Nothing about Mary Surratt's past marked her as a likely candidate for the hangman. Born in 1823 to Archibald and Elizabeth Jenkins to a farming family in Prince George's County, Maryland, Mary was sent to the Catholic-run Academy for Young Ladies across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. So impressed was young Mary by those who taught her that she converted to Catholicism, taking the name of Maria Eugenia Jenkins.
In 1840, at age seventeen, Mary wed John Harrison Surratt, who was ten years older and had been adopted by a prosperous family. The couple had three children: Isaac, Anna, and John Jr.
A fire destroyed the couple's home in 1851. Instead of rebuilding, John Sr. elected to construct a tavern in Prince George's County as a stopping place for those coming to and from nearby Washington, D.C. Not only would his decision prove disastrous to Mary in the long run, tavern-keeping was the worst possible vocation for John, an alcoholic who now could spend as much time behind his bar as he pleased.
As John's drinking grew worse, Mary began to despair of the influence it and the atmosphere of the tavern were having on their three children. With the assistance of various priests who arranged for reduced tuition, she managed to send them to Catholic boarding schools. One of the priests whose help she enlisted was the Italian-born Rev. Joseph Maria Finotti. As priest and parishioner, he and Mary had become so close that gossip began to circulate. Father Finotti was transferred to Massachusetts, although Mary continued to write to him occasionally, confiding in him about her husband's drunken conduct and her concern for her children.
In 1860, the talk in John Surratt's bar would have centered around the likelihood of civil war, and the upcoming presidential election. One of the polling places in Prince George's County was the Surratt tavern. When the votes were counted on Election Day, not a single one was for Abraham Lincoln.
When war broke out the following year, Isaac, Mary's oldest son, joined the Confederate army. He was not an anomaly: although Maryland stayed within the union, many of its citizens sided with the South, and Prince George's County and the rest of southern Maryland were particularly pro-Confederate. Soon the Surratt tavern became known as a "safe house" for those engaged in running the blockade between North and South. Because the tavern served as a post office as well--giving the small crossroads its name of Surrattsville--it could also serve as a drop for clandestine mail.
|Mary's H Street Boarding House|
Mary's younger children, Anna and John, went to Washington with her. The latter was not around much, for he had begun to carry clandestine mail from North to South. Soon the boarders came. Like their landlady, they were ordinary, middle-class people: a classmate of John Surratt's who worked as a clerk for the War Department, a young lady straight out of boarding school, a Catholic schoolgirl, and a married couple and their two children. Just a few months later, some of them would be in prison, and one would be the star witness at the trial of the century.
During the rest of 1864, life went on in the boardinghouse just as it did in the many other boardinghouses that dotted wartime Washington. Then, early in 1865, John Surratt brought home a new acquaintance: the actor John Wilkes Booth, the heartthrob of his day. Soon Booth was stopping by the boardinghouse regularly. Sometimes he would sit in the parlor and converse with the ladies; other times he would confer with John Surratt privately. Often he visited even when John Surratt was away from home.
Around the same time Booth began frequenting the boardinghouse, a stream of odd guests began to appear, staying for only a few nights at a time. One man came twice, calling himself Mr. Wood on the first occasion and Mr. Payne on the second. Another, whose German surname no one could pronounce, was scruffy and disreputable looking. A lady guest kept her face shielded by a veil. One boarder, John Surratt's school chum Louis Weichmann, began to wonder just what was going on--and he began to wonder even more when, one day in March, John Surratt, Booth, and Payne, agitated and waving weapons about, stormed into the room Weichmann shared with Surratt, then abruptly adjourned to the privacy of the attic.
In fact, the men were plotting the kidnapping of President Lincoln. Their scheme failed, but the next month, on April 14, 1865, Booth changed history with a single derringer shot at Ford's Theater. At about the same time, just blocks away, a powerfully built man forced his way into the home of the Secretary of State, William Seward, who was recovering from a carriage accident, and attacked him in his bed.
