Mary Surratt ran the boardinghouse where the conspirators planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Tried along the active conspirators, Surratt was convicted and became the first woman ever executed by the federal government.
Mary Surratt: Executed as Conspirator in Assassination of Lincoln
Mary Surratt, a boardinghouse operator, and tavern keeper, was the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government, convicted as a co-conspirator with Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, though she asserted her innocence.
Mary Surratt's early life was hardly notable. Surratt was born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins on her family's tobacco farm near Waterloo, Maryland, in 1820 or 1823 (sources differ). Her mother was Elizabeth Anne Webster Jenkins and her father was Archibald Jenkins. Raised as an Episcopalian, she was educated for four years at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Virginia. Mary Surratt converted to Roman Catholicism while at the school.
Information on Aiken's early life is largely unknown his date of birth, city of birth, and even his full name varies depending on source. His official birth records, as well as the 1840 and 1850 census records, indicate that he was born Frederick Augustus Aiken on September 20, 1832, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Susan (née Rice) and Solomon S. Aiken.  His obituary in The Washington Post uses the middle name "Argyle", an 1837 birth year, and claims he was born in Boston. 
The family moved to Hardwick, Vermont when Aiken was ten years old. He attended Middlebury College where he studied journalism, and later became editor of the Burlington Sentinel. Aiken married Sarah Weston, daughter of a Vermont judge, on June 1, 1857. In 1859 he was admitted to the Vermont bar, and in 1860 the Aikens moved to Washington, D.C., where Aiken served as secretary to the Democratic National Committee and supported the candidacy of Vice President John C. Breckinridge Democrat of Kentucky in the 1860 presidential election. When the Civil War began, Aiken also wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis, offering his services to the Confederacy as a reporter. 
Despite his apparent sympathies for the Confederacy as indicated by his support of Breckinridge (who became a general in the Confederate Army) and his letter to Davis, Aiken served in the Union Army during the Civil War, but like his birth records, his war service also remains largely unknown, other than the fact that he had earned the rank of colonel by war's end.  Two pieces of correspondence concerning his war service appear in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. The first is a dispatch from then-Captain Aiken to General Winfield Scott Hancock during the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, referring to Aiken as an acting aide-de-camp the other is a dispatch from Hancock himself, praising Aiken and other officers, and referring to him as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Hancock's division commander, General William Farrar Smith.  His obituary points to his being wounded in combat, including a battle during which he had two horses shot from under him, but it is not revealed what battles he participated in besides Williamsburg. 
President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was himself killed less than two weeks later. Booth's accomplices were all arrested before the end of April, and brought before a military tribunal chaired by Major General David Hunter. The sole female defendant was Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house in Washington where Booth and the other conspirators had often met. Mrs. Surratt's official defense counsel was Reverdy Johnson, a former Attorney General and then-Senator from Maryland however, several members of the panel challenged Johnson's right to defend Surratt as he had objected to requiring loyalty oaths from voters during the 1864 presidential election. Though the objection was withdrawn, Johnson nonetheless did not participate much in the process, and left much of the legal defense to Aiken and John Clampitt, who had recently set up their own law practice in Washington.
Still relatively new to their professions and without Johnson's active participation in the case, Aiken and Clampitt were woefully unprepared for their task. Their defense relied on trying to debunk the testimony of the prosecution's two chief witnesses, John M. Lloyd and Louis J. Weichmann, but instead ended up strengthening the prosecution's case. Ultimately, the defense was unsuccessful, and Mary Surratt was sent to the gallows on July 7, 1865. 
Aiken and Clampitt's law practice dissolved in 1866, likely as a result of the backlash of the trial. The New York Times reported that Aiken was arrested in June 1866 when he cashed a check with a merchant but did not have the funds to cover the amount.  His obituary stated that he had also been tapped to serve as defense counsel for Jefferson Davis, but the former Confederate President was eventually released without trial.  In 1868, Aiken returned to journalism, and served as the first city editor of the Washington Post.  
Aiken died in Washington on December 23, 1878, as a result of heart-related illness, possibly resulting from wounds he incurred during the war. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, where his grave was originally unmarked. However, the Surratt Society of Clinton, Maryland (the town formerly known as Surrattsville) conducted a campaign to raise funds to place a tombstone on the unmarked grave. On June 14, 2012, a gravestone was placed at the site, in a dedication ceremony attended by descendants of Aiken's family. 
Aiken's involvement in Mary Surratt's defense is dramatized in the 2010 film The Conspirator. He was portrayed by James McAvoy. 
Mary Surratt - History
At 1:22pm on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman ever to be executed by the United States government. Surratt, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne), David Herold, and George Atzerodt were all involved in John Wilkes Booth’s elaborate plot to completely disrupt the Union government by killing President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Atzerodt was supposed to kill Johnson, but he got cold feet and got drunk instead. Powell was supposed to kill Seward, but Seward survived his attack. Herold brought Powell to Seward’s home and helped Booth escape Washington, DC. Surratt, according to Johnson, “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” She, it was believed by many, was the center around which the whole plot evolved. After a month long trial and just two days of deliberation, all four were charged with conspiring to assassinate the President of the United States and were sentenced to hang for their crime. In June and early July of 1865, Mary Surratt was the most hated woman in the country and there was little doubt in Americans’ minds that she played a definite role in the assassination plot. For the almost 150 years since her death, though, public opinion has been somewhat divided.
For nearly her whole life, Mary Surratt lived just outside of Washington, DC in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She and her husband ran a successful tavern/hotel in the county and, in the early 1850s, the area surrounding the their business was named Surrattsville (now Clinton, Maryland). Maryland was a slave state and Surratts owned slaves whose labor they depended on to keep up their business. This was especially true when Surratt’s husband died and she was left to run things herself. As the North and South became more and more divided over the issue of slavery during the 1850s, the Surratts, like many of their Surrattsville neighbors, felt a growing allegiance to the southern way of life. Maryland did not secede from the Union like other southern slave states did in 1860 and 1861, leaving many families feeling stuck in a Union state with Confederate sympathies. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Surratts’ older son left Maryland to fight for the Confederacy and their younger son, John, became an informant who traveled to collect and deliver secret messages to the Confederate Army. During the Civil War, the Surratts’ views grew stronger. They became known as Confederate sympathizers and the Surrattsville tavern became known as a safe haven for people who held similar views.
Mary Surratt House at 604 H St NW Washington, DC.
Because of the many debts her husband left her when he died, Surratt and her daughter, Anna, moved from Surrattsville to another property they owned in Washington, DC and began renting rooms out to boarders in 1864. It was during this time that John Surratt, who frequently stayed at his mother’s place when he was not running messages for the Confederate army, became acquainted with John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and staunch supporter of the South. Booth soon became a regular visitor at the Surratt boarding house. John was an integral part in Booth’s original plan to hijack Lincoln’s carriage and hold the president hostage until he released Confederate POWs so the South’s dwindling army could be replenished and could continue fighting.When Booth’s kidnapping plan failed, he switched to the assassination plot. Because he was so involved in the kidnapping plan, authorities thought John was also one of the masterminds behind the assassination plan, even though he was in New York at the time. Newspapers printed photos and drawings of “The Conspirators” and included John’s image amongst the others. Mary Surratt also quickly became one of Booth’s closest confidants after being introduced to him by her son. The two often held private meetings together in her home, the topics of which are still to this day unknown. After Lincoln’s assassination, investigators found out about Surratt’s strong southern sympathies and the secret meetings between her and Booth, as well as the fact that other conspirators were seen coming to and from her house. The conspirators also had guns for the getaway hidden at the tavern she still owned in Surrattsville. Three days before the assassination, she rode to Surrattsville and told the man running her tavern to have the “shooting irons” ready as people will need them soon. She went back to Surrattsville early on the day of the assassination to remind the man to have them ready because someone will be there later that night to get them. Some of her boarders went to police telling them everything they knew about Surratt and the goings on at her house. With the mounting evidence against her, Mary Surratt was arrested and taken to prison – along with many others who acted at all suspicious in the hours and days following Lincoln’s death. She never asked why she was arrested and was uncooperative in answering questions about her involvement.
