Saturday, December 17, 2016

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES: MARY SURRATT - The First Woman Executed by the US May Have Been Innocent by Earl Staggs

Earl Staggs is back today with another “History’s Rich With Mysteries” guest blog post. Today he considers the case of Mary Surrat.


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 were convicted as co-conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and sentenced to death by hanging. After sentencing Mary Surratt to hang, five of the nine jurors signed a letter recommending clemency, but President Johnson refused to stop the execution and later claimed he never saw the letter.
After the guilty verdict, Mary's daughter Anna stood on the White House lawn and pled unsuccessfully to see President Johnson, hoping she could convince him to have pity on her mother. She was not granted permission to see him.
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 and John Lloyd were instrumental in her conviction and their being set free.
Mary's defense attorney argued that Lloyd could not be believed because he was "a man addicted to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors" and was motivated to "exculpate himself by placing blame" on Mary.
Lincoln assassination scholar Thomas Reed Turner says that, of the eight people accused of plotting to kill Lincoln, the case against Surratt remains "the most that time and since."
Mary's son John escaped capture by fleeing the country for several years but later admitted he was part of the original kidnap plot. He was later tried but was not convicted of involvement in the assassination.

Was Mary Surratt merely a boardinghouse keeper who supported her son's friends without knowing they planned to assassinate the President of the United States? Historians disagree, but most agree that the military tribunal that tried Mary Surratt and the others had less stringent rules of evidence than a regular criminal court would have had.
Mary Surratt's boarding house later became a restaurant

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   

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Earl,

My husband and I saw the film based on Mary Surratt's trial. It was disturbing but well-done. As the mother of a criminal defense attorney, I was particularly interested in the presentation. You did an excellent job collecting the facts and information.

jrlindermuth said...

As always, an interesting historical article, Earl. It does seem more Mary was a victim of circumstance and not a conspirator.

Larry W. Chavis said...

Excellent presentation, Earl. In my reading, I've come to believe she was a victim, quite likely innocent.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Fascinating history, Earl. It does sound like she was used as a scapegoat by the other two. This story deserves to be better known.

Twisted Evilettes Evilettes said...

The movie based on Mary Surrat's trial is called The Conspirator & was directed by Robert Redford. It is very well done & should be watched by everyone interested in the trial.

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Fascinating history and you have presented it beautifully.

Earl Staggs said...

Jacqueline, I haven't seen the movie but I plan to. Thanks for coming by and commenting.

Earl Staggs said...

John, I suspect there was a touch of mob mentality and a rush to judgment. "They killed Lincoln. Let's hang a bunch of people."

Earl Staggs said...

Larry, I agree with you. She may have been in on the kidnap plot, but that's a long way from assassination.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, that's the fascinating thing about history. We can surmise and conclude but can never know the precise truth.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks for that info, Twisted Evilettes. I'll search for the movie and am anxious to see it.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks for the kind words, Judy. There are so many fascinating stories in history. Before I can get to them all, I'll be history myself.

Kaye George said...

What a sad story! Thanks for all the details--fascinating as always, Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

Yes, it is sad, Kaye, to think about innocent people who have been not only imprisoned but executed. It happens more than most people realize.

Unknown said...

Hi Earl, Sorry for the delay in commenting. As per your earlier “History’s Mysteries” I enjoyed this a great deal. Like roughly several million people The American Civil War” has long been a fascinating period for me. The questions surrounding Mary Surratt, her son and the known co-conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination have filled a number of wonderful books. The question of her guilty, like Lincoln’s death, now belongs to the Ages. You did a bang-up job here and thanks for all the work.

Something you and the others who have commented here might enjoy is a book concerning the night of the assassination from an unusual view.

“Backstage At The Lincoln Assassination – The Untold Story Of The Actors And Stagehands At Ford’s Theater”. A good read, by Thomas A. Bogar, published in 2013. It deals for the most part in a kind of first person account around the official (and some not so official) interviews of those who worked at Ford’s Theater on that night.

In terms of the value of eyewitnesses at crime scenes there is a small bit about one of the actors (I don’t remember his name just offhand); he was standing off-stage when Booth fired and leapt to the stage. According to this – he immediately recognized Booth when he landed on the stage, knife in hand. Booth was easily the most famous actor in the building at that time. He apparently did not enjoy a friendly relationship with Booth, and they caught each other’s faces clearly. This actor’s immediate reaction was that Booth was coming after him because of the unpleasant nature of their relationship. He turned tail and ran to the second floor dressing rooms where he refused to come out until the management of the theater and some soldiers were sent to bring together the people who had witnessed the events. He wasn’t aware that the President had been shot until they told him at that point.

Thought you might enjoy that. Hope you did.

Best, Joe