Within hours of the assassination and the assault on Seward (who survived), police, tipped off that Booth had spent a lot of time at H Street, turned up at Mary Surratt's boardinghouse. They searched the house but left after finding no sign of Booth or John Surratt, who was suspected of the assault on Seward. By the late evening of April 17, however, military authorities had acquired more evidence. They again came to the boardinghouse. This time, they took Mary and all those staying with her at the time into custody. As the party awaited transportation to Washington's military headquarters, a man in grubby but well-made clothes turned up at the door with the unlikely excuse that he had come to dig a ditch for Mary the following morning. Asked to identify him, Mary swore she had never seen him before. In fact, she had seen him several times: he was the Mr. Payne who had stayed at her house just a month before. He was also, Seward's servant soon confirmed, the man who had assaulted the Secretary of State.
The building in which her trial was held,
in what is now Fort McNair army base.
By the time federal authorities caught and killed Booth in Virginia, Mary, Payne (whose actual name was Lewis Powell), and six others had been identified as his co-conspirators. While the evidence against Powell was ironclad, the cases against some of his codefendants were weaker, and it was decided to try the eight before a military commission (which did not require a unanimous verdict to convict) instead of in a civilian court.
The trial began in May 1865. The chief witnesses against Mary were her former boarder, Lewis Weichmann, and her tenant at her Maryland tavern, John Lloyd. They testified to two particularly damning incidents: on April 11, three days before the assassination, Weichmann had driven Mary to her tavern, ostensibly for Mary to meet with a man who owed her money. On the way, they met Lloyd, to whom Mary gave a message: to have some "shooting irons" ready for a party who would soon call for them. Worse, on the day of the assassination itself, Mary had received a visit from Booth. Having heard that she was going to the tavern again, he had given her a package to hand to Lloyd, along with a message: to have the guns ready, along with some whiskey, as they would be called for that very evening. Indeed, Booth and his companion, a David Herold, did turn up at the tavern that evening and called for the guns and whiskey, as well as the package, which contained a field glass. Also weighing against Mary was her suspicious claim not to have recognized Powell, who had stayed at her own house.
Neither Lloyd nor Weichmann was an ideal witness, however. By all accounts, Lloyd was a heavy drinker who had been drunk when Mary saw him that fatal Good Friday, though how incapacitated he had been was debatable. Weichmann, though sober and steady, was compromised himself. He had been close friends with John Surratt and had got on well with another defendant, George Atzerodt. One witness claimed that he had shared War Department records with John Surratt and his Confederate friends, and John Surratt later insisted that Weichmann had wanted to join the conspiracy but was disqualified because he could neither ride a horse nor shoot a gun. Some believed that had Weichmann not testified so freely against his landlady, he would have been on trial himself.
Mary's tombstone in
Mt. Olivet Cemetery
in Washington, D.C
For all of their shortcomings, however, both witnesses were enough to convince a majority of the commissioners that Mary Surratt was guilty of conspiring to murder the President. Along with Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold, she went to the gallows on a brutally hot day in July, protesting her innocence to the end.
John Surratt, who had been on a mission for the Confederacy at the time of the assassination and who had gone into hiding upon learning that he was a suspect, was eventually captured and tried in 1867 by a civilian jury, which was unable to agree on a verdict. An attempt at retrying him failed for technical reasons, and John went free. Though after concluding an ill-received lecture tour, he largely kept silent on the topic of his mother, John gave vent to his feelings on one occasion. Faced with a routine question on an insurance application about how his mother died, he bitterly wrote, "She was murdered by the United States government."
For my own thoughts on Mary Surratt's guilt or innocence, please read my new historical novel, Hanging Mary, told by Mary and by her young boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick.
Check out Ms. Higginbotham's newest novel, Hanging Mary!
The untold story of Lincoln's Assassination
1864, Washington City. One has to be careful with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.
A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he's invited 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. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?
Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.