Eventually police narrowed the number of conspirators down to those they believed were actually involved and a trial was set to determine their guilt. The government decided to hold a military trial with no jury, instead of a civil trial. Surratt’s lawyers argued that trial by a military commission was illegal because the assassination took place in a time of peace (Lee surrendered five days earlier). Surratt and the other defendants were also not allowed to testify on their behalf (only Maine allowed criminal defendants to do that at the time). Surratt attracted the most media attention out of all those on trial, in part because she was a woman. Her alleged involvement in the conspiracy went against all contemporary notions of womanhood. Reporters commented on her physical appearance, what she wore, and how she acted in court.
On July 6, Surratts’s lawyers were sitting in their office awaiting the verdict when they heard a newsboy screaming, “The execution of Mrs. Surratt!” The media learned about the verdict and sentencing before it was even officially announced and they printed special edition broadsides to spread the news. She and the others would be executed the following day. Her lawyers could not believe it so they filed a writ of habeas corpus in an attempt to get her a civil trial, still arguing her military trial was illegal. In fact, most people, including the military judges who issued the guilty verdict, could not believe the United States government was going to execute a woman. Five of the nine judges who found her guilty signed a petition to get her sentence changed to life in prison “in consideration of her sex and age,” (she was 42 and considered an old lady) and delivered it to President Johnson, who had to approve the sentencing, along with the verdict. The petition did not work – Johnson claimed he never saw it, while one of the judges insisted he showed it to him. People, including Anna, rushed to the White House to try to save her life but Johnson refused to see anyone about the matter. The military prison where she was being kept was so sure they would not be executing her that they even stationed soldiers on the route between the prison and the White House so they could quickly relay the message that Johnson changed the sentence before she was brought to the gallows. Many believed the government was using Surratt’s death sentence as a way to get John, who was believed to have played a part in the plot, to turn himself in. They thought John would turn himself in to save his mother’s life, at which time Johnson would change the sentence. John did not come forward and no change was made, however, and a hysterical Mary Surratt spent her final night in prison with Anna (once she gave up on trying to see Johnson) and her spiritual advisers. Until the end, she maintained her innocence. The rest of the conspirators claimed she was just as guilty as they were, with the exception of Powell who, on the morning of the execution, said she was innocent after Anna and other Surratt supporters met with him.
Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865.
Around 1:00, Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt were brought out to the gallows. Surratt walked out first and made her way to her assigned noose on the far right, as the right of the gallows was considered a more honorable spot to die. She was wearing a hat and veil to cover her face. Her priest stood between her and her noose to block her view of it. The hangman tied her arms behind her back as he did the men’s arms, but he was unsure of how to tie her legs together. Being that this was the first time he executed a woman, he did not know how to proceed in bounding the legs of someone wearing a dress. He eventually decided to bound her legs on top of the fabric. When Surratt’s hat and veil were taken off so they could put the noose around her neck, the crowd became visibly unsettled. They were actually going to hang a woman. Before moving to stand on the trap door where she would fall to her death, she said, “I wish to say to the people that I am innocent.” She died immediately. The bodies were all cut down 20 minutes later and placed in their pre-dug graves.
As soon as Surratt died, public opinion about her shifted greatly. People were outraged by her death. Days before, she was considered an evil woman who helped plan the assassination of the president. Suddenly after the hanging, she was a victim as it was inconceivable that a woman could commit such a crime. Southerners especially felt there was an injustice done. When John was caught in 1867, the anger over Surratt’s death allowed him to have the privilege of a civil trial in front of a jury of his peers (it ended in a hung jury – no pun intended).
Clifford Larson, Kate. The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. 2008.
Jones, Rebecca C. The Mystery of Mary Surratt: The Plot to Kill President Lincoln. 2004.
Swanson, James L., and Daniel R. Weinberg. Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution. 2006.
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Mary Surratt, in full Mary Elizabeth Surratt, née Jenkins, (born May/June 1823, near Waterloo, Maryland, U.S.—died July 7, 1865, Washington, D.C.), American boardinghouse operator, who, with three others, was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
At age 17 Mary Jenkins married John Harrison Surratt, a land owner. Following a fire that destroyed their home, the couple in 1852 opened a tavern that also served as their residence. By 1857 John Surratt had fallen into serious debt, and the outbreak of the American Civil War completed his ruin he died in 1862. The couple’s youngest son, John, returned to help run the tavern, and during the war it became a safe house for Confederates. In 1864 Mary rented the tavern to John Lloyd and moved her family to Washington, D.C., where she opened a boardinghouse. Among her son’s pro-Southern friends who met at her boardinghouse was John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor who conspired with John Surratt and others to kidnap Lincoln. When the Confederacy fell, Booth instead assassinated Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and died resisting capture.
Mary Surratt was arrested with Lewis Payne (who had wounded William Seward, the secretary of state), George Atzerodt (who had failed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson), David Herold (who had accompanied Atzerodt), and two other alleged conspirators. She stood trial on May 12, 1865, before a nine-man military commission. Although Surratt proclaimed her innocence, several witnesses provided damaging testimony, including boardinghouse lodger Louis Weichmann and John Lloyd. Lloyd testified that she had told him to ready rifles and other items for Booth and Herold, who were to arrive at the tavern late on the evening of Lincoln’s assassination. On July 5, 1865, all the defendants were found guilty, though only four—Surratt included—were sentenced to hang. Five members of the commission, however, recommended that President Johnson commute Surratt’s sentence to life in prison. Accounts differ on whether Johnson ever received the request, and Surratt and the others were hanged within 48 hours. In 1867 John Surratt was captured and later tried before a civil court. His trial ended in a hung jury.
Mary Surratt’s conviction proved controversial, and historians have long debated whether she was guilty. Some believe that while she possibly knew about the kidnap plot, she was unaware of the plan to assassinate Lincoln. Questions were also raised about the trial’s setting, as it was argued that her case should have been held before a civil court.
In 1864 Washington, one has to be careful with talk of secession. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy, like Mrs. Surratt. A widow who runs a small boarding house, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he s not escorting veiled spies, he s inviting home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage. But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Based on the true history of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.
Hanging Mary is a wonderfully deep, thought-provoking book which transports you back to 19th century Washington and walks you through the months leading up to the Lincoln Assassination, the assassination itself and, finally, the dreadful aftermath. More than a novel, Hanging Mary allows you to experience the lives of the men and women caught up, however unwittingly, in the conspiracies of John Wilkes Booth.
Mary Surratt’s boarding house
As the title suggests, the eponymous heroine, Mary Surratt pays the ultimate price for her southern sympathies. One of the 2 narrators, Mary tells the story of how her respectable boarding house and its residents were caught up in the plot to kill the president.
The other narrator is Mary’s boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, a young woman who sees Mary as a surrogate mother. A spectator, rather than a conspirator, Nora watches the unravelling of the lives of those in the boarding house. Caught up in the aftermath, but unable to desert her former landlady, she bears witness to the events as they unfold. Between them, Mary and Nora, reveal the story of the plot to kidnap Lincoln, which eventually led to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre. We watch the comings and goings at the boarding house, are introduced to the dashing actor, John Wilkes Booth, and to Mary’s own son, John H Surratt.
As the story develops we experience the fear of not knowing what will happen, of being imprisoned and of not knowing what is happening in the wider world as the tale moves inexorably to its conclusion.
Nora: ….Mr Wilson came to our room. “Collect your things, Miss Fitzpatrick. You’re to be released, and your father is waiting to take you home.”
“What about the others, sir?”
“The orders concern only you, miss”
I embraced Anna. “They’ll free you and your mother soon, I just know it. They’re investigating and realizing that we’re innocent of all this.”
“I hope so.”
