Mary Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States federal government. She was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.
The Surratt Family
Mary Surratt was born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins in 1823, in the southern Maryland town of Waterloo. Mary's birthplace was on what can now be considered Andrew's Air Force Base. Her parents, Archibald and Elizabeth Anne Jenkins, also had two sons. Mary attended a Catholic boarding school, The Academy for Young Ladies, in Alexandria, Virginia. At seventeen, Mary married John Harrison Surratt. They spent the early years of their marriage on the land that John had inherited from his foster parents, land that is now part of the Congress Heights area of Washington, D.C. Mary and John had three children together: Isaac, Anna, and John Jr.
The Beginning of the Surratt House
In 1851, a fire destroyed the Surratt's home, and John decided to build their new home in a different location. In 1852, John Surratt purchased a 287 acre piece of land in Prince George's County, not far from Mary's birthplace. This purchase was only the beginning of the Surratt's involvement in the community. By the fall of 1854, this building not only housed the Surratts, but also served as a tavern, polling place, and post office. The Surratt house quickly became a place where people could go to relax and discuss the country's seemingly imminent divide. The Surratts did not hide the fact that their sympathies lay with the South. While the extent of the Surratts' involvement with the Confederacy is still relatively unknown, it was proven at Mary Surratt's trial that weapons belonging to confederate agents were stored in the Surratt tavern. When John Surratt died suddenly in 1862, he left his family in financial ruin. Mary leased the family property out to a former police officer, John M Lloyd, and re-located to a townhouse on H street NW in D.C. She was able to earn a modest living by transforming several rooms into a boarding house.
The Conspiracy to Kill Lincoln
Union officers in Maryland arrested Mary's brother, Zadoc, for attempting to stop a Federal soldier from voting to re-elect Lincoln. In 1864, Mary's son, John Jr., met John Wilkes Booth and Booth quickly became a frequent visitor to the boardinghouse. John Jr. later claimed that he was involved in a plan to kidnap Lincoln, but denied having any involvement in the assassination. He also protested that his mother had nothing to do with the plot to kidnap or to assassinate Lincoln. Booth originally planned to kidnap Lincoln, and, along with the help of other co-conspirators, hid two Spencer carbines in the loft area of Lloyd's tavern. On April 11, 1865, Mary traveled back to her tavern with one of her boarders, Louis J. Weichmann. During their journey, they met up with John Lloyd, who later testified that Mary had told him that the "shooting irons" would be needed soon, a reference to the rifles hidden within the tavern by Booth's conspirators. On April 14, 1865, the day of Lincoln's assassination, Mary made another trip to the tavern, again with Weichmann. Lloyd testified that Mary told him to "have those shooting-irons ready that night, there would be some parties who would call for them." Mary claimed to have ridden out to her tavern only for the purpose of collecting money owed to her by John Nothey. At midnight on the night of the assassination, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold stopped at the tavern to collect their weapons. At this time, Lloyd gave them whiskey, pistols, and one of the two Spencer carbines, claiming that these were instructions given to him by Mary earlier that day. Booth and Herold then ventured southward and were aided on their journey by Southern sympathizers.
The Arrest and Trial of Mary Surratt
On April 17th, Mary was arrested despite having pled innocent to knowledge of the assassination plot. While Mary was being questioned, Lewis Powell, who had previously attempted to assassinate then Secretary of State William H. Seward, showed up at her door. Mary denied having ever seen him before, but witnesses later testified that Surratt and Powell had met several times prior to that day. Mary's trial gained more press than anyone else, as she was both the oldest conspirator and the only female. She maintained that she was innocent throughout the entire trial, even after the emergence of Booth's photo, belonging to her daughter, and a bullet mold in her desk. On June 30th, 1865, Mary was sentenced to death by hanging on charges of treason, conspiracy, and plotting Lincoln's murder. Powell and Herold were also sentenced to death, along with George Atzerodt, who led the failed plot to assassinate Vice President Johnson. Despite pleas from her children and lawyer, President Andrew Johnson signed her death warrant, stating that Mary had "kept the nest that hatched the egg."
On July 6, 1865, authorities informed Mary that she would hang the following day. She wept up until her final moments, joined by a priest and her daughter Anna. The night prior to her execution, Mary stayed up all night praying and refused breakfast the next morning. Her family and friends were ordered to leave her at 10am on July 7th. She spent her final hours with her priest.
As Mary walked up the thirteen steps to the gallows, she needed the support of two soldiers. The gallows themselves were on a ten foot high platform. Mary wore a long black dress and veil. In addition to those who were in charge of the execution and officials, one hundred additional spectators with tickets were present to watch the hanging. Mary Surratt's last words were spoken to a guard as he placed the noose around her neck. She spoke, "Please don't let me fall." All four conspirators dropped approximately 6 feet, but Herald and Powell did not die immediately, unlike Surratt and Atzerodt did. Mary supposedly gagged as she died. The bodies hanged for 25 minutes before they were examined and pronounced dead. Today, Mary Surratt's body rests in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Her headstone simply reads "Mrs. Surratt," and the man who sealed her fate, John Lloyd, rests in the very same cemetery.
Robin Wright in the role of Mary Surratt in the upcoming movie The Conspirator
. Courtesy of The American Film Company © 2010
On July 6 1865, Mary was informed that she would be hanged the following day. She then wept up until her final moments, and was joined by a priest and her daughter Anna. The night prior to her execution, Mary was up all night praying and refused breakfast the next morning. Her family and friends were ordered to leave her at 10am on July 7th. She spent her final hours with her priest.
As Mary walked up the thirteen steps to the gallows, she needed the support of two soldiers. The gallows themselves were on a ten foot high platform. Mary wore a long black dress and veil. In addition to those who were in charge of the execution and officials, one hundred additional spectators with tickets were present to watch the hanging. Mary Surratt’s last words were spoken to a guard as he placed the noose around her neck. She spoke, “please don’t let me fall”. All four conspirators were dropped approximately 6 feet, but Herald and Powell did not die immediately as Surratt and Atzerodt did. Mary supposedly gagged as she died hanging in the noose. The bodies hanged for 25 minutes before they were examined and pronounced dead. Today, Mary Surratt’s body rests in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington DC. Her headstone simply reads, “Mrs. Surratt”, and the man who may have sealed her fate, John Lloyd, rests in the very same cemetery.
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