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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Mary Surratt and "The Conspirator"

By Jacqueline Trescott

Hollywood producer Webster Stone entered the world of museum exhibition design 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. 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 the imprisonment, trial 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. 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 Norman Reedus.

The movie was filmed at Ford Pulaski outside Savannah, which Stone says is the city that most resembles 1860s Washington.

The museum's 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; 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.

"Those prison hoods were worn all the time so they wouldn't be able to speak or hear," Stone said.

One section covers the execution with a wall-size blow-up of the hanging.

"Alexander Gardner was allowed to cover the execution at Ft. McNair and this picture belongs to the Library of Congress. Our 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 really didn't think they would hang her."

Gardner 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 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 history 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 see the exhibit, see the movie, and then go back to the books by James Swanson and Doris Kearns Goodwin."

By Jacqueline Trescott  | March 9, 2011; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Films, Jacqueline Trescott, Local Arts and Culture, Museums, Washington exhibitions  | Tags:  Mary Surratt, Robert Redford, Robin Wright, The Conspirator, Webster Stone, national crime and punishment museum  
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