Mary Surrat, 1823-1865
Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt was born in May or June of 1823 near Waterloo, Maryland. In 1840, at age 17, she married 28 year old John H. Surratt. The couple went to live on lands that John had inherited from his foster parents, the Neales, in what is now a section of Washington known as Congress Heights. John and Mary had 3 children. Isaac was born on June 2, 1841. Anna was born on January 1, 1843, and John Jr. was born on April 13, 1844.
In 1851 fire destroyed the Surratt home. John Surratt decided not to rebuild the home at that location. He chose to build a combination home/tavern. The couple bought a farm and established a tavern and later a post office. The tavern was in operation by the fall of 1852, and by 1853 the family was living in the newly-constructed Surratt House and Tavern. On December 6, 1853, John Surratt Sr. bought the Washington D.C. property on H Street that would later become Mary's ill-fated boardinghouse. The price: $4000. Mr. Surratt was appointed postmaster on October 6, 1854, and the surrounding area was henceforth called Surrattsville, Maryland.
In August of 1862 John Sr. died, and on October 1, 1864, along with her daughter, Anna, Mary moved to the Washington D.C. property previously purchased by her husband. She rented the Surrattsville tavern to a man named John Minchin Lloyd.
To make money, Mary started renting rooms in her 3 story, 10 room boardinghouse at 541 H Street in Washington D.C. Here, John, being a Southern sympathizer, first came under the influence of John Wilkes Booth.
Mary welcomed her son's guests, especially Booth. The ladies of the house were quite taken with the handsome actor, and Anna even purchased photographs of him at a local gallery. Belatedly realizing the danger to which he was exposing his family, John told Anna to burn them, but he nevertheless continued to recieve Booth in their home.
On Monday after the assassination, shortly before 11:30 PM, the authorities descended on the boardinghouse and arrested everyone there: Mrs. Surrat, her daughter, her neice and a teen-aged boarder. Mary was kept in the Carroll Annex of the Old Capitol Prison.
About April 29, she was moved to the Washington Arsenal in a closed carriage. She was locked in cell no. 153, a narrow cubicle that was furnished with only a straw pallet. Later she was moved to a more spacious and better-equipped room on the third floor.
On May 4th, Lincoln was buried in Springfield, Illinois. On May 9, the trial of those accused of his death began. They were led into the courtroom on the same floor as her cell, with all the men's hands shackled. Mary's hands were free, but she may have been wearing leg irons under her long skirt.
A newspaper engraving shows the eerie scene on the night of April 29, 1965, when the alleged conspirators were transferred from confinement on shipboard to cells at the Old Penitentiary. The artist erred by including Mrs. Surrat, since she had not been among those held on the ships. The male prisoners were each forced to wear shackles and a cotton-padded hood, in part to prevent them from trying to commit suicide by striking their heads against the walls of their cells.
Throughout the trial, Mary sat at the end of the prisoners row, her face concealed behind a heavy black veil. Dressed entirely in black, she would remain entirely motionless for hours on end, except for gently waving a palmetto-leaf fan. There were nine major witnesses against her, each of whom had been threatened and intimidated by zealous government investigators.
By the end of the two month trial, she had been adjudged as guilty as all the rest of "treasonable conspiracy" and given a death sentence for July 7, a mere two days after the order was signed by Pres. Johnson.
At 1:15 on that blistering afternoon, the arsenal door opened and a forlorn little procession emerged. The condemned foursome was led by Mary Surrat, scarcely able to walk and supported by soldiers on either side, watched by a crowd of sightseers in the courtyard. Passing close by their own freshly dug graves, each one with a pine coffin beside it, the prisoners slowly climbed the scaffold.
Expecting a last minute repreive for her because of her age and sex, the hangman tied only 5 knots in her noose instead of the requisite seven, and one of the other conspirators, Lewis Paine, told the guards "Mrs. Surrat is innocent. She doesn't deserve to to die with the rest of us."
Just before 2:00 PM, Gen. Hancock clapped his hands three times, and on the third clap, soldiers under the platform knocked away the props that supported the hinged trap doors, and the prisoners plunged down, the first woman ever executed by the Federal government.
She is now widely believed to have been an innocent convicted by association and circumstantial evidence. Her Maryland tavern and memory are preserved by the Surrat Society.
Her son John, who had created this end for her, had escaped to Canada and had been hidden there for several weeks by a Catholic priest, eventually made his way to Rome, where he enlisted in the Papal Zuaves. He was recognized and finally returned to Washington in June, 1867, where he was tried twice, and acquitted. He only ever offered very limp excuses for not having come to his mother's defense.