Earl Staggs is back today with another “History’s Rich With Mysteries” guest blog post. Today he considers the case of Mary Surrat.
HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES
When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.
MARY SURRATT - The First Woman Executed by the US May Have Been Innocent
by Earl Staggs
On April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, and five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army, Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, was shot by John Wilkes Booth. The first American president to be assassinated died the following morning. Vice President Andrew Johnson automatically became President.
Twelve days later, Booth was tracked to a farm in Bowling Green, Virginia, and killed.
Immediately, anyone who'd had contact with Booth was rounded up and jailed. Eight of them were tried by a military tribunal headed by newly ascended President Johnson. Four of them were convicted and hanged. One of the four was Mary Surratt, owner of a boardinghouse in Washington which Booth and several other suspects were known to frequent.
Mary Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States government. Many believed in her innocence then and a number of historians still do today.
Mary Elizabeth Jenkins, born in Waterloo, Maryland, was seventeen when she married John Surratt. In 1853, they purchased land near what is now Clinton, Maryland, two hours by horseback from Washington, DC, and built a tavern and a post office. The property became known as Surrattsville. They raised three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr., and over the next few years, acquired other properties, including a boardinghouse in Washington. In 1864, two years after her husband died, Mary rented the tavern in Surrattsville to an ex-policeman named John Lloyd and moved to the house in Washington.
Lloyd would later provide key evidence against her at her trial. Louis J. Weichmann, a boarder in Mrs. Surratt's house and friend of her son John Jr., also gave incriminating testimony against her. The testimony of those two men was largely responsible for Mary being found guilty. Both men were found not guilty.
The trial lasted seven weeks, with 366 witnesses testifying. On June 30, 1865, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt wereconvicted as co-conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and sentenced to death by hanging.
From the scaffold, Lewis Powell said, "Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us."
The executions took place on July 7, 1865.
John Wilkes Booth’s original plan was to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war being held in Richmond. He and Mary Surratt's son John Jr. recruited others and held meetings as Mary's boardinghouse in Washington and the tavern in Surrattsville. The kidnap plan fell through at the last minute, and Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln instead. He assigned co-conspirators to assassinate Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, but Booth was the only one who was successful. They believed murdering the President and two of his possible successors would throw the U.S. government into chaos and dysfunction.
Some historians still believe that while Mary possibly knew about the kidnap plot, she was not aware of Booth's last minute decision to assassinate instead. Had she been tried for being part of the aborted kidnap plot, her sentence might have been prison time instead of the gallows. Many also believe false testimonies by Louis Weichmann
The Surrattsville tavern and Mary Surratt's boardinghouse in Washington are historical sites run by the Surratt Society. The courtyard of the Washington Arsenal, now named Fort LeslieJ. McNair, where the executions took place, is now a tennis court.
Earl Staggs ©2016
Texas author Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.
He invites any comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.