? How much did she know? We may never learn for sure, but it’s making for fascinating cinema.


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