Brushing my eyes I left the dejected Anna behind, I followed Mr Wilson to the office where I had been searched. There my father was pacing around. “Nora!” He took me into his arms. “My darling child, I have been frantic with worry.”
“And she’s safe and sound, just as I told you,” Mr Wilson said. “Can we give you a ride in the ambulance? It’s a dreary day, as you know.”
“Thank you, but I prefer to take my daughter home myself,” my father said stiffly.
You cannot read this book without being touched by Mary’s story. It draws you in, takes hold and refuses to let you go. By the climax of the trial, it was impossible to put the novel down I read late into the night, feeling that witnessing the end of Mary’s journey was an obligation that had to be seen through. The words paint images in your mind that are vivid, at times horrifying, but which let you know that you are witnessing history and a brutal justice.
The book stays with you for days afterwards, thinking of the dignity of the woman who faced her fate with as much stoicism as she could muster. The novel reminds you of the humanity and compassion of those who stuck by Mary in her time of need those who supported and helped her and tried to obtain a reprieve, even though they didn’t know her.
Susan Higginbotham has used her extensive research skills to recreate life in 1860s Washington. The book is full of little tidbits of information which will amaze the modern reader such as that petitioners could walk straight into the White House and ask to see the president (can you imagine that?). The locations are described in vivid detail down to the graffiti on the prison walls and the crowds outside the White House during the president’s speech. You find yourself immersed, not only in the story, but in the heart of Washington DC itself in the social life and the politics and in the death throes of the Civil War itself.
The strength of this book, however, is in the characters. Mary Surratt is a sympathetic heroine, trying to make it through life as best she can after her late husband had wasted away most of their money. She is caught between supporting her son, an active sympathiser of the South, and protecting her daughter, Anna. Her all-too-human trait of going with the flow, and her failure to recognise the dangers surrounding the plotters, draws her into the edges of the conspiracy, but how much she actually knew, and whether she committed treason, is open to interpretation.
John Wilkes Booth comes across as a smooth-talking, gallant charmer, who tends to know the right thing to say. It’s easy to imagine how his swarthy, confident manner could draw Mary into his conspiracy, to make her believe she is just being helpful, but doing nothing wrong. However, Booth’s refusal to be taken alive meant anyone associated with him was caught up in the web of conspiracy, and left Mary with no one to attest to her level of involvement – or lack thereof.
The author has used the memoirs of those involved, court transcripts and newspaper reports in order to recreate Mary Surratt’s life as faithfully as possible. Telling the human side of the story the book takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, with moving and powerful imagery. But it is well worth the disturbed sleep, to be able to experience such a wonderful, thought-provoking, poignant story.
This is a book not to be missed and a story that needed telling – I can’t recommend it highly enough. The language, history, the personal stories – even the locations – all combine to make this novel a unique piece of literature and an experience in itself.
Susan Higginbotham‘s meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog, History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham, and owns a bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Apex, North Carolina, with her family.
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On the night of April 14th, 1865, a gunshot was heard in the balcony of Ford’s Theatre followed by women screaming. A shadowy figure jumped onto the stage and yelled three now-famous words, “Sic semper tyrannis!” which means, “Ever thus to the tyrants!”1 He then limped off the stage, jumped on a horse that was being kept for him at the back of the theatre, and rode off into the moonlight with an unidentified companion. A few hours later, a knock was heard on the door of the Surratt boarding house. The police were tracking down John Wilkes Booth and his associate, John Surratt, and they had come to the boarding house because it was the home of John Surratt. An older woman answered the door and told the police that her son, John Surratt, was not at home and she did not know where he was. This woman was Mary Surratt, and she would soon become famous for her alleged role in the assassination plot of Abraham Lincoln. A few days later, the police made their second appearance at the Surratt boarding house, but this time to arrest Mary Surratt herself. They had acquired information that directly tied Mary Surratt to the other conspirators and that placed the boarding house as one of the conspirators’ favorite meeting places. Her actual role in the plot was not clear at this time, but it was presumed that she was guilty of housing the conspirators and helping them in their plot. Mary Surratt would become famous as the first woman who was ever convicted by the federal court, and her conviction would leave many people questioning if they had just sent an innocent woman to the gallows.
Anna was only 22 years old when her mother Mary Surratt was sentenced to death as a conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Despite Anna’s heartbreaking efforts to save her mother, Mary Surratt was hanged not quite three months after the assassination.
Anna’s parents, Mary and John Surratt, were married in 1840, and lived on land John had inherited from his foster parents in what is now a section of Washington known as Congress Heights. John and Mary had three children: Isaac (born on June 2, 1841), Anna (January 1, 1843) and John Jr. (April 13, 1844).
When Anna was nine, her father purchased 287 acres of land that became known as Surrattsville (now Clinton). He opened a tavern that served as a polling place, post office and part time hotel. This became the destination for those wanting to discuss politics of the day. When the Civil War began in 1861 it was no secret that the Surratts favored the Confederacy.
The following year Anna’s father died suddenly and her mother Mary Surratt struggled with the debts left by her husband. Mary rented the tavern and farm to an ex-policeman named John Lloyd, and in October 1864 moved to the townhouse at 541 H Street in Washington, DC. To make money, Mary started renting rooms and soon turned the large residence into a boarding house.
The Assassination Plot?
During the Civil War, Anna’s brother John Surratt, Jr. became a Confederate spy and messenger. While engaging in these activities he met John Wilkes Booth, and early in 1865, Booth became a frequent visitor to the boarding house. Other people, later identified as Booth’s co-conspirators, also visited the boarding house regularly.
After President Abraham Lincoln was shot and Secretary of State William H. Seward stabbed on the night of April 14, 1865, authorities launched a massive manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators. Within hours of the assassination detectives arrived at the Surratt boardinghouse. They searched the house and questioned all 13 people they found. Both Mary and her son John Jr. were suspected in connection with the murder, but John Jr. escaped.
Some months earlier, Booth had planned to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. In connection with that plot some of Booth’s co-conspirators had hidden two Spencer carbines in the joists of an unfinished loft in John Lloyd’s leased tavern. At midnight, after the assassination, Booth and David Herold stopped at the tavern to collect these items.
Arrest and Trial
On the night of April 17, 1865, Mary Surratt was arrested and charged with conspiracy, aiding the assassins and assisting in their escape, and allowing her boarding house to be used as a meeting place for Booth and his friends. Lewis Powell (alias Payne), a definite conspirator, came to her boardinghouse just as she was being arrested, which did not help her cause. She claimed she had never seen Powell before that night, but he had been there many times before the assassination.
Anna Surrat was accused of removing a picture from a mantel at the boarding house during the police search of the premises, on the back of which it was said she had hidden a photograph of John Wilkes Booth. Anna was also taken into custody that night and kept at the Old Capitol Prison until May 11 when she was released. She did not go back to the boarding house instead she went to stay with friends.
Mary Surratt was also taken to the Old Capitol Prison. She remained there until April 30, when she was transported to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. It was in one of the administrative buildings at the Penitentiary that the assassination conspiracy trial was held. Anna visited her mother on many occasions she also spent a lot of time talking with Lewis Powell, trying to convince him to help pursuade the court that her mother was innocent.
Since Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the Army, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton declared the assassins should be tried by a military court. Although President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and most of the Cabinet members disagreed, Attorney General James Speed agreed with Stanton.
Therefore, the defendants did not have the advantages of a jury trial, and were instead judged by a nine-member military commission. The trial began on May 9, 1865, and continued until the end of June. In court Mary Surratt was dressed in black, with her head covered in a black bonnet and her face mostly hidden behind a veil. She claimed total innocence of any part in the assassination plot. She said she knew nothing of Booth’s plans, and that her trips to Surrattsville had to do with collecting money she was owed by a man named John Nothey.
