|Washington, D.C.||July 5, 2015|
D.C. dirt naps make for strange bedfellows. For example, a tall monument in Oak Hill Cemetery’s North Hill lot denotes the resting place of Secretary of War John Eaton. The circumstances of his 1829 marriage to the recently-widowed Margaret O’Neale were controversial with Washington societal elites and led to the couple’s ostracization. Over 30 years after Mrs. Eaton’s notorious persecution, the man buried beside her and her husband defended a woman from prosecution in one of Washington’s most notable criminal trials. The man was Union Army veteran Frederick Aiken, a 32-year-old lawyer in 1865 when he represented boarding house operator Mary Surratt, who was charged with conspiring to assassinate the late President Abraham Lincoln. Aiken, partnered with John Wesley Clampitt and lead counsel Reverdy Johnson, was unsuccessful at preventing Surratt’s conviction. On July 7, 1865, she became the first woman executed by the U.S. Government.
Mary Surratt’s experiences received the Hollywood treatment in the historical drama film The Conspirator. The movie was directed and co-produced by Robert Redford. Robin Wright portrayed Mrs. Surratt, and Frederick Aiken was played by Scottish actor James McAvoy. At the time of its U.S. theater release on April 15, 2011 — the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s death — Aiken’s burial plot remained unmarked. In March 2012, the non-profit Surratt Society that supports the Surratt House Museum launched a campaign to erect a monument over Aiken’s grave. Their efforts quickly bore fruit. The dedication ceremony was held just three months later, on June 14, 2012. I visited Aiken with my mother and father three years afterward.
In addition to his law career and military service, Aiken’s résumé included numerous positions within the Democratic Party apparatus. He was a member of the Democratic Committee in Chittenden Vermont, as well as the secretary of the Vermont Democratic Convention and of the National Democratic Executive Committee. Both before and after the war, Aiken also worked at various newspapers as a reporter and an editor. His final job was as the first city editor of the Washington Post. He was a year into the position when he died in 1878 at 46 years of age. The gray tombstone that was placed atop his grave 134 years later is inscribed with an excerpt from his closing statement in defense of Mary Surratt. I have included a longer version of Aiken’s address in the quotation section located further down on this webpage.
Born: September 20, 1832 in Lowell, Massachusetts
Spouse: Sarah Olivia Weston Aiken (m. 1857-1878)
Military Rank: Colonel — U.S. Army
Died: December 23, 1878 in Washington, D.C.
Cause of Death: Fatty Degeneration of the Heart
Interment: Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
“For the lawyer as well as the soldier, there is an equally pleasant duty — an equally imperative command. That duty is to shelter the innocent from injustice and wrong, to protect the weak from oppression, and to rally at all times and all occasions, when necessity demands it, to the special defense of those whom nature, custom, or circumstance may have placed in dependence upon our strength, honor, and cherishing regard.”
- Frederick A. Aiken
June 21, 1865 in the closing statement of his defense of Mary Surratt, on trial at the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C.
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Christensen, Christine R. “Finding Frederick.” March 2012. From LincolnConspirators.com. Accessed October 7, 2022. https://boothiebarn.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/aiken_05252012.pdf.
Kelly, John. “A tip of the hat to a former Post editor.” Washington Post. June 13, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-tip-of-the-hat-to-a-former-post-editor/2012/06/13/gJQAurMqaV_story.html.
Taylor, Dave. “The Marking of Frederick Aiken’s grave.” LincolnConspirators.com (blog). June 16, 2012. https://lincolnconspirators.com/2012/06/16/the-marking-of-frederick-aikens-grave/.