Monday, August 10, 2009

Mary Surratt - Mother of all Conspirators

You may not recognize her name but in 1865 everyone knew who Mary Surratt was. She was the only woman implicated in Lincoln’s assassination, and the first woman to be executed by the United States government. But questions still remain as to how much of a role Mary actually played in the conspiracy or if she played a part at all. Was she the “mother of all conspirators,” as the papers claimed? Or was she an innocent woman who was railroaded by the government in their rush to justice?

Mary Surratt was born Mary Jenkins in Waterloo, MD in 1823. She grew up around slavery and accepted it as a way of life. Her parents were slave-owners, owning a modest plantation, although her father passed away when she just two years old, leaving her mother to pick up the pieces as best she could. Elizabeth Jenkins didn’t remarry, instead she became a competent manager of the properties that her husband left, actually expanding the holdings considerably.

When Mary was sixteen she met John Surratt, who was ten years her senior. Married in 1840 in Washington, DC, over the next four years, Mary gave birth to three children, two sons and a daughter. Married life however turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. The couple suffered financial worries mainly due to John Surratt’s drinking and gambling. He was also thought to be emotionally and physically abusive to Mary.

Having no one to turn to, Mary confided in her parish priest Father Finotti. The relationship caused gossip and Father Finotti was transferred to Massachusetts. In 1853, John saved enough money to buy property on which he erected a tavern/boarding house in Prince George’s county. The property was twelve miles from Washington, DC, placing it at the crossroads for travelers coming to and from the capitol. While Mary was able to send her children off to school, not wanting them to grow up in the raucous tavern atmosphere, the majority of the work running the tavern fell on her shoulders. 1n 1854, after John Surratt was appointed the area’s postmaster, the town was renamed Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD).

By April 1861, the Civil War had begun. Maryland, although still part of the Union, was a hotbed of confederate sympathizers, including the Surratt family. It was later stated at her trial that Mary Surratt was devoted ‘body and soul to the cause of the South.’ Their eldest son Isaac joined the Confederate army, and John Surratt Jr. was soon working for the Confederate Secret Service as a courier.

The tavern also became known as safe haven for rebel sympathizers, couriers and spies although outwardly they all professed allegiance to the Union. In 1862 John Surratt died suddenly, probably from a severe stroke, leaving Mary burdened with debt. Although the tavern business had done well, John’s drinking and gambling had consumed a great deal of the profits. Mary was now faced with the prospect of being forced into bankruptcy. After consolidating her debts,in 1864, Mary Surratt decided to move to the house she owned in Washington at 541 High Street. The tavern in Surrattsville she rented to an ex-policeman named John Lloyd, who would later provide the key evidence against her in the conspiracy trial. Like the tavern, the boardinghouse soon became known as a safe haven for rebel sympathizers. Although the capitol of the union, Washington still harbored a number of people sympathetic to the South although outwardly pro-Union. Mary’s son John continued his work as confederate courier, although Mary worried constantly that he would be forcibly drafted into the Union army.

John soon made a new friend that would change not only their lives but also the nations. His name was John Wilkes Booth, the devastatingly handsome and incredibly racist actor and confederate sympathizer. A member of the famous Booth family, he had already fallen out with his older brother Edwin, when Edwin admitted that he had voted for Lincoln (Edwin Booth had also once saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln) Like the Surratts, Booth was from southern Maryland. Booth later boasted that he too had worked for the Confederate secret service. Given his celebrity status as an actor, and his ability to move freely between the North and the South, it seems more than likely.

Booth was introduced to John Surratt Jr. by another name familiar to history, Dr. Samuel Mudd, another confederate sympathizer from southern Maryland. Mudd later became infamous after the assassination for setting Booth’s leg, while Booth was fleeing the authorities. Booth was soon a frequent visitor to Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington. As well as being incredibly handsome, Booth was also charming and persuasive (he was found to have pictures of 5 of his girlfriends in his pocket after his death). Mary’s daughter Anna was quite sweet on the handsome actor, and it has been speculated that Mary wasn’t immune to his charms either.Soon Booth had involved Mary’s son John, and several other conspirators in a plot to kidnap Lincoln.

