Surratt was convicted of "Treason", "Conspiracy" and "Plotting Murder" of President Abraham Lincoln. Her tombstone simply reads "Mrs. Surratt".
The Enduring Enigma of the First Woman Executed by the U.S. Federal Government
It’s been 150 years since the first conspirators who killed Abraham Lincoln were executed. Among them was Mary Surratt, who was the first woman to be executed by the federal government—but whose story remains a mystery to this day.
Surratt stands at the border of Civil War conflict. After all, she was from Maryland, a state that straddled North-South loyalties. As a child on a tobacco farm and, later, a farmer’s wife, Surratt’s loyalties skewed Southern and pro-slave: her family owned seven slaves. In 1851, her family farm burned to the ground, allegedly set ablaze by an escaped slave. By the time her openly secessionist husband died in 1862, her home was being used as a safe house for Confederate spies. The death of her husband, who was heavily in debt, led to a series of financial catastrophes for Surratt, which eventually prompted her to move to Washington, D.C. and open a boardinghouse in 1864. (The house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now a sushi restaurant and karaoke spot).
It’s unclear how much Surratt knew about the use of her boardinghouse—or the tavern she owned nearby—as a place of Confederate conspiracy. Her own son, John Surratt, Jr., was a member of the Confederate Secret Service, and by late 1864 her house had a frequent visitor, an actor named John Wilkes Booth.
On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse was visited by members of another police force: The District of Columbia was seeking not only Booth, but also Surratt’s son, who was suspected of helping attack U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was shot by one of Booth's accomplices, Lewis Powell, as Lincoln was being attacked across town. One historian calls Mary Surratt’s testimony under police questioning “confident and arrogant.”
She claimed ignorance of any plot to kill the President, despite testimony from her tavern keeper that she had told him to keep guns at the ready on the day of the assassination—guns that were later used to kill Lincoln. This testimony linked her to Booth and other conspirators, including her son. The tavern keeper, John Lloyd, reportedly cried out “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!” when he heard of Lincoln’s murder.
Surratt was imprisoned in the Old Capital Prison along with the owner of Ford’s Theatre, Booth’s brother, Dr. Samuel Mudd and many other suspected co-conspirators. She was tried by a military tribunal instead of a civil court, a move that seems to have been motivated by lingering distrust between North and South, bitterness over the assassination and a desire to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.
At her trial, Surratt was defended by several priests and friends the New York Times called “constant and faithful.” But their testimony and her own protestations of innocence were not enough. Not only was she convicted, she was sentenced to death, along with the other alleged co-conspirators, on June 30, 1865. It was a move that shocked the country.
Despite last-minute attempts to gain clemency and commute her sentence to life in prison, Mary Surratt was executed by hanging on July 7 of that year. Dressed in black, she led the procession of prisoners to their death. Before she was hanged, she is reported to have asked the guard near her not to let her fall.
Surratt never stopped defending her innocence—and nor did her co-conspirators. Before being executed, the co-conspirator who shot Seward claimed she was innocent (a debate that still continues to this day). But what of her suspected conspirator son? Just call him the one who got away: though he was tried in civil court in 1867, the government dropped all charges against him—despite his admission that he had been part of a conspiracy to kidnap the President.
Mary Surratt: Accomplice or mastermind? Role in Lincoln's assassination still sparks debate
On July 8, 1865, the front page of the Tribune carried news of the executions in its "News By Telegraph" column: "The assassination tragedy has at length come to a close. The curtain has fallen upon the lifeless forms of four of its actors."
The historic military tribunal had been covered relentlessly by the Tribune, along with other major newspapers and wire services — even though reporter access to the courtroom was restricted and unpredictable.
A Tribune reporter with one of the few courtroom passes at the start of the tribunal in May 1865 described Surratt, who sat on a "prisoner's platform": "This miserable creature is looking stronger and apparently more reconciled."
In the same dispatch, the reporter described a judge-ordered trip to the Ford Theater, where Lincoln had been shot. "Everything remained undisturbed inside the building, just as it was at the time of the assassination, except the chair in which Mr. Lincoln sat when he was shot has been taken away."
Tribunal testimony eventually confirmed that Surratt was a willing accomplice. The Tribune reported how Surratt arranged for guns and ammunition to be hidden in a tavern she owned in Maryland. After Lincoln was shot, Booth and an accomplice rode to the tavern to collect the "shooting irons."
Surratt, who kept her face covered for most of the tribunal with a black veil, was a national curiosity. She was a staunch Confederate and held close ties with the men accused of plotting to kill Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, who survived an attempt on his life.
For almost a month, the Tribune editors brought coverage of the tribunal and its many witnesses. Louis Weichmann, a tenant of her D.C. boardinghouse, provided details of the comings and goings of the men accused of conspiracy, including Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen and Ed Spangler. Surratt's son, John, also was accused but had escaped into Canada. Another conspirator, Lewis Paine, was charged with the attack on Seward. (Paine later revealed his name was actually Powell).
Through wire dispatches and Tribune reporters at the tribunal, readers learned how Surratt supplied the "shooting irons," a letter and a package for Booth as well as a safe house in which to plot the assassination.
An Army major, the Tribune reported, testified about Surratt's arrest: "Mrs. Surratt did not even ask for what she was arrested. She expressed no surprise or feeling at all."
At the end of the tribunal, four of the alleged accomplices were convicted and sentenced to hang — Atzerodt, Herold, Paine and Surratt. Only one week separated the sentencing and the execution.
On the morning of the execution, select reporters entered the military prison and watched as officials completed the gallows construction and tested the four trapdoors.
Inside, reporters noted how each condemned inmate slept and whether breakfast was rejected. Surratt was said to have slept fitfully and refused her breakfast. Her daughter visited early in the morning, and the Tribune relayed the dramatic moment: "The meeting of the criminal mother and sorrow-stricken daughter was most heart-rending."
Few details were spared. Readers received a play-by-play account of how the four accomplices were walked up the gallows, as well as the prayers and statements made before the trapdoors swung open.
After the execution, public outcry claimed Surratt was an innocent victim. Tribune editors disagreed and ran an editorial admonishing critics for trying to make her a martyr. It pointed to the compelling evidence against Surratt and lamented that her son, the other part of what it dubbed an "ill-omened pair," was still missing. Her son, Tribune editors hoped, would soon be captured and tried: "One of them has been hanged, and the other will be hanged when he gets his desserts."
In the following decades, emotions surrounding Lincoln's assassination cooled, and historians have reconsidered Surratt's guilt. For a time, it was accepted that Surratt was a tragic victim who happened to own the boardinghouse where the accomplices convened.
The case influenced the justice system. Capital punishment against women plummeted in the decades following Surratt's execution.
Historians continue to argue Surratt's involvement, and some now go even further by suggesting that Surratt wasn't just an accomplice, but that she was the mastermind.
_Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi is the author of the forthcoming book _"Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago" (Chicago Review Press, 2017).