Surratt, Mary E. (c. 1820–1865)

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Surratt, Mary E. (c. 1820–1865)

American woman hanged, despite little evidence of guilt, for involvement in Lincoln's assassination. Name variations: Mrs. Surratt; also seen as Mary Seurat. Born Mary Eugenia Jenkins near Waterloo, Prince George's County, Maryland, around 1820 (some sources cite 1817, others 1823); hanged in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1865; third child and first daughter of Samuel Isaac Jenkins; attended Miss Winifred Martin's Catholic Girls' School in Alexandria, Virginia; married John Harrison Surratt (a farmer), in 1835 (died 1862); children: Isaac Douglas Surratt (b. 1841); Anna Eugenia Surratt (b. 1843); John Harrison Surratt (b. 1844, who became a secret dispatch rider for the Confederacy).

Mary E. Surratt, wittingly or unwittingly, became involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Surratt moved to Washington and opened a boarding house, which became the meeting place of John Wilkes Booth, her son John H. Surratt, and other conspirators as they plotted to kill President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and other members of the government. After studying for the priesthood, John Surratt had become a spy for the Confederacy and was a friend of Booth's. Following Lincoln's death, Mary Surratt was arrested and, along with three of Booth's accomplices, was tried and convicted by a military commission appointed by President Andrew Johnson. The sentence of death by hanging was carried out in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1865. During the trial, doubts as to Surratt's guilt were expressed, and a long controversy in the press followed, the weight of opinion inclining in her favor. Whether she was guilty or not, most historians believe that Surratt was convicted and given the death sentence on flimsy evidence. Ironically, her son John, who had taken an active part in the plot, escaped to Canada. Brought back in 1866, he was tried the following year. But the case was nolle prosequi—the government did not have enough evidence to secure indictment—and he went free in 1868.

Born around 1820 near Waterloo, Maryland, Mary Eugenia Jenkins was raised by her mother (name unknown) after the death of her father Samuel Isaac Jenkins. She attended Miss Winifred Martin's Catholic Girls' School in Virginia and converted to Roman Catholicism, to which she remained faithful even during an era of intense anti-Catholic feeling. She was in her teens when she married farmer John H. Surratt, and they settled on his inherited farm near Glensboro, Maryland, eventually raising three children: Isaac, Anna, and John. The de struction of their farm by a fire forced John Surratt into work as a railroad contractor until he was able to buy 1,200 acres in Prince George's County in 1840. Although the purchase put the family deeply in debt, it was successful enough to allow the Surratts to build a tavern and store at the crossroads ten miles southeast of Washington, D.C. The area eventually became known as Surrattsville, later changed to Clinton.

Around the time of the Civil War, the Surratts experienced a series of catastrophes which led to the family's financial ruin. By 1857, half of their land had been sold or rented, and their property was further reduced when their slaves ran away and Union forces raided the farm. The family itself had its ranks divided when Surratt's son Isaac joined Confederate forces in the South; her other son, John, left for St. Charles' College near Baltimore; and her husband died in 1862. John returned home to assume his father's position as postmaster of Surrattsville, but this, too, was stripped away when a Republican took the post a year later.

Left without income, Mary Surratt moved to Washington, D.C. There she opened a boardinghouse on October 1, 1864, which benefited from a good location. Her son John joined her there that December, while maintaining his covert activities as a Confederate courier. Among his circle of Confederate associates was the famed actor John Wilkes Booth, who included John Surratt in his plan to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and hold him as ransom for the release of Confederate prisoners. Although she was apparently unaware of the plot, Mary Surratt's boardinghouse became one of the meeting places for the conspirators. The group aborted an attempt to kidnap the president in March 1865, and the collapse of the Confederacy a month later brought a halt to further kidnapping plans. Booth, however, decided to assassinate Lincoln as a way of avenging the South. Most of his friends left him at this point, including John Surratt, but Booth was able to retain several accomplices in what became a mounted attack on the presidential hierarchy.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Booth fatally shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater and later was himself shot and killed while evading capture. Fellow conspirator George Atzerodt did not carry out his assignment to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Lewis Powell (or Payne by some accounts), who was to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, the man third in line for the presidency, stabbed but did not kill his victim in his home that same night. The consequences of the devastating attacks were swift and no less forceful than the outraged reaction from the American public. The police arrested the major players quickly, and also took into custody Mary Surratt and her daughter Anna Surratt . Mary had just returned from Surrattsville the night of the murder. Her son John escaped to Canada.

Speculation abounded that the attack had been orchestrated by Confederate officials in an attempt to claim by subterfuge what they lost in the war. A military tribunal, hastily arranged, focused on eight people. Mary Surratt was the only woman among them, and appeared to be a special target of the prosecutors, who withheld evidence—such as Booth's diary—which might have exonerated her. During the course of the trial, which lasted less than two months, Surratt was not allowed to testify on her behalf. Although the testimony of some of the accused regarding her involvement was apparently coerced by federal authorities eager to convict, Powell's assertion that Surratt was innocent of the whole affair was ignored.

The evidence against Surratt was circumstantial at best. In an attempt to collect money to pay the mortgage on her property in Surrattsville, she had made two trips to an area known for being sympathetic to the South shortly before the attacks, and, in the course of the second trip, had delivered a package from Booth to one of her tenants, John Lloyd. This scant proof of her guilt, coupled with the role her boardinghouse played as a meeting place for the conspirators, was enough for the tribunal to convict her. Of the eight suspects, the tribunal gave four of them prison sentences and condemned the other four to be hanged, Surratt among them. Her lawyers learned about the verdict by reading it in the newspapers.

On July 7, 1865, Surratt joined the three men also sentenced to die on a scaffold in the courtyard of the Old Penitentiary Building. Powell continued to proclaim Surratt's innocence even at that final hour, but to no avail. All four were hanged before a solemn crowd. It was said that a majority of the members of the military commission had signed a petition for clemency to President Johnson, but that the petition had been withheld from his knowledge. This allegation was vigorously denied. However, as the shock over the president's death dissipated, Surratt's conviction came under scrutiny, particularly with the return of her son John from Canada in 1867. His trial differed from his mother's in that it was not tinged with vengeful emotions, and he gained release from prison in 1868 after the majority of the jury voted to acquit him.

Mary Surratt's conviction has inspired speculation as to why prosecutors went to such lengths to portray her guilt. Undoubtedly, the shock of a presidential assassination and the resulting pressure to convict with speed and severity were major factors, particularly coming so closely on the heels of the end of the Civil War. At a time when the emotions of every American citizen were the most strained, Surratt became a target of anti-Confederate hysteria. Some historians have also noted that aspects of Surratt's life apart from her politics may have negatively influenced the tribunal, specifically her Roman Catholic faith and the fact that she was a businesswoman. As a conciliatory gesture, authorities allowed Surratt's daughter Anna to give her mother's remains a proper burial in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


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B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York