Over the months of planning, Booth spent a great deal of time at the boarding house. He was also seen in private conversations with Mary, although no one knows what they talked about. Soon after Lincoln’s second inauguration, the conspirators decided to grab Lincoln on the way back from his weekend retreat, but the President foiled them by changing his plans.Booth was incensed at being thwarted. He’d already missed an opportunity to assassinate Lincoln at the inauguration. On Palm Sunday, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The week before Richmond had fallen to Union forces. Mary Surratt was seen to weep over the South’s failure and defeat as the capitol erupted into revelry at the news.

Louis Weichmann, a friend and former schoolmate of John Surratt Jr. lived at the boarding house on H Street. He later testified that on the day of the assassination, April 14, Mary Surratt sent him to hire a buggy for another two-hour ride to Surrattsville. Weichmann reported that Surratt took along "a package, done up in paper, about six inches in diameter." Surratt and Weichmann arrived sometime after four at Surratt's tavern. Surratt went inside while Weichmann waited outside or spent time in the bar. Surratt remained inside about two hours. Between six and six-thirty, shortly before their return trip to Washington, Weichmann saw Mary Surratt speaking privately in the parlor of the tavern with John Wilkes Booth. At nine o'clock, Surratt saw Booth for a last time when he visited her home in Washington. After the visit, according to Weichmann, Surratt's demeanor changed--she became "very nervous, agitated and restless."

Three days after the assassination, on April 17, 1865, Mary Surratt was arrested at her boarding house on H Street. It didn’t help her case, that Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators who had attempted to kill Secretary of State Seward, showed up at her front door claiming to be a workman. Although she denied she had ever seen him before, his appearance, plus a bullet mold and cap, were enough to warrant her arrest. Mary proclaimed her innocence; she denied any knowledge that she knew what Booth had planned. She claimed that her trips out to the tavern were simply to collect a past debt. However her tenant John Lloyd testified that she had given him packages to hold for Booth.

Mary was taken to prison where she was held, until her trial, which proceeded swiftly. There were arguments that continue to this day about whether or not the defendants should have been tried by a military tribunal instead of a civil trial. It is possible that the government worried that it would be hard to find an impartial jury amongst the pool of eligible men in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. She was tried along with seven other conspirators including Lewis Powell, who proclaimed her innocent, George Azerodt, and David Herold.

Although Mary had the money to hire a good defense lawyer, her case was given over into the hands of two inexperienced associates in the law office of her chief counsel Reverdy Johnson, who disappeared after the first few days in court. The prosecution made mincemeat out of the defenses witnesses to her character. Mary didn’t help herself by appearing in court everyday heavily veiled so that no one could see her face, nor did she give her lawyers a convincing argument for her actions. Since criminal defendants were not allowed to take the stand, Mary was not able to give her side of the story. The tabloids were hungry for blood, vilifying her on a daily basis, attacking her looks and her character, accusing her of hastening her husband’s death.

She was convicted mainly on the testimony of Louis Weichmann and John Lloyd. The jury voted the death penalty for her but added a recommendation for mercy due to her "sex and age." The recommendation was that the penalty be changed to life in prison. 5 of the 12 commissioners of the military tribunal petitioned President Andrew Johnson to show clemency because of her age and sex. Although only 42, she was at least two decades older than the other defendants. By 19th century standards, she was an old woman. President Andrew Johnson maintained that he never was shown the plea for mercy although several cabinet members stated that he was. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt said he had been in Johnson's presence when the president read the plea. However, Johnson believed that Mary Surratt ‘kept the next that hatched the egg,’ of the conspiracy and deserved to be hung (he also said that more women during the war should have been hung. Nice man!).

