Beware the People Whistling

Hello fellow researchers and connoisseurs of all things historical. Kate here, filling in for Dave who is currently online grave hunting.

On June 16th, I gave a first person presentation on Mary Surratt for the Calvert County Historical Society in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Titled Beware the People Whistling, the presentation is a firsthand look at Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted of helping bring about the death of President Abraham Lincoln. As she languishes, locked away in Washington City’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, contemplating her fate, Mary Surratt recalls memories of her family, the choices she made throughout the bloody American Civil War, and the man who brought her and her fellow prisoners to ruin, John Wilkes Booth.

Beware the People Whistling is a play on the line “beware the people weeping” from Herman Melville’s “The Martyr,” a poem about the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the poem, Melville stated that the convicted conspirators were to beware of the Union (the people weeping) since they would decide their fates. As the conspirators were imprisoned in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, another man imprisoned there, Burton Harrison, recalled regularly hearing a melancholy whistle coming from the cell below his. That cell was occupied by conspirator Samuel Arnold.  The title of this presentation, therefore, turns the poem on its head to imply that the people whistling (the imprisoned conspirators) had power too. In fact, the death of Mary Surratt turned the tables on the Union government, who suddenly found themselves attacked by newfound defenders of her innocence.

Please note that this presentation is a historical fiction portrayal of Mary Surratt, not a completely accurate account of her time in prison. While working on my speech for the 2016 Surratt Conference, I studied Mrs. Surratt, her imprisonment, and eventual execution. That speech was a factual, in-depth analysis of the circumstances surrounding her sentencing. I then used what I learned researching that speech to create the framework for this dramatic portrayal. I condensed the timeline to fit everything I wanted to portray and most of all, I added material about Mary Surratt’s time in prison that may not be supported with facts. In short, I took some creative license in order to portray Mary Surratt the way I wanted to. Some of you may disagree with my sympathetic slant on Mary Surratt, and that is perfectly alright. In the end, this piece is more about trying to convey the thoughts and emotions of Mary Surratt, which we will never truly know. I hope you enjoy it.

All the best in your historic endeavors,


Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Beware the People Whistling

  1. Eva E.

    Just an aside – “Beware the people whistling” is a motto taken uttermost serious by actors & Co. as whistling in a theater (except it’s part of the play) is believed by theater people to bring bad luck.

    • Kate H.

      The world of theater certainly has many superstitions (no opening an umbrella in a specific direction, the ghost light, always use the term “Scottish Play”). Thanks for the interesting tidbit.

  2. Laurie Verge

    Kate – I am so glad that I recommended you as the presenter for the Calvert County Historical Society’s program. I knew that you had done a first-person of Mary Surratt earlier this spring, but I had no idea how deeply you have delved into creating an intriguing script on our lady. Congratulations on a wonderful job and thank you for representing Surratt House Museum and the Surratt Society.

    • Kate H.

      And thank you for the recommendation. The Port Tobacco presentation was completely off the cuff since I only spoke for about ten minutes. This was the first time I prepared/preformed a first person piece of such magnitude.

  3. Paul Hancq

    Very nice portrayal, Kate! I found it quite believable. I also think Mrs. Surratt was in on the kidnapping plot but not the assassination. Thank you for posting this!

    • Kate H.

      Thank you. It’s always nice to find someone who supports the same theory.

  4. Gary Goff

    Quite a powerful and very believable presentation. The quality of the monologue rivals what I’ve seen on Broadway!

  5. Wonderful portrayal, Kate – grand job!

  6. Deb Hubacz

    Very powerful and moving interpretation! Well written dialogue. Great job Kate. Who knew “Wilkes” was such a good videographer…….lol

    • Kate H.

      Thank you. “Wilkes” is very skilled with the camcorder. I’m lucky to have him around.

  7. Kate, that was a wonderful presentation! I shared it with the Boston Civil War Roundtable and they want to ask you to be a presenter at one of their dinners during their 5 Days in May bus tour next spring, which will be centered on John Wilkes Booth and the assassination. Can you please give me your contact info? Thanks!

    • Kate H.

      Thank you. I would love to speak for the Roundtable. I’ll send you an email with my contact info.

  8. Kate….”late to the party”; have meant to watch this video forever …and it got buried somehow….anyhow…..just wanted to tell you how terrific it is and you are in it……for the past 10 years of my life I have read over 500 books on Lincoln and the assassination…..and you could not have been more brilliant as Mary Surratt…..hope some day to meet you in my travels with my family , possibly in 2018……I have started work on a screenplay involving a fictional meeting between Lincoln and Booth…..but…after seeing this I think maybe I should work on an Anna Surratt one-woman piece….and that I’d write with only you in mind to play her….all the best , happy holidays , and thanks for the performance……Gary Gilbert

    • Kate H.

      Thank you for your wonderful compliments, Gary. Putting this piece together was quite an experience and it’s always great to hear that an audience member enjoyed watching it as much as I enjoyed creating it. Anna Surratt would be an interesting character to portray. Her personality is very different from that of her mother and she lives in that limbo of familiarity but not direct involvement with the conspiracy core. All the best with your own writing endeavors. Happy holidays.

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