The prosecution’s strategy was to tie Mary Surratt to the conspiracy, and most of their case rested on the testimony of two men: her tenant at Surrattsville John Lloyd and one of her boarders Louis Weichman. Threatened with a murder charge and kept in solitary confinement, Lloyd and Weichman agreed to give evidence against Mary Surratt in return for their freedom. These men drew great criticism for their actions.
Weichmann’s testimony established an intimate relationship between Mary Surratt and the other conspirators, and the Surratt family’s ties to Confederate spy and courier rings operating in the area. Weichmann spoke respectfully of Mrs. Surratt and testified that he had resided at the boarding house since November 1864, and that he saw Booth give Mrs. Surratt a package of binoculars. Weichmann then drove her to the Surrattsville tavern on April 11 and April 14, the day of the assassination.
Mary Surratt’s fate was sealed by John Lloyd, who testified that she had requested that he have the field glasses and carbines ready for Booth and Herold when they arrived at the tavern late on the night of the assassination. Despite defense witnesses that attested to Surratt’s reputation as a gentle and deeply religious woman, Lloyd’s testimony was very damaging.
Anna, who seemed much younger than her age (22), testified at trial that it was Weichmann who had brought George Atzerodt into the boardinghouse, and that the photograph of Booth she had at the boarding house was hers (given to her by her father in 1862), and that she also owned photographs of Union political and military leaders. Anna denied ever overhearing any discussions of disloyal activities in the boarding house, and said that while Booth visited the house many times his stays were always short.
Mary Surratt was so ill the last four days of the trial that she was permitted to stay in her cell. The trial ended on June 28, 1865, and the court decided on the death penalty for Mary Surratt and her co-conspirators Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold.
However, five of the nine judges signed a letter asking President Andrew Johnson to commute Mary’s sentence to life in prison, given her age and gender. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt did not deliver the recommendation to President Johnson until July 5, two days before Surratt and the others were to hang. Johnson signed the order for execution, but did not sign the order for clemency. Johnson later said he never saw the clemency request Holt said he showed it to Johnson, who refused to sign it.
Anna Surratt is remembered chiefly for her heartbreaking efforts to save her mother from being hanged by the U.S. government. After the guilty verdict, a tearful Anna tried to see President Andrew Johnson at the White House to plead for her mother’s life, but she was prevented from doing so. Adele Cutts Douglas, widow of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, went to see the president on Anna’s behalf, but was unable to change Johnson’s mind.
General Winfield Scott Hancock, who had served in the Union Army, was in command at the Washington Penitentiary, where the defendants were being held. On the day of the execution, he stationed relays of cavalry all the way to the White House. If President Johnson changed his mind and granted a last-minute reprieve, the news would reach Hancock as soon as possible. No such reprieve came.
About midnight the friends and relatives of the prisoners began to arrive. All of the women were dressed in black, with heavy veils covering their faces. Anna was shown to her mother’s cell and remained there all night.
At exactly one o’clock in the afternoon the heavy door opening from the northwestern hall of the prison building into the court yard opened, and Mary Surratt came out, leaning upon two men – her spiritual advisors. She looked very pale as the men led her to the scaffold steps and she ascended, her hands manacled behind her. She sat on a chair placed at the northwestern corner of the scaffold, and the minister whispered words of comfort through the heavy black veil that covered her face.
On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hanged, along with Powell, Atzerodt and Herold, thus marking the first time the U.S. government had executed a woman. There was no struggle on the part of Mrs. Surratt. Until the drop fell, a belief still existed that she would be reprieved, and if one had come even when the rope was around her neck, it would have surprised no one. Her last words on the scaffold were “Don’t let me fall.”
The Surratts were pariahs and society shunned them all. Except for a few family friends, Anna was now alone. Her younger brother John Surratt was still on the run as a purported Booth conspirator and her older brother Isaac who had been fighting for the Confederacy had yet to come home.
Anna never recovered from the traumatic events. Both of her parents were dead, one of her brothers was on the run and the other had not returned from serving in the Confederate army. Unable to bear living in the boarding house on H street, for the next few years Anna lived with various friends. Her mother had mortgaged the boarding house to pay her legal counsel. The house was sold in November 1867, and the property in Surrattsville was sold in March 1869.
On June 17, 1869, Anna married William P. Tonry, a chemist working in the laboratory of the Army Surgeorn General. Ironically, his workplace was at Ford’s Theatre, which had been converted into government offices shortly after the assassination. The couple were married at St. Patrick’s Church a few blocks from Ford’s.
The ceremony was kept private, and there were no bridesmaids. Her brother Isaac was at Anna’s side, and John sat in a front pew. Just a few close friends were invited. This strict attention to privacy was to characterize Anna’s later years. The War Department fired Tonry five days after the wedding. Some believe he was dismissed for marrying Anna.
For a while the couple lived in poverty, but they eventually moved to Baltimore, where Tonry became a highly respected chemist. Their improving financial and social position relieved some of the strain in Anna’s life, but she continued to suffer emotionally and physically. Her hair turned white in her early thirties, and she remained subject to fits of extreme nervousness. Her brothers John and Isaac lived nearby, they gradually let the conspiracy issue rest.
During the 1880 presidential campaign, however the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, and the Democrats chose Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock’s connection with the Mary Surratt execution was used to try to turn voters against him. Swarms of reporters as well as a flood of letters and telegrams tried to draw out Anna’s opinion of Hancock, but she refused to make a statement on the matter. Hancock lost the election narrowly to Garfield, who was assassinated by a gunman a few months after being sworn in.
Anna and her family finally dropped out of the news, and Anna eventually had two more children. She was bedridden in her later years and died of kidney disease on October 24, 1904, at age 61. She was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, in an unmarked grave next to her mother.
Debate continues to this day as to whether Mary Surratt was actually involved in the assassination plot. Historical opinion is divided on the subject. It seems at least possible that Surratt knew about the plot to kidnap the president, but may not have known about the plan to assassinate him. Several good arguments for Mary’s innocence are made by Elizabeth Steger Trindal in her July 2003 article entitled The Two Men Who Held The Noose.
(1) Louis Weichmann, testimony before the Military Tribunal (13th May, 1865)
On Friday, the day of the assassination, I went to Howards stable, about half-past 2 oclock, having been sent there by Mrs. Surratt for the purpose of hiring a buggy. I drove her to Surrattsville the same day, arriving there about half-past 4. We stopped at the house of Mr. Lloyd, who keeps a tavern there. Mrs. Surratt went into the parlor. I remained outside a portion of the time, and went into the bar-room a part of the time, until Mrs. Surratt sent for me. We left about half-past 6. Surrattsville is about a two-hour drive to the city, and is about ten miles from the Navy Yard bridge. Just before leaving the city, as I was going to the door, I saw Mr. Booth in the parlor, and Mrs. Surratt was speaking with him. They were alone.
Some time in March last, I think, a man calling himself Wood came to Mrs. Surratts and inquired for John H. Surratt. I went to the door and told him Mr. Surratt was not at home he thereupon expressed a desire to see Mrs. Surratt, and I introduced him, having first asked his name. That is the man (pointing to Lewis Powell). He stopped at the house all night. He had supper served up to him in my room I took it to him from the kitchen. He brought no baggage he had a black overcoat on, a black dress-coat, and gray pants. He remained till the next morning, leaving by the earliest train for Baltimore. About three weeks afterward he called again, and I again went to the door. I had forgotten his name, and, asking him, he gave the name of Powell I ushered him into the parlor, where were Mrs. Surratt, Miss Surratt, and Miss Honora Fitzpatrick. He remained three days that time. He represented himself as a Baptist preacher and said that he had been in prison for about a week that he had taken the oath of allegiance, and was now going to become and good and loyal citizen. Mrs. Surratt and her family are Catholics. John H. Surratt is a Catholic, and was a student of divinity at the same college as myself. I heard no explanation given why a Baptist preacher should seek hospitality at Mrs. Surratts they only looked upon it as odd, and laughed at it. Mrs. Surratt herself remarked that he was a great looking Baptist preacher.
