Booth's female conspirator

Way Back When

Doubt still lingers about Mary Surratt, executed in 1865

April 19, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Two months after John Wilkes Booth was shot to death in a burning barn in Bowling Green, Va., Mary E. Surratt and three men were executed for conspiring with Booth to kill President Abraham Lincoln.

One hundred thirty-eight years after Surratt, a devout Roman Catholic, went to her death on the gallows at Washington's Arsenal Prison, doubt persists about her role in the April 1865 murder of the president.

Born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins in 1823 in Southern Maryland, she was educated at a parochial school in Alexandria, Va.

She was married in 1840 to John Harrison Surratt. The couple lived on a farm near Oxon Hill, then bought 287 acres of farmland at a small Prince George's County crossroads that would become known as Surrattsville.

Here, in a two-story frame house that was a combination tavern, inn, post office and polling place, the Surratts raised their three children.

Finding herself deeply in debt after her husband's death in 1862, Surratt sold the land and rented the tavern and farm to John Lloyd, a former District of Columbia policeman.

In the fall of 1864, Surratt moved to a boardinghouse she owned at H and 6th streets in Washington, not far from Ford's Theatre. The lodging was popular with actors, including John Wilkes Booth.

It was in this house that her son, John Jr., Booth and the other conspirators met to hatch a bizarre plot in which Lincoln would be kidnapped and later exchanged for Confederate prisoners.

Young Surratt, a dispatch rider for the Confederacy, was in Canada at the time of Lincoln's murder, and it is doubtful that he knew about Booth's plan to kill the president at Ford's Theatre.

As Booth fled into Southern Maryland after the Good Friday assassination, he was accompanied in his flight by David E. Herold. The pair made a brief stop at the former Surratt tavern to claim a rifle and field glasses that Lloyd, who later became one of the government's key witnesses against Surratt, claimed had been deposited for them by Mary Surratt.

On April 17, 1865, while Lincoln's body lay in state in the Capitol, police made a midnight raid on Surratt's boardinghouse, which President Andrew Johnson claimed was the "nest where the egg was hatched."

Surratt was taken to the Carroll Annex of the old Capitol Prison, where she remained nearly two weeks until being transported to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort McNair). There, she and the other conspirators, David E. Herold, George Atzerodt and Lewis Payne, were tried by a military commission.

"The killing of the President had loosed a storm of anger which found its way into the trial chamber," reported The Sun in a 1965 anniversary article. "In what was later called one of the most `irregular trials' in American history, the defense was bullied. Page after page of irrelevant but damning evidence was introduced and other evidence suppressed."

While the conspirators were found guilty, five of the nine military officers urged leniency and a life sentence for Surratt. But the plea for leniency was not included in the orders for carrying out the death penalty that went to President Johnson for his signature.

On July 6, 1865, as a blistering heat wave seized Washington, the conspirators learned that they would be hanged the next day.

As the final preparations for the execution were under way, family and clergyman were allowed into the prison to console the condemned. Two priests, J.A. Walter and B.F. Wigett, attended Surratt in her cell and heard her express "her willingness to meet her God," The Sun reported.

At 12:30 p.m., loud, hysterical sobs coming from Surratt's cell told of the final farewell between Surratt and her daughter, Annie. Surratt removed her coral necklace and placed it around Annie's neck.

At 1:15, the prison commander and several officers emerged from the prison door, followed by a mournful procession of the condemned.

Surratt exited into the bright sunlight first, supported by an officer and the two priests. "In addition to her prostrated physical condition, the chains upon her feet served to impede her progress," The Sun said.

Once on the gallows, Surratt was seated in a chair.

"She sunk in a collapsed condition into her seat, leaning feebly upon her right arm, and with upturned and sorrowful eyes, while a soldier behind held an umbrella over her to shield her from the fierce sun," The Sun observed.

After the death warrant was read, Surratt kissed a crucifix that was pressed to her lips by the priests.

The arms of the four conspirators were then bound in white cotton cloth. The noose was tightened and fitted up under the left ear, and white caps were placed over their heads.

A moment before the order was given to spring the trap at 1:20, Surratt was heard to say, "Please, don't let me fall."

The bodies were allowed to hang for 20 minutes before they were cut down and buried in the prison yard. Surratt had made history as the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government. Her remains were later moved to Washington's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

A year after the executions, the Supreme Court ruled that trial by a military court for civilians was illegal.

In 1867, John Surratt Jr. was tried for his alleged role in the Lincoln plot, but was freed after the jury became deadlocked. He later admitted complicity in the plot to abduct Lincoln, but denied any role in the assassination.

He later moved to Baltimore, where he worked as general freight agent for the Old Bay Line. Annie Surratt, who married a chemist, also settled in Baltimore.

Many of the sites associated with those days still stand, including the former Surratt boardinghouse. It is now a Chinese-Japanese restaurant, the Wok and Roll.

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