Mary Surratt Facts
Known for: first woman to be executed by the United States federal government, convicted as a co-conspirator with Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, though she asserted her innocence
Mary Surratt Biography
Mary Surratt's early life was hardly notable. Mary Surratt was born on her family's tobacco farm near Waterloo, Maryland, in 1820 or 1823 (sources differ). Raised as an Episcopalian, she was educated for four years at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Virginia. Mary Surratt converted to Roman Catholicism while at the school.
Marriage to John Surratt:
In 1840 she married John Surratt. He built a mill near Oxon Hill in Maryland, then bought land from his adopted father. The family lived for a time with Mary's mother-in-law in the District of Columbia. In 1852, John built a home and tavern on a large plot of land he'd purchased in Maryland. The tavern was eventually also used as a polling place and post office as well. Mary first refused to live there, staying at her in-laws' old farm, but John sold it and the land he'd bought from his father, and Mary and the children were forced to live at the tavern.
In 1853, John bought a house in the District of Columbia, renting it out. The next year, he added a hotel to the tavern, and the area around the tavern was named Surrattsville. John bought other new businesses and more land, and sent their three children to Roman Catholic boarding schools. The family owned a number of slaves, though some were sold to settle debts. John's drinking worsened, and he accumulated debt.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Maryland stayed in the Union, but the Surratts became known as sympathizers with the Confederacy. Their tavern was a favorite of Confederate spies. Did Mary Surratt know this? The answer is not known for certain.
Both of the Surratt sons became part of the Confederacy, Isaac enlisting in the cavalry of the Confederate States Army, and John Jr. working as a courier.
In 1862, John Surratt died suddenly of a stroke. John Jr. became postmaster and tried to get a job in the Department of War. In 1863, he was dismissed as postmaster for disloyalty. Newly a widow and saddled with debts her husband left her, Mary Surratt and her son John struggled to run the farm and tavern, while also facing investigation by federal agents for their possible Confederate activities.
Mary Surratt rented the tavern to John M. Lloyd and moved in 1864 to the house in Washington, DC, where she ran a boardinghouse. Some authors have suggested that the move was meant to advance the family's Confederate activities. In January, 1865, John Jr. transferred his ownership of the family's properties to his mother; some have read this as evidence he knew he was engaged in treasonous activity, as the law would permit the property of a traitor to be seized.
In late 1864, John Surratt, Jr., and John Wilkes Booth were introduced by Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth was seen at the boardinghouse frequently from that time. John Jr. was almost certainly recruited into the plot to kidnap President Lincoln. The conspirators hid ammunition and weapons at the Surratt tavern in March 1865, and Mary Surratt traveled to the tavern on April 11 by carriage and again on April 14.
John Wilkes Booth, escaping after shooting the President at Ford's Theater on April 14, stopped at Surratt's tavern, run by John Lloyd. Three days later, District of Columbia police searched Surratt's home and found a photograph of Booth, possibly on a tip associating Booth with John Jr. With that evidence, and testimony of a servant overhearing mention of Booth and a theater, Mary Surratt was arrested along with all others in the house. While she was being arrested, Lewis Powell came to the house. He was later linked to the attempt to assassinate William Seward, Secretary of State.
John Jr. was in New York, working as a Confederate courier, when he heard of the assassination. He escaped to Canada to avoid arrest.
Trial and Conviction:
Mary Surratt was held at the Old Capitol Prison's annex and then at the Washington Arsenal. She was brought before a military commission on May 9, 1865, charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president. Her lawyer was United States Senator Reverdy Johnson.
John Lloyd was also among those charged with conspiracy. Lloyd testified to Mary Surratt's prior involvement, saying she had told him to have "shooting-irons ready that night" on her April 14 trip to the tavern. Lloyd and Louis Weichmann were the main witnsses against Surratt, and the defense challenged their testimony as they were also charged as conspirators. Other testimony showed Mary Surratt loyal to the Union, and the defense challenged the authority of a military tribunal to convict Surratt.
Mary Surratt was quite ill during her incarceration and trial, and missed the last four days of her trial for illness.
At the time, the federal government and most states prevented felony defendants from testifying at their own trials, so Mary Surratt did not have an opportunity to take the stand and defend herself.
Conviction and Execution:
Mary Surratt was found guilty on June 29 and 30 by the military court of most of the counts on which she'd been indicted, sentenced to be executed, the first time that the United States federal government had subjected a woman to capital punishment.
Many pleas were made for clemency, including by Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna, and five of the nine judges of the military tribunal. President Andrew Johnson later claimed he had never seen the clemency request.
Mary Surratt was executed by hanging, with three others convicted of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, in Washington, DC, on July 7, 1865, less than three months after the assassination.
That night, the Surratt boardinghouse was attacked by a souvenir-seeking crowd; finally stopped by police. (The boardinghouse and tavern are today run as historical sites by the Surratt Society.)
Mary Surratt was not turned over to the Surratt family until February of 1869, when Mary Surratt was reburied in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC.
Mary Surratt's son, John H. Surratt, Jr., was later tried as a conspirator in the assassination when he returned to the United States. The first trial ended with a hung jury and then the charges were dismissed because of the statute of limitations. John Jr. admitted publicly in 1870 to have been part of the kidnap plot which led to the assassination by Booth.
More About Mary Surratt:
Also known as: Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt
Religion: raised Episcopalian, converted to Roman Catholicism at school
- Mother: Elizabeth Anne Webster Jenkins
- Father: Archibald Jenkins, tobacco farmer, Maryland
- husband: John Harrison Surratt (married 1840, died 1862; tavernkeeper)
- children: three, including two sons involved in the Confederacy
- Isaac (b. 1841)
- Elizabeth Susanna known as "Anna" (1843)
- John Jr. (1844)
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