I met the prisoner, David E. Herold, at Mrs. Surratts on one occasion I also met him when we visited the theater when Booth played Pescara and I met him at Mrs. Surratts, in the country, in the spring of 1863, when I first made Mrs. Surratts acquaintance. I met him again in the summer of 1864, at Piscataway Church. These are the only times, to my recollection, I ever met him. I do not know either of the prisoners, Arnold or OLaughlin.
(2) Major H. W. Smith, testimony before the Military Tribunal (19th May, 1865)
I was in charge of the party that took possession of Mrs. Surratts house, 541 High Street, on the night of the 17th of April, and arrested Mrs. Surratt, Miss Surratt, Miss Fitzpatrick, and Miss Jenkins. When I went up the steps, and rang the bell of the house, Mrs. Surratt came to the window, and said "Is that you, Mr. Kirby?" The reply was that it was not Mr. Kirby, and to open the door. She opened the door, and I asked, "Are you Mrs. Surratt?" She said, "I am the widow of John H. Surratt." And I added, "The mother of John H. Surratt, jr.?" She replied, "I am." I then said, "I come to arrest you and all in your house, and take you for examination to General Augurs headquarters." No inquiry whatever was made as to the cause of the arrest. While we were there, Powell came to the house. I questioned him in regard to his occupation, and what business he had at the house that time of night. He stated that was a laborer, and had come there to dig a gutter at the request of Mrs. Surratt. I went to the parlor door, and said, "Mrs. Surratt, will you step here a minute?" She came out, and I asked her, "Do you know this man, and did you hire him to come and dig a gutter for you?" She answered, raising her right hand, "Before God, sir, I do not know this man, and have never seen him, and I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me." Powell said nothing. I then placed him under arrest, and told him he was so suspicious a character that I should send him to Colonel Wells, at General Augurs headquarters, for further examination. Powell was standing in full view of Mrs. Surratt, and within three paces of her, when she denied knowing him.
(3) George Cottingham, testimony before the Military Tribunal (25th May, 1865)
I am special officer on Major OBeirnes force, and was engaged in making arrests after the assassination. After the arrest of John M. Lloyd by my partner, he was placed in my charge at Robys Post-office, Surrattsville. For the two days after his arrest Mr. Lloyd denied knowing any thing about the assassination. I told him that I was perfectly satisfied he knew about it, and had a heavy load on his mind, and that the sooner he got rid of it the better. He then said to me, "O, my God, if I was to make a confession, they would murder me!" I asked, "Who would murder you?" He replied, "These parties that are in this conspiracy." "Well, said I, "if you are afraid of being murdered, and let these fellows get out of it, that is your business, not mine." He seemed to be very much excited.
Lloyd stated to me that Mrs. Surratt had come down to his place on Friday between 4 and 5 oclock that she told him to have the fire-arms ready that two men would call for them at 12 oclock, and that two men did call that Herold dismounted from his horse, went into Lloyds tavern, and told him to go up and get those fire-arms. The fire-arms, he stated, were brought down Herold took one, and Booths carbine was carried out to him but Booth said he could not carry his, it was as much as he could do to carry himself, as his leg was broken. Then Booth told Lloyd, "I have murdered the President" and Herold said "I have fixed off Seward." He told me this on his way to Washington, with a squad of cavalry I was in the house when he came in. He commenced crying and hallooing out, "O, Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me! I am to be shot! I am to be shot!"
I asked Lloyd where Booths carbine was he told me it was up stairs in a little room where Mrs. Surratt kept some bags. I went up into the room and hunted about, but could not find it. It was at last found behind the plastering of the wall. The carbine was in a bag, and had been suspended by a string tied round the muzzle of the carbine the string had broken, and the carbine had fallen down.
(4) John M. Lloyd, testimony before the Military Tribunal (13th May, 1865)
I reside at Mrs. Surratt's tavern, Surrattsville, and am engaged in hotel-keeping and farming. Some five or six weeks before the assassination of the President, John H. Surratt, David E. Herold, and G. A. Atzerodt came to my house. All three, when they came into the bar-room, drank, I think. John Surratt then called me into the front parlor, and on the sofa were two carbines, with ammunition also a rope from sixteen to twenty feet in length, and a monkey wrench. Surratt asked me to take care of these things, and to conceal the carbines. I told him there was no place to conceal them, and I did not wish to keep such things. He then took me to a room I had never been in, immediately above the store-room, in the back part of the building. He showed me where I could put them underneath the joists of the second floor of the main building. I put them in there according to his directions.
I stated to Colonel Wells that Surratt put them there, but I carried the arms up and put them in there myself. There was also one cartridge-box of ammunition. Surratt said he just wanted these articles to stay for a few days, and he would call for them. On the Tuesday before the assassination of the President, I was coming to Washington, and I met Mrs. Surratt, on the road, at Uniontown. When she first broached subject to me about the articles at my place, I did not know what she had reference to. Then she came out plainer, and asked me about the "shooting-irons." I had myself forgotten about them being there. I told her they were hid away far back, and that I was afraid the house might be searched. She told me to get them out ready that they would be wanted soon. I do not recollect distinctly the first question she put to me. Her language was indistinct, as if she wanted to draw my attention to something, so that no one else would understand. Finally she came out bolder with it, and said they would be wanted soon. I told her that I had an idea of having them buried that I was very uneasy about having them there.
On the 14th of April I went to Marlboro to attend a trial there and in the evening, when I got home, which I should judge was about 5 o'clock, I found Mrs. Surratt there. She met me out by the wood-pile as I drove in with some fish and oysters in my buggy. She told me to have those shooting-irons ready that night, there would be some parties who would call for them. She gave me something wrapped in a piece of paper, which I took up stairs, and found to be a field-glass. She told me to get two bottles of whisky ready, and that these things were to be called for that night.
Just about midnight on Friday, Herold came into the house and said, "Lloyd, for God's sake, make haste and get those things." I did not make any reply, but went straight and got the carbines, supposing they were the parties Mrs. Surratt had referred to, though she didn't mention any names. From the way he spoke he must have been apprised that I already knew what I was to give him. Mrs. Surratt told me to give the carbines, whisky, and field-glass. I did not give them the rope and monkey-wrench. Booth didn't come in. I did not know him he was a stranger to me. He remained on his horse. Herold, I think, drank some out of the glass before he went out.
I do not think they remained over five minutes. They only took one of the carbines. Booth said he could not take his, because his leg was broken. Just as they were about leaving, the man who was with Herold said, "I will tell you some news, if you want to hear it," or something to that effect. I said, "I am not particular use your own pleasure about telling it." "Well, said he, "I am pretty certain that we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward."
(5) General David Hunter and the Military Commission that tried the Lincoln conspirators sent a message to President Andrew Johnson about the case of Mary Surratt (29th June, 1865)
The undersigned members of the Military Commission detailed to try Mary E. Surratt and others for the conspiracy and the murder of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States, do respectively pray the President, in consideration of the sex and age of the said Mary E. Surratt, if he can upon all the facts in the case, find it consistent with his sense of duty to the country to commute the sentence of death to imprisonment in the penitentiary for life.
(6) The New York Sun (21st December, 1892)
Although Lloyd's testimony was most damaging against Mrs. Surratt, and probably condemned her, he himself never believed in Mrs. Surratt's guilt, and said she was a victim of circumstances. Her association with the real conspirators, he always held, was the cause of her conviction.
(7) General Thomas Harris, letter to the The New York Sun (4th August, 1901)
It must be remembered that on the night of 17th April (1865) Powell returned to her house, with pick-axe on the shoulder and cap made from his shirt sleeve on his head.
The very act of this red-handed murderer fleeing to her home at such a time, was in itself, the strongest and most damning evidence against her.
Take away these two items of evidence - the terrible story of the shooting irons and Payne's return, wipe them out, remove them for the record, and Mr. Weichmann's evidence as to what he saw and heard in Mrs. Surratt's house falls harmlessly to the ground.