And where was her son John? Well after the aborted kidnapping, John continued his work as a courier. He was actually in Elmira, NY when the assassination occurred; from there he fled to Canada since it was neutral and had no extradition with the United States. From there he made his way to Europe where he served in the Pope’s army. It wasn’t until two years later that authorities caught up with him in Egypt and brought him back to stand trial in 1867. Surratt maintained that his mother was innocent as well but it was too much, too little, too late since she was dead. Surratt’s trial ended in a mistrial.

As for Mary, she went to the gallows on July 7, 1865, along with Powell, Herold and Azerodt. Right up until the end, people expected that her sentence would be commuted. Four years after her death, her daughter Anna petitioned successfully to have her mother reburied in Mount Olivet cemetery in DC. Her grave simply reads Mrs. Surratt.

Although during her trial, newspapers and public opinion considered her guilty, after her execution the tide swung the other way. Mary Surratt’s situation pointed out the changing roles of women in society, particularly during the Civil War where women not only served as nurses but also as soldiers, spies, abolitionists, wearing pants in public. Women particularly working in espionage posed a dilemma for Union soldiers and federal officials. Did they treat them like they would a man? Or did they deserve special treatment because of their sex?

It seems clear from the evidence that Mary knew about Booth’s plan to kidnap the President, whether she knew about his plan to assassinate Lincoln is still unclear and historians will probably still be debating this point for years to come. While Powell claimed Mary was innocent, George Azerodt and David Herold claimed until the end that she was not. What is clear is that Mary Surratt gave safe harbor to Booth, treated him like family, and aided and abetted his efforts. Perhaps if John Surratt had given himself up when Mary was arrested, she would have been spared.

Further Reading:

The Assassin’s Accomplice – Kate Clifford Larson, Basic Books, 2008
Manhunt: The 12 Day Hunt for Lincoln’s Killer – James L. Swanson, HarperCollins, 2006
Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell
A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans – Michael Farquhar, Penguin, 2008


Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! I read Manhunt last year; will have to check out the other books you mentioned.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Susan. I don't think that she should have been hanged, but I do believe that she was involved more than people would like to think. No one knows what she and Booth talked about that day, whether or not he told her what he planned to do.

dave hambidge said...

I've had a busy week and saved this one for Friday to savour at length. Another smashing tale and thankyou for putting in enough side-details for us brits who are, by and large, woefully ignorant of The American Civil War.

FWIW, she seems to be guilty of someut, just love?


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

She certainly was a devoted mother to her children. I definitely think that she protected her son John, but she was also guilty of aiding and abetting Booth. She could have chosen not to but she didn't.

Unknown said...

well, even if she knew anything, did they really expect her to notify the authorities when her own son was involved????? and since when are people executed because of something they MIGHT know rather than something they've ACTUALLY DONE??? since she was renting rooms she gave "safe haven" to lots of people and could be seen to know lots about them even if she really didn't. If she "aided" the murderer, she should've been given a lighter sentence, as 4 of the 8 of them got, not hanged. I believe she died instead of her son, she didn't have any particular involvement, there is no real evidence, everything is "that person heard her say this to another person", so it is hearsay, and the bottom line is that SHE did NOT COMMIT MURDER. She was executed because an ex-tailor decided not to spare her as they had to find a scapegoat quickly to satisfy the thirst of people who think they are better than others i.e. the mob. This is what useless politicians do. But you don't sacrifice a person like that. With their logic, her daughter should also have been executed, she lived in that boarding house as well, so she must have known what her brother and his friends were up to. And maybe the other customers knew as well...........So, why not just kill them all?????????? This is such frail ground on which to built a conspiracy allegation. But the most shocking of all is that she was speedily tried by a military tribunal. I believe that she must have know bits of things, the kind of sporadic information offspring share with their parents, bits of info here and there, she didn't know the real details and schedule of the plan. Her job was such that she had many customers and all this "the nest that hatched the egg" sounds like demonizing to me. This is often done by people who think they are the righteous ones or by countries that think they are the righteous ones and justify every evil they do in this way. She did not do anything, she died instead of her son and she died "by association". Moreover, there were more grounds to execute her son, but when he was tried he was was found not guilty. If he was not guilty, then she must have been all the more "not guilty".