Mary Surratt Biography
Mary Surratt was convicted in 1865 in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. She was hung with the rest of the conspirators, but was she guilty?
July 7, 1865. Four prisoners climbed the 13 steps to a gallows at the Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Three of them were men convicted of murder and conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- Lewis Payne, David Herold and Georg Atzerodt. The fourth was a condemned woman -- Mary Surratt. As the executioner adjusted the rope around the neck of the 42-year-old, her legs bound with ropes, she uttered her last words. “Don’t let me fall.”
One hundred and thirty-five years later, the events that brought Mary Surratt to the gallows are still cloaked in mystery. Was she an actual conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, or simply a tragic victim of circumstance? Historians are sharply divided on the issue. And her descendants, of course, insist that she was innocent of any plan to assassinate the president.
But there is absolutely no doubt that Mary Surratt knew John Wilkes Booth. And her son, John, was a known Confederate spy who had extensive dealings with Booth. (John fled the country immediately after the murder and was not brought to trial until three years later.) In fact, all five men involved in the conspiracy -- including Lewis Payne, Georg Atzerodt and David Herold -- had frequently met in Mary’s boarding house on H Street in Washington.
Innuendo may have been enough to convict Mary, considering the tenor of those tumultuous times. But it was the damning testimony of one of her boarders, as well as that of the renter of her tavern in Surrattsville, that directly led her to the gallows.
After Lincoln’s assassination Andrew Johnson became president, but the country was being run by Edwin M. Stanton, a rotund, bespectacled egotist, who had been at odds with Lincoln for most of his presidency. Stanton was a loyal ally of the Radical Republicans in Congress. The radicals had no sympathy for the defeated South. Lincoln wanted to welcome the former Confederate states with open arms. The radicals wanted to punish her severely.
The murder of Lincoln by Southerner John Wilkes Booth whipped the radicals into a frenzy. They imagined the assassination as a wide-spread Southern intrigue to avenge the defeated Confederacy. They wanted blood for blood. Hundreds of suspected conspirators were thrown into prison on the flimsiest of evidence.
The investigation soon focused on Mary Surratt and her son. Police arrested Mary at her boarding house at the very moment that Lewis Paine, who was known to have attempted and failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward -- came to call.
Mary claimed ignorance of what Booth and his associates had planned. Lewis Paine, now in chains, also insisted that Mary was innocent in any involvement. But no one in authority believed it. The law had Mary Surratt -- the mother of a known Confederate spy and an associate of John Wilkes Booth -- in its clutches and was not about to let go.
In many ways Mary Surratt was her own worst enemy. Her testimony was filled with flaws. For one thing, she claimed that she had never seen Paine before, yet he appeared at her boardinghouse at the time she was arrested.
Secondly, she had not only made at least two fateful trips to Surrattsville just before the Lincoln assassination, she had taken along a witness that could testify against her. Surratt boarder Louis Weichmann testified that he had accompanied Mrs. Surratt to the Surratt Tavern to meet John Lloyd, who rented the building. According to Weichmann, she told Lloyd that the “shooting irons” would be needed shortly.
Then three days before the assassination, she again traveled to see Lloyd -- once again accompanied by Weichmann who drove the rented buggy. This time she gave Lloyd Booth’s French field glasses. Then she reminded him at the weapons stored at the tavern would be needed very soon.
Given the zeal by which the conspirators were being prosecuted by the government, both Weichmann and Lloyd decided that it would be in their best interests to testify against Mary Surratt. Mary denied the charge that she had gone to Surrattsville to check on weapons. She said that she had gone there to collect a debt from a man named John Nothey.
Both Lloyd and Weichmann insisted that was a lie. There was no such person as Nothey. But public opinion turned against their testimony. When found guilty with the rest, the court issued a plea for mercy that Mary be imprisoned for life rather than hung. The plea was allegedly sent to President Andrew Johnson who later claimed he never saw it. (Judge Advocate Joseph Holt, on the other hand, said that Johnson did receive the plea and that he was in his presence when the president read it.)
There is little or no doubt as to the guilt of Booth, Paine, Atzerodt and Herold in the plot to murder Abraham Lincoln. And on the surface, it would seem as if Mary Surratt might have been part of the same conspiracy. Both Lloyd and Weichmann stuck to their testimony. In fact in 1902, when Weichmann was on his deathbed, and had an opportunity to clear his conscience, he continued to maintain that his testimony in the trial was true.
Then, in 1977, the so-called “Lost Diary” of Georg Atzerodt surfaced. According to Atzerodt, Mary Surratt was aware that guns were hidden in Surrattsville and that, on the actual day of the assassination, she had traveled there to check on them.
Was Mary Surratt guilty of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln? Experts say there is still that shadow of a doubt -- especially in light of the apparent determination of the Radical Republicans to punish anyone in sight for the death of Abraham Lincoln. And it is a well-known fact that the trial of the Lincoln conspirators was a high-profile sham.
In matters of justice, it was probably not one of the nation’s finest hours.