Webster Stone, a Hollywood producer, 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 final 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 Sixty Seconds.”
Not a detail went unresearched for Stone’s new movie, “The Conspirator,” an action look at the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and how Hollywood treated those events is now part 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 the imprisonment, trail and execution of eight people, who became known as the co-conspirators in Lincoln’s death. Surratt was the only woman arrested and charged with conspiring to kill Lincoln, and was the first woman executed by the federal government in the United States. Her role in “the Conspirator,” is played by Robin Wright. Others in the cast are James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Toby Kebell, Lewis Payne, all directed by Robert Redford. It was filmed at Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, which Stone says is the city that most resembles 1860s Washington.
At the museum the narrative follows the imprisonment, trial and execution. Props from the film are used: the dagger used by Booth to wound Maj. Henry Rathbone, a guest in Lincoln’s box; 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. “Those prison hoods were worn all the time so they wouldn’t be able to speak or hear,” said Stone.
One section covers the execution with its wall-size blow-up of the scene. “Alexander Gardner was allowed to cover the execution at Ft. 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. It will focus the 14-year-olds,” said Stone. “Look the hangman tied 7 knots for each man. He only tied five for Surratt because he didn’t really think they would hang her.”
Alexander worked with Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and independently.
Stone has a tough audience in Washington. Foremost, the site of Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre, is only three blocks away from the Crime and Punishment’s location. In the theatre’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 since 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.”