Working at a small museum off the beaten path in rural Prince George’s County, staff at the Surratt House Museum said they have been stunned by an influx of visitors, which they attribute to revived interest in the nation’s 16th president.
The Clinton-based historic home, which has ties to President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, previously averaged about 8,000 visitors per year, but is now seeing nearly 12,000 visitors per year. Surratt staff say the increases are a direct result of a popular television drama and movies — such as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” — that focus on Lincoln’s assassination and legacy.
The influx has left museum leaders adding new events and programs, and searching for volunteers to help lead tours.
“We have two full-time employees, five part-time and about 40 volunteers.... And with that number, it wouldn’t seem like it, but we need more,” said Laurie Verge, 69, of Brandywine, the museum’s director for 30 years. “We’ve had a great increase over the past two years. It’s true what they say about Hollywood, that it can certainly help you out.”
The Surratt House, at 9118 Brandywine Road in Clinton, was built in 1852 and was first inhabited by John and Mary Surratt, Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War. Verge said the historic site’s popularity comes from it being one stop on the escape route of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln.
Mary Surratt was found guilty of taking part in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and was the first woman to be hanged by the federal government.
Lindsey Horn, 25, of Mechanicsville works for the museum and often hosts tours through the house. She said the influx has brought Prince George’s residents and out-of-towners to learn about the history of Mary Surratt and the historic Surratt House.
“I’m really happy that it’s getting a resurgence in interest,” Horn said. “I like being in tours when people get really into it and I see their jaws drop. A lot of people tell me they were never taught this history and are hearing it from me for the first time.”
“The Conspirator” started the revival in interest in 2010, according to museum staff. The feature film follows the criminal trial of Mary Surratt and those who conspired to assassinate Lincoln.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which highlights the president’s legacy during the Civil War, premiered in November and won a Best Actor Academy Award for Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of the former president. National Geographic’s “Killing Lincoln,” a television documentary-drama, aired Feb. 17 and detailed the events and plot leading up to Lincoln’s untimely death.
All of the media attention in the midst of the 150-year anniversary of the signing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has attracted many seeking to learn more about history and compare Hollywood’s interpretations to textbook accounts, Verge said.
Verge said the museum is eager to have new volunteers join the Surratt Society, the preservation and interpretation arm of the museum owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Louise Oertly, 59, of Fort Washington has been a volunteer at the museum since 1976 and said she has noticed a boost in interest in light of the assassination story being further told in the media.
“In the early days, many a day, we’d only have one tour and rarely nobody would show up. Nowadays, we actually have people coming in,” she said. “And even though we have people coming in, you’ll ask children who Lincoln was and they don’t know he was president of the United States.... I enjoy sharing that knowledge.”
Guided tours are held every half hour from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.surratt.org.
The museum will host a re-enactment event May 19. Lincoln re-enactor James Getty will discuss the trials and tribulations behind writing the Emancipation Proclamation.