(8) Captain Christian Rath, was placed in charge of the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold. He was later interviewed about his role in the event.
I was determined to get rope that would not break, for you know when a rope breaks at a hanging there is a time-worn maxim that the person intended to be hanged was innocent. The night before the execution I took the rope to my room and there made the nooses. I preserved the piece of rope intended for Mrs. Surratt for the last.
I had the graves for the four persons dug just beyond the scaffolding. I found some difficulty in having the work done, as the arsenal attaches were superstitious. I finally succeeded in getting soldiers to dig the holes but they were only three feet deep.
The hanging gave me a lot of trouble. I had read somewhere that when a person was hanged his tongue would protrude from his mouth. I did not want to see four tongues sticking out before me, so I went to the storehouse, got a new white shelter tent and made four hoods out of it. I tore strips of the tent to bind the legs of the victims.
(9) William Coxshall, a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps, was assigned the task of dropping the trapdoor on the left side of the gallows.
The prison door opened and the condemned came in. Mrs. Surratt was first, near fainting after a look at the gallows. She would have fallen had they not supported her. Herold was next. The young man was frightened to death. He trembled and shook and seemed on the verge of fainting. Atzerodt shuffled along in carpet slippers, a long white nightcap on his head. Under different circumstances, he would have been ridiculous.
With the exception of Powell, all were on the verge of collapse. They had to pass the open graves to reach the gallows steps and could gaze down into the shallow holes and even touch the crude pine boxes that were to receive them. Powell was as stolid as if he were a spectator instead of a principal. Herold wore a black hat until he reached the gallows. Powell was bareheaded, but he reached out and took a straw hat off the head of an officer. He wore it until they put the black bag on him. The condemned were led to the chairs and Captain Rath seated them. Mrs. Surratt and Powell were on our drop, Herold and Atzerodt on the other.
Umbrellas were raised above the woman and Hartranft, who read the warrants and findings. Then the clergy took over talking what seemed to me interminably. The strain was getting worse. I became nauseated, what with the heat and the waiting, and taking hold of the supporting post, I hung on and vomited. I felt a little better after that, but not too good.
Powell stood forward at the very front of the droop. Mrs. Surratt was barely past the break, as were the other two. Rath came down the steps and gave the signal. Mrs. Surratt shot down and I believed died instantly. Powell was a strong brute and died hard. It was enough to see these two without looking at the others, but they told us both died quickly.
Seduced By HistoryIn LADIES FIRST: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners and Mavericks author Lynn Santa Lucia “celebrates some extraordinary women who have singularly and collectively cleared a path for other females to follow.” Most of these women were true heroes and role models. However, not all found fame in a positive manner. Mary Surratt (1823-1865) is a historical figure not for her constructive activities, but for being the first woman to be executed by the United States government for crimes against the country. (Pictured left)
Born in Waterloo, Maryland, Mary was educated at an all-girls seminary and married at the age of seventeen. She and her husband John had three children and purchased a farm in 1852. The two-story house on the property served as a home as well as a tavern for the community. The Surratt House became a prominent place to congregate for merchants, lawyers and politicians. With the on-set of the Civil War the house became a hub for Southern sympathizers in the Union state.
The war also brought a shortage money, as patrons couldn’t pay their bills. Then, in 1862, John died, leaving Mary under a mountain of debt. She was forced to lease the land and the house and move into a Washington, D.C. townhouse she owned. She converted the upper floor of the house into a boarding house to earn a small income. A frequent visitor to her boarding house was John Wilkes Booth, a friend of tenant Louis Weichmann and Mary’s son John, Jr.
On April 18, 1865, three days after Abraham Lincoln died Mary was arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill the President of the United States. The trial against her and seven co-conspirators started on May 9, 1865. The U.S. Attorney-General and President Andrew Johnson declared the actions of the conspirators a wartime act. Therefore, they were tried in a military tribunal, rather than a civil court.
Louis Weichmann was the lead witness against Mary. Though he described her as ‘lady-like in every particular” and ‘exemplary” in character, most of his testimony was very incriminating. He described conversations between himself, Booth and Mary, where the assassination plot was clearly discussed. Weichmann further testified that at the urging of Booth, he and Mary drove out to her former home, Surratt House, three days before the assassination and delivered “a package, done up in paper, about six inches in diameter.” Mary stayed in the house for two hours, during which time Weichmann observed her speaking to Booth. Another conversation between Mary and Booth took place shortly after they arrived back in Washington.
The most damaging testimony, however, came from John M. Lloyd, the man who leased Surratt House. Though Mary testified that she’d traveled to Surrattsville with Weichmann to collect rent, Lloyd said she collected nothing from him. Instead, she gave him a small package containing field glasses. She also instructed him to ready the two Spencer carbines that John, Jr. had left at the tavern several weeks earlier. The guns had been hidden under the joists in a second-floor room.
John Wilkes Booth, after shooting President Lincoln, stopped at Surratt House. Lloyd did as Mary had instructed him to do earlier that day. He handed over a pair of pistols, one of the Spencers and the field glasses.The trial ended on June 28th, 1865. After a short deliberation, the verdicts were handed down: All eight were found guilty. Mary, along with three others, was sentenced to death. The other four were sentenced to prison.
So here's your chance to win a copy of LADIES FIRST. Just leave a comment and you'll be elegible to win a copy of this wonderful resource book (hey, I've gottne at least 4 blog posts out of it already!). I'll draw for a winner nest Sunday, the 26th, to give people a chance to stop by and visit.
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats
This sounds like a fascinating book & just the sort of thing I like to read!
It never ceases to amaze me at what we can learn from history. It's so interesting to read what life was like way back then and see how far we've come in some ways and not so far in others. I love hearing about the women who came before us and how their lives were lived. Thanks again, Melinda for an interesting post.
Mary Surratt was a victim of the times and the hysteria surrounding the death of Lincoln. There had to be someone punished for his murder and she was entrapped in it.
Mary Todd Lincoln was dependent on her husband, after being traumatized by her mother's death when she was not even five years old. A tug of war was waged between her grandmother, her father and stepmother--forcing her into boarding school in Lexington. Their families did what they could, but their downfalls were long and arduous.
Wow, what a fascinating story.The evidence didn't sound very strong to me, but I guess they had to puish someone for such a heinous crime - and quickly.
I'm curious what happened to Mary's children? This looks like a great resource.
This was fascinating. I hadn't realized she had been hanged. Mostly we hear about John Wilkes Booth, not about the co-conspirators. The book sounds great.
I was just reading about Mary the other day while doing research on the civil war. This sounds like an awesome book. :-)
I saw this story on The History Channel. The Victorians were so protective of women, thinking them frail. It's surprising that they hanged her with the men. Fascinating post!
Hi Anna: I found this post really interesting. I just finished All Other Nights, a great historical novel set during the Civil War. If memory serves, the author, in her Author's Notes at the end, mentioned Mary S., and it seems a minor character in the novel had Surratt as her name. Enjoyed reading the post.
Hi, all. Sorry for the delayed response. I do want to make one thing clear - in my research, I have found that Mary was guilty of the charge. She was very much involved with the conspiracy, as was her son. It is a fact that John Wilkes Booth stopped at the Surratt House the night he killed Lincoln and picked up supplies there. One thing I left out, due to trying to keep it brief, is also the fact that one of the conspirators came to her house at the same time as the military was there investigating her. She tried to deny knowning him, but it was a lie. She knew him very well.
There is plenty of evidence against her, even if the trial was sift. Shortly after her hanging, people wanted to believe an unjustice had been done to a woman, simply because she was a woman. But scholars have researched the incident and have proclaimed that she was, indeed, guilty.
As for her children, John Jr was also charged, but I can't recall if he was every arrested. Her children were all grown at this time, so there were no young children to be looked after.
Thanks for all the comments.
