I have been waiting, and waiting for Susan Higginbotham's novel Hanging Mary to be released since I first heard about it last year. So imagine my complete joy when I found an early copy of Hanging Mary last week at my local Books a Million five days before the scheduled release. My eager anticipation for the novel was worth it. Hanging Mary is one of the best novels about the Civil War that I have read in years.
Hanging Mary tells the story of Mary Surratt and her involvement in John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. For those who are unfamiliar with the Lincoln conspiracy, Mary Surratt operated a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. that was frequented by John Wilkes Booth during the winter of 1864-1865. Mary's son, John Surratt, served as a courier for the Confederacy and was introduced to Booth. John Surratt became a valued member of the plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Booth hoped that by kidnapping the president, he could force the North to the bargaining table and win independence for the beleaguered Confederacy. Sometime after the fall of Richmond in April 1865, Booth abandoned scheme to kidnap Lincoln to assassinating the president and decapitating the government. John Surratt's involvement in the assassination has been open for debate for over a 150 years. Equally controversial has been Mary Surratt's place in the conspiracy. Arrested following the assassination and put on trail under a military tribunal. Mary Surratt was convicted as an accessory she became the first woman sentenced to death by the United States government and hung on July 7, 1865 along with George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell (Paine/Payne).
Hanging Mary is narrated by Mary Surratt and Nora Fitzpatrick who boarded at Mary Surratt's boardinghouse. Starting in the fall of 1864, when Mary moved to Washington to operate a boardinghouse to July 7, 1865 the novel follows the events in alternating chapters between Mary and Nora's viewpoints. I have never had much pity for what happened to Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary has succeeded in making Mary a deeply flawed, yet sympathetic character. While guilty of involvement in the plan to kidnap President Lincoln, the novel questions Mary Surratt's involvement in the assassination. Higginbotham also succeeded in making Nora Fitzpatrick, who is usually treated as a minor figure in the historical accounts of the Lincoln assassination, into a fully fleshed out character.
A compelling and well written historical novel, Higginbotham accurately portrays the morals and customs of Civil War era America. Though I already knew how the novel was going to end, I found the deception of the events surrounding the execution heartrending. Hanging Mary is historical fiction at its best.