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Anna Surratt: Another Booth victim
One of the sadder names connected with the Lincoln assassination is that of Anna Surratt.
Anna is remembered chiefly for her heartbreaking — and unsuccessful — efforts to save her mother, Mary, from being hanged by the U.S. government as a member of John Wilkes Booth’s gang. Even after Mary Surratt’s execution, history was not quite finished with Anna. She reappeared in the public eye from time to time and even became an issue in the 1880 presidential election.
After President Lincoln was shot and Secretary of State William H. Seward stabbed on the night of April 14, 1865, authorities launched a massive manhunt for Booth and his fellow conspirators. Of the many persons arrested, eight eventually were put on trial before a military panel.
Four of the defendants were sentenced to death, including Mary Surratt. Among other things, she was accused of allowing her boardinghouse in downtown Washington to be used as a meeting place for Booth and friends. Debate continues to this day as to whether she was actually involved in the assassination plot.
After the guilty verdict, a tearful Anna tried to see President Andrew Johnson at the White House to plead for her mother’s life. She was prevented from doing so by the guards and also by Sen. James Lane and former Sen. Preston King, both of whom would later commit suicide.
Just then, Mrs. Stephen Douglas, widow of the late senator, showed up and swept past the guards to see the president on Anna’s behalf. She was unable to change Johnson’s mind, however.
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who had served the North in such battles as Gettysburg, was in command at the Washington Penitentiary, where the defendants were being held. On July 7, 1865, the day of the execution, he stationed relays of cavalry all the way to the White House. If Johnson changed his mind and granted a last-minute reprieve, the news would reach Hancock as soon as possible. No such reprieve came.
At this point, except for family friends, Anna was quite alone. Her father had died years before. John Surratt, her younger brother, was on the run as a purported Booth conspirator. Although he would be caught in 1867 and put on trial, the government would be unable to convict him, and he would go free. There was an older brother named Isaac who had been fighting for the Confederacy, but he had yet to come home.
On top of that, Anna soon was in danger of losing her home. The Aug. 16, 1865, Evening Star, quoting from a Boston Herald correspondent, revealed that Mary Surratt’s legal counsel was pressuring Anna to sell the house.
Mary had had to mortgage the place to pay for a lawyer. Then “the astute gentleman,” as the Star called him, found out that John Surratt would have to appear in court for any such sale to take place. John was still out of town, of course. The Star added that at least Anna’s health had returned and that she was “receiving a large number of sympathizing visitors.”
Several families did, in fact, occupy the house over the next two years. Inevitably, perhaps, rumors arose that the house was haunted. The New York Times of Dec. 23, 1866, even ran a brief piece denying the rumors. The occupant just then was a brevet brigadier general, George W. Balloch, the chief disbursing officer for the Freedman’s Bureau. The Times noted that the only spirit to be found in his household was “that of the ‘bold John Barley Corn’ ” — in other words, liquor.
The home finally was sold on Nov. 13, 1867. It never became a historic site, but remained in private hands. In 1922, one owner turned the ground floor into a store and the second and third floors into apartments. On Jan. 6, 1928, the police raided the place for illegal sale and possession of liquor. The building still stands, though the interior has undergone further alterations.
There also was a Surratt tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton). It was sold March 10, 1869, to a Robert W. Hunter. He bought the building and 6 acres around it for $3,500. The tavern is now a historical attraction and is open part time to visitors.
Just a short time before the tavern sale, the Daily Memphis Avalanche ran a brief snippet: “Annie [sic] Surratt will remove to Baltimore and become a school teacher.” Later that same year, on June 17, Anna married professor William P. Tonry.
Tonry was a chemist working for the surgeon general’s office. In one of those coincidences of which the Civil War era has so many, his workplace was at Ford’s Theatre, which had been converted into government offices shortly after the assassination. The couple were married at St. Patrick’s Church a couple of blocks from Ford’s.
The ceremony was kept private, and there were no bridesmaids. Isaac was at Anna’s side, and John sat in a front pew. Just a few close friends were invited. The bride, said the Baltimore Sun the next day, “appeared in better health than she has enjoyed for years.” The couple then headed “on a bridal tour North.” This strict attention to privacy was to characterize Anna’s later years. She wanted to live her life as quietly as possible.
On this occasion, at least, it wasn’t quietly enough. Four days after her marriage, some spiteful soul at the War Department fired Tonry from his job.
Anna and her husband eventually moved to Baltimore. Tonry resumed his chemistry practice and sometimes even testified in court cases. At last, it looked as if a quiet life lay ahead, but in 1880, the politicians had other ideas.
During the presidential campaign that year, the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, and the Democrats chose Hancock. Somebody tried to use Hancock’s connection with the Mary Surratt execution to turn voters against him.
Anna and her husband were having none of it, however, and said so in a lengthy interview on the front page of the July 2, 1880, Evening Star. According to the Star, the couple was facing swarms of reporters as well as a flood of letters and telegrams, all seeking to draw out Anna’s opinion of Hancock. The Star said the attention “has made her extremely nervous, and she cannot talk upon the subject even to her intimate friends.”
Professor Tonry was a bit more forthcoming. To start with, he disowned an earlier supposed interview that had been making the rounds: “We have made no such statement, nor is it our present purpose to affirm or deny anything that may be said upon either side of the unpleasant subject.” The professor did say, however, “that the republican party is responsible for the murder of Mrs. Surratt. … No party ought to think of making capital of the matter.”
In passing, the Star’s readers also learned that Tonry and Anna had “two bright little children, between 5 and 8 years of age,” who “hung nervously about her side.” Also, Anna’s hair was “slightly streaked with grey.” By this time, the Star also added, brother John had become chief clerk for a Norfolk shipping line, with Isaac as a clerk under him.
As it happened, Hancock lost narrowly to Garfield. The new president would be assassinated by a gunman a few months after being sworn in.
Anna and her family finally dropped out of the news after that. No doubt that was how they wanted it. Anna eventually would have two more children. She was bedridden in her later years and died of kidney disease on Oct. 24, 1904. She was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, in an unmarked grave next to Mary.
Although one of the assassination story’s more obscure players, Anna was yet another victim of Booth’s crime, another in a list that seems to have no end.
John Lockwood is a Washington writer.
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