Just found this blog and really enjoyed reading your post. Amazing people hidden in the history pages, aren't there? I often get so absorbed in reading at the research library in the lives of lesser-known people. Thanks for sharing the information, and for confirming Mary had actually been guilty.
I had heard of John Wilkes Booth but not Mary as someone else stated. Very interesting info and I wonder what she was promised, if anything, or what she thought she could gain being involved.
Ooops, sorry! I nearly forgot to draw for a winner. But, at last I have and the winner of LADIES FIRST is D'Ann. Thanks for all the comments, I found them interesting.
Hi, Jude and Robin, glad you stopped by.
I just had your blog brought to my attention, and I would like to thank you for the good write-up on Mary Surratt. I am the director of Surratt House Museum in Clinton,(then Surrattsville)Maryland - the country home that Booth and Herold stopped at first on their flight out of Washington to retrieve weapons and supplies. Visit www.surratt.org for more details on the museum.
As for the Surratt children: The oldest son, Isaac Douglas, was with the Confederate army in Texas and did not return to D.C. until September after his mother's execution in July of 1865. He was arrested when he got to Baltimore because rumor had it that he was coming to murder President Andrew Johnson. He was later released, never married, and died in Baltimore in 1907.
The second child, Elizabeth Susannah (Anna),was her mother's sole support during the ordeal. She was just 22. She watched the execution until the hanging hood was put on and then fainted. She went back to their city home that night and had to fight her way through souvenir seekers who were trying to break in. She married a brilliant Army chemist in 1869. He lost his job four days later by special order of the War Department - probably because he dared marry the daughter of the infamous Mary Surratt. She and her husband settled in Baltimore and raised four children. Anna died in 1904.
The youngest child, John, escaped to Canada. He was in Elmira, NY on the day of the assassination. He eventually fled to Europe and became a member of the Papal Guard under Pius IX. He was finally extradited in 1867, put on trial, and it ended up with a hung jury. The gov't. tried two other times to indict him and fail. He went free in 1868. He married the second cousin of Francis Scott Key, worked as an auditor on the Old Bay Steamship Line out of Baltimore, fathered seven children, and died in 1916.
I have spoken with quite a few descendants of Mary Surratt. They all tell us that we know more about the history than they do because the subject was taboo.
BTW: Congratulations to whoever wrote the history of Mary Surratt. It is one of the best I have seen outside of those who work with our museum. Also, we do not take a stand as to Mrs. Surratt's guilt or innocence at the museum - however, most of us understand how, given the times and the circumstances of the Civil War, she should have been tried by a military court and did meet the grounds of conspiracy.
I am not sure what surprises me the most in reading this article: the misrepresentation of the facts or that someone more knowledgeable than the author has not stepped up and set the record straight.
In the first place, Mary Surratt was arrested on the night of 4-17-65 and not the next day. Secondly, Weichman's testimony at the Conspiracy trial was of minimal significance to the issue of her guilt compared to that offered by Lloyd. Thirdly, there is absolutely no evidence that I have seen for the conclusion the author makes that the subject of Lincoln's assassination was openly discussed between Booth and Mrs. Surratt or that Weichman either participated therein or witnessed. Next, the "package" was delivered to Surrattsville by Mrs. Surratt and Weichman on the day of the murder, not three days earlier. Fifthly, there is no evidence that I have seen for the author's conclusion Booth and Mary Surratt had a 2 hour conversation at Surrattsville or, for that matter, anywhere else. Next, there was no evidence presented at the Conspiracy trial that Mary Surratt met with Booth after the murder. In fact, Weichman testified that although someone visited the Surratt boardinghouse at about 9 pm on the night of the murder, he had no idea of that person's identity. Finally, there is no evidence Mary Surratt went to Surrattsville on the day of the murder or three days earlier to collect rent from Lloyd. Her visit on both occasions was to press a Mr. Nothey, who lived in the environs of Surrattsville, into paying a long-standing debt owed to her husband so that she could, in turn, pay a debt to one of her own creditors.
A Miscarriage of Justice? The Trial of Mary Surratt
Whether or not Mary Surratt participated in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln will never be known with certainty. But we can judge definitively the manner in which federal authorities obtained her conviction, and ultimately her execution…
“Passion governs, and she never governs wisely,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Galloway in 1775. Wise words from the wisest of America’s Founders, yet ninety years later the very government that Franklin helped create disregarded his wisdom, fell prey to those very passions, and trampled the constitutional rights of its own citizens in order to help quench what seemed an insatiable thirst for vengeance.
On July 7, 1865, one of those citizens, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt of Maryland, went to the gallows for her role, or supposed role, in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Though her execution would not have seemed a tragedy to Northerners in 1865, or to many Americans today, it is a glaring example of how government can become tyrannical when given the opportunity, particularly when passions are at a fever pitch, just as Franklin had warned.
As history tells us, Lincoln met his fate at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865, just days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Euphoric feelings across the North celebrating the end of a long and bloody war quickly abated after news spread that actor John Wilkes Booth had shot the President in the back of the head as he watched a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The injury proved fatal and Lincoln succumbed at 7:22 am on the morning of the 15th. Northerners were now bent on revenge for an act the federal government viewed as the last gasp of the Confederate cause.
Investigating authorities soon discovered a Booth-led plot involving a number of conspirators, including Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house in Washington City, her son John, and several other men, among whom were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt.
All would eventually face the hammer of American justice, in one form or another, for what was proving to be a wide-ranging conspiracy, which included other targets – Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was viciously stabbed multiple times but survived, Vice President Andrew Johnson, whose attacker, Atzerodt, apparently backed out, and perhaps General Ulysses S. Grant, who escaped a possible attack after deciding not to attend the play that night. Killing all four leaders in one fell swoop would have effectively decapitated the US government.
Whether or not Mary Surratt had knowledge of this vast conspiracy, or actively aided in its implementation, will never be known. We can certainly speculate, but beyond mere conjecture the truth remains elusive. However, her actual guilt or innocence matters not. What matters is the manner in which federal authorities obtained a conviction and ultimately her execution.
With Booth dead at the hands of Union troops, the conspirators, all except for John Surratt, were arrested and confined in deplorable conditions, which was not uncommon at the time, to await trial and punishment. John Surratt had evaded capture and was in hiding. He would not be found and brought to trial for another two years.
To aide her cause, Mary Surratt chose a top-notch attorney for her defense team in Senator Reverdy Johnson, a conservative Unionist Democrat from Maryland who had been the nation’s Attorney General under Zachary Taylor and had been a close friend of Lincoln’s, serving as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. No one could legitimately question his loyalty or patriotism, though the military commission assigned to try Surratt attempted to do just that, but to no avail.
Hoping to gain for Mrs. Surratt a trial in a civilian court, which Senator Johnson felt she was entitled to, his main argument from the start was to attack the validity and constitutionality of the military tribunal, a proceeding that disallowed the basic protections afforded a defendant under normal circumstances, and that he held was a presidential usurpation of power. “To hold otherwise,” he wrote in his 26-page legal argument, “would be to make the Executive the exclusive and conclusive judge of its own powers, and that would be to make that department omnipotent.”
The nation’s new President, Andrew Johnson, who considered Mary Surratt the one who “kept the nest that hatched the egg,” created the commission to try the conspirators. Reverdy Johnson’s argument went much farther than the President’s order, however, and attacked the very foundation of executive military tribunals in peacetime, even though his old friend Lincoln was the first to create these military courts by executive order to deal with massive dissent in the Northern states, which, in nearly every case, was far removed from the war zone.
By 1865, military courts had already dealt with many war-protesting civilians, like Marylander John Merryman, whose 1861 case afforded Chief Justice Roger B. Taney the opportunity to chastise Lincoln for exceeding his authority, and former Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, who was sentenced to prison in 1863 for what amounted to a harsh anti-war speech, only to have Lincoln commute the punishment and banish him to the Confederacy. To make matters much worse, many citizens failed to even get a military trial, as more than 14,400 Northern civilians would be incarcerated without charges or trial under Lincolnian martial law, even though war scarcely touched the North.
