Movie on Lincoln assassination has second life in D.C. crime museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:25 PM

Hollywood producer Webster Stone entered the world of museum exhibition creation with the adrenaline rush he brings to his movies.

"We wanted to break it down just like a movie. There's the conspiracy. There's the attacks. There's the arrests," said Stone, standing by the product of his venture into static exhibitions. He quickly sails to a display case. "Here's the exact replica of the .44-caliber derringer Booth used. There's even the pineapple emblem on the side," said Stone, the producer of "The Negotiator" and "Gone in 60 Seconds."

Not a detail went unresearched for Stone's new movie, "The Conspirator," an action look at the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. How Hollywood treated those events is now part of a museum attraction. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment recently opened a small show about the movie and one of the story's most fascinating characters, Mary Surratt.

The exhibit focuses on eight people who became known as co-conspirators in Lincoln's death. Surratt was the only woman arrested and charged with conspiring to kill Lincoln, and she was the first woman executed by the federal government in the United States. Her role in "The Conspirator" is played by Robin Wright. Directed by Robert Redford, the cast includes James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Toby Kebell and Lewis Payne. It was filmed at Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, Ga., which Stone says is the city that most resembles 1860s Washington.

The museum's narrative follows the co-conspirators' imprisonment and trial and the execution of the four who were condemned. Props from the film are used: the dagger with which Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone, a guest in Lincoln's box at Ford's Theatre; the dress worn by Surratt in jail and on the gallows; the hood, ball and chain, and manacles worn by the prisoners; and the playbill for "Our American Cousin," the production that April night at Ford's.

One section concerns the execution and features a wall-size photo blowup of the scene. "Alexander Gardner was allowed to cover the execution at Fort McNair, and this picture belongs to the Library of Congress. This picture is 22 feet long and 12 feet high. It ought to give people a sense of being there," Stone said. "Look, the hangman tied seven knots for each man. He only tied five for Surratt because he didn't really think they would hang her."

The Scottish-born Gardner, a prominent Washington photographer, worked independently as well as with Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

Stone has a tough audience in Washington. Foremost, the site of Lincoln's assassination, Ford's Theatre, is only three blocks from the Museum of Crime and Punishment. In the theater's museum is the real Booth derringer. The national museums and archives are full of Lincoln materials. Lincoln scholars are mainstays on the lecture circuit, especially as more analysis is produced on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Yet, the show is a good example of the blending of the approaches of Hollywood and museums. And because the film had historic consultants, including military trial experts, this show benefits from some stern reality checks. The film is set for release April 15.

"This is a great second life for our materials," Stone said. "We hope people will see the exhibit, see the movie and then go back to the books by James Swanson and Doris Kearns Goodwin."

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