Catholic conspiracy to kill Lincoln?

The film “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford, highlighting the trial of Mary Surratt for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, has a Catholic angle. 

She was a devout Catholic. More than a few Americans at that time believed that Lincoln’s murder resulted from a Catholic plot. 

Coincidences fit together to create this very far-fetched tale. First of all, anti-Catholicism was quite strong in that day. Bigotry against Catholics had reached a high point not long before with the “Know Nothing” movement. This movement was losing ground in the 1860s, but helping to keep it alive was the arrival of increasingly great numbers of Catholic immigrants, especially Irish. Many Americans saw the Irish not as victims of ongoing British oppression but untrustworthy rebels against legitimate political authority. Finally, still much alive was the old Protestant fear that the pope wanted to rule the world, America included. 

The anti-Catholic reasoning led to this conclusion. If secession succeeded, the pope could control Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been educated in a Catholic school and once had wanted to become a Catholic. 

Davis had sent to Rome a former U.S. diplomat, Dudley Mann, from Virginia, to seek formal papal recognition of the Confederacy. No official recognition came. However, Blessed Pope Pius IX was gracious to Mann and addressed Davis by the title of “president of the Confederate States of America.” He probably was just being polite, but many said that he was acknowledging Davis as heading a de facto government. For many, this confirmed that the pope supported the South’s effort to create a new nation. 

Military defeats finally ended the Confederacy. Davis was captured. But all might not be lost, so ran the Catholic conspiracy theory. The Confederacy could rise from the embers of defeat, if Lincoln were out of the way, and confusion and indecision swept the Union. 

So, it was charged that the pope inspired an assassination plot. Jesuits at Georgetown engineered everything because, after all, Jesuits vow obedience to the pope. 

Providing the most fuel to the rumors was the fact that many accused of plotting against Lincoln were said to be Catholic or actually were Catholic. 

Mary Surratt was one example. So was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician who treated John Wilkes Booth for the leg fracture incurred as he fled the scene of the assassination. Yet another conspirator, David E. Herold, also was a Catholic. Michael O’Laughlin, an immigrant from Ireland, was presumed to be a Catholic. George Atzerodt had been assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson. He got cold feet. He was not a Catholic, but he was an immigrant, with an Eastern European name. 

Booth, never known for religious piety, twice attended Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Bryantown, Md., in the months before the assassination. Had he converted? No proof has been found, but many charged that he had become a Catholic. 

John Surratt, Mary Surratt’s son, a former seminarian, said to have been involved in killing Lincoln, evaded arrest by fleeing to Quebec, where priests sheltered him. Escaping to Europe, he was hired by a unit of the papal guards. 

At Mary Surratt’s trial, three priests testified for her as character witnesses. When she was sentenced, one of these priests, Father Jacob Walter, went to President Andrew Johnson to plead for clemency for her. At the execution itself, Father Walter and another priest stood with Surratt, obviously to offer spiritual comfort, but many saw in these priests’ presence their disregard for the crime that had been committed. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.