And that was precisely Reverdy Johnson’s point. Under the Fifth Amendment, a citizen has a right to a civilian trial with few exceptions, and those exclusions are of a military nature. The first section of the Fifth Amendment reads: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger….” But according to Johnson’s argument, the exceptions to the Fifth Amendment would include only those persons in actual military service, not civilians, who were also afforded additional legal protection in the Sixth Amendment, he pointed out.
“Can it be that the life of a citizen, however humble, be he soldier or not, depends in any case on the mere will of the President?” he asked in his argument. “And yet it does, if the doctrine be sound. What more dangerous one can be imagined? Crime is defined by law, and is to be tried and punished under the law,” and such trials are to be conducted by judges “selected for legal knowledge, and made independent of Executive power.” But military judges, like those who would preside over the Surratt trial “are not so selected, and so far from being independent, are absolutely dependent on such power.”
As strong as Johnson’s arguments were, passions, and not sound legal judgment, was carrying the day. But he did have strong expert opinions to support his case. Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General until 1864, believed military commissions were unconstitutional in such situations. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who, like Reverdy Johnson, was a conservative Democrat and the only one in Lincoln’s Cabinet, also spoke in favor of a civilian trial for Mrs. Surratt, but he also knew that was unlikely. Welles wrote in his diary that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was in charge of the investigation, wanted “the criminals … tried and executed before President Lincoln was buried.” And that would be impossible in a civilian court. So it was no surprise that the military commission, also the judge of its own powers, denied Reverdy Johnson’s argument.
Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, Johnson turned the bulk of the trial over to his junior associates, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, who, in the opinion of many, were inexperienced and not up to the task, although the deck was obviously stacked heavily in favor of the government with the restrictive rules of a military tribunal. The panel of Union military officers serving as judges found Mary Surratt guilty and sentenced her to death by hanging along with the other conspirators.
Before her execution, Reverdy Johnson advised his young colleagues to obtain a writ of habeas corpus and “take her body from the custody of the military authorities. We are now in a state of peace – not war.” This was their last shot to save the life of Mary Surratt. The writ was obtained from Judge Andrew Wylie in Washington, who was apprehensive about signing such an order. He fully understood the passions then running the country and told the two youthful attorneys that his act “may consign me to the Old Capitol Prison.”
But despite the order for Surratt to appear in Judge Wylie’s courtroom, a civilian trial was not to be President Andrew Johnson suspended the writ, even though Chief Justice Taney had already ruled the suspension of such writs by a President to be unconstitutional in 1861 in Ex parte Merryman. Lincoln had ignored Taney then and now President Johnson was disregarding Judge Wylie as well as theMerryman decision. The President further ordered General Winfield Scott Hancock to commence with the execution of Mary Surratt, which had already been scheduled for that day, July 7, 1865. Just as Reverdy Johnson feared, justice was solely in the hands of one man, and Mary Surratt, by order of the President of the United States, met her fate that afternoon.
In April 1866, nearly a year after the execution, as passions subsided and tempers cooled, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that such military tribunals were unconstitutional. Although Lincoln had appointed five of the Justices, including Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, the Court held in the case of Ex parte Milligan, which involved a civilian accused of disloyalty in Indiana, that citizens cannot be tried in a military court when the civilian courts were in operation, as they were in Indiana and as they had been in Maryland the year before.
Writing the Court’s sole opinion was Justice David Davis, who had been Candidate Lincoln’s campaign manager in 1860 and President Lincoln’s choice for the Court in 1862, but despite his ties to the now martyred chief, he lambasted the government for trying civilians in military courts, an action he said was wrought with danger. “It is the birthright of every American citizen when charged with crime, to be tried and punished according to law,” he wrote. “By the protection of the law human rights are secured withdraw that protection, and they are at the mercy of wicked rulers, or the clamor of an excited people,” the same dangerous passions that Dr. Franklin had warned about. “Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together the antagonism is irreconcilable and, in the conflict, one or the other must perish.”
Thinking far into the future, Justice Davis warned posterity of the dangers that could lie ahead if the nation did not learn the lessons of the late war. “This nation, as experience has proved, cannot always remain at peace, and has no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln and if this right is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate.”
But sadly the Court’s historic ruling came too late to save Mary Surratt, whose conviction would have been highly unlikely has she been afforded the basic criminal protections in a civilian trial. We can surmise this based on the fact that John Surratt, whose involvement was likely deeper than anything his mother had been accused of, escaped punishment when a jury in a civilian court failed to reach a verdict in his trial in 1867. Prosecutors decided against a retrial, so John Surratt was saved from the same fate as his mother by the sound judgment of Milligan. The New York Times recognized the sole reason why. “John H. Surratt was called to his account in a calmer state of the public mind, after time had appeased its righteous anger and the passion for retribution had been allayed.”
As Thomas R. Turner has written of the Surratt trials, “The major difference was not the legal context of the two trials, but that, two years after the assassination and the end of the Civil War, people were much more willing to judge the evidence in a rational manner.” With the result of John Surratt’s trial, it “was thus easy to make the case that an enlightened civil jury had rendered a fair verdict while the military commission’s verdict was a horrible miscarriage of justice that sent some innocent persons to their deaths.” But a “closer examination of the facts reveals that such a view is simplistic and misleading.”
Such an explanation, though, is neither simplistic nor misleading, for the “legal context” of the trials, in addition to the passions of the day, made all the difference for John Surratt. Had Mary Surratt been tried in a civilian court, it is quite likely she would have escaped the hangman’s noose and lived to a ripe old age. Of that we can only speculate. Perhaps she was truly guilty of everything she was accused of, but it should have been a civilian court that proved her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not a committee of military generals in a tribunal without a presumption of innocence for the accused, adequate time to prepare a defense, and normal rules of evidence.
But as the Mary Surratt trial demonstrated, and Hollywood brought to the big screen for the entire world to see, passion and raw emotion, if left unchecked, is the gateway to tyranny. And, as history has shown, tyrants care nothing for the law or the Constitution. The “trial” and execution of Mary Surratt were never about healing a brokenhearted nation but were part of an effort to destroy the last vestige of the Southern rebellion, to bury the Confederacy, and all memories of it, once and for all, and to ensure the South never again threatened the supremacy of the Union.
As Cicero once said, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” Tragically, the case of Mary Surratt proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Review (December 2016). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Galloway, February 5, 1775, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 22, page 468 – located at www.franklinpapers.org.
 Bernard C. Steiner, Life of Reverdy Johnson (Baltimore, 1914).
 Reverdy Johnson, “Argument on the Jurisdiction of the Military Commission,” June 16, 1865. This document, along with the trial transcripts and other relevant trial documents, can be found at www.surrattmuseum.org.
 This figure was compiled by Mark E. Neely, Jr. in his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). Also see his article in The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association – “The Lincoln Administration and Arbitrary Arrests: A Reconsideration” –http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0005.103/–lincoln-administration-and-arbitrary-arrests?rgn=mainview=fulltext.
 Diary Entry, May 9, 1865, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1901), Volume 2, page 303.
 Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassins Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 206-207.
 For more on the Merryman case, see Jonathan W. White, Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (Baton Rouge, 2011) & Brian McGinty, The Body of John Merryman: Abraham Lincoln and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus (Harvard, 2011).
 Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866). Interestingly, one of Milligan’s lawyers was James A. Garfield, the future President. Arguing the case for the government was Benjamin “Beast” Butler.
 New York Times, August 12, 1867.
 Thomas R. Turner, “What Type of Trial? A Civilian Versus a Military Trial for the Lincoln Conspirators,” The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0004.104/–what-type-of-trial-a-civil-versus-a-military-trial-for?rgn=mainview=fulltext.
 The film is “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford, and in the opinion of this writer should be seen by every American, for it showcases the passions that drove a complete disregard for the law and Constitution.
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Watch the video: Conspirator Clip 6