- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hanged for complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Whether or not she was guilty of that charge has been debated since that time.
Born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins near Clinton, Md., in 1823, she was the daughter of a farmer who died two years later, leaving her mother to manage a farm and raise three children. From ages 12 to 17, Mary attended Saint Mary's Female Institute, a Roman Catholic school in Alexandria, after which she returned to Maryland and in 1840 married John Harrison Surratt. Surratt was raised by a wealthy planter and his wife and eventually inherited the Oxon Hill Hundred in Prince George's County. Three children were born to the couple Isaac, Elizabeth Susanna (Anna) and John Jr.
In 1852, their home burned, and they built a combined house and tavern in what is now Clinton, at a crossroads that became known as Surrattsville. The tavern became a stagecoach stop, a post office and a polling place. Over time, John Surratt became his own best customer at the bar, and Mary Surratt sent her children away to school. In August 1862, her husband died, and son John (who had been studying for the priesthood near Ellicott City, Md.) returned home to help his mother.
The Civil War was felt at Surrattsville. Maryland remained with the Union, but most southern residents of the state favored the Confederacy, and young John Surratt soon became a Confederate courier. His brother Isaac had left Maryland on the day Lincoln was inaugurated president and would in time join the Confederate cause in Texas. Daughter Anna remained in a Catholic boarding school near Bryantown, Md., and the farm of a physician, Dr. Samuel Mudd.
By 1864, the family business became more than Mary Surratt could manage, and she leased it, moving her family to H Street in Washington, where she opened a boardinghouse. One of her roomers was Louis Weichmann, a fellow seminarian and friend of her son, John. A visitor to the rooming house, for the first time on New Year's Day 1865, was John Wilkes Booth.
Shortly before, on Dec. 23, Weichmann and John Surratt were introduced to Booth by Mudd on a street in Washington and had then gone to the National Hotel where Booth lived. There they heard the young actor's plan: Kidnap Lincoln and spirit him to Richmond. Because John Surratt knew southern Maryland, he agreed to guide the hostage takers across the Potomac River to Richmond. Two such abduction attempts were made, both failed.
Booth came often to the boardinghouse, "sometimes twice a day," according to Mary Surratt. On March 25, however, when he showed up, John Surratt agitatedly told his sister Anna that the actor was crazy and she should tell him that he was not at home.
A week later, John Surratt was in Richmond to receive dispatches for Gen. Edwin Lee in Montreal, which gave directions for disposition of Confederate funds to England in the event the South lost the war. On April 13, he was on another mission, to Elmira, N.Y., where a prison held 10,000 Confederate prisoners. John Surratt was to make sketches of the prison and its approaches in preparation for a prison break.
Meanwhile, on April 14, the day of the assassination, Weichmann prepared to take Mary Surratt to Surrattsville, ostensibly to collect money owed to her. Before they left, Booth appeared and gave Mary Surratt a package to give to John Lloyd, who had leased the Surrattsville tavern from her. (Later testimony claimed the package contained field glasses and Lloyd was implicated in the plot to abduct the president.)
While Mary Surratt was at the tavern, Lloyd was evidently drunk. He later testified at her trial that she had instructed him that day to have whiskey and "shooting irons" ready for "whoever called for them that night." That night, Booth and his guide, David Herold, arrived after the president had been fatally wounded, and Lloyd's statement did much to convict Mary Surratt. (Weichmann also testified for the prosecution.)
At John Surratt's trial in 1867 (he had fled the country, spent time in Rome, finally was arrested in Egypt, and was freed after it could not be proved he was in Washington during the assassination), Lloyd testified that drinking affected his memory. Moreover, he wasn't sure if Mary Surratt had given him the instructions to which he had earlier testified.
Mary Surratt was arrested on April 17 at the house on H Street. She was about to be taken to the Old Capitol Prison when Lewis Powell arrived having failed both in his attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward and to escape with Booth after Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre. Powell had boarded at her home for four days, but Mary Surratt said that she did not recognize him. At her trial, many testified to her poor eyesight.
While Powell was in prison and on the morning of his execution he tried to convince authorities that Mary Surratt was not involved in the assassination. The military tribunal forwarded a clemency appeal to President Andrew Johnson, who would always claim he did not receive it. The special provost marshal, Gen. John F. Hartranft, also believed Powell and also sent an appeal to Johnson to spare Mary Surratt that was ignored.
Another plea to the president came from the condemned woman's priest who had heard her confession. On the morning of the execution, he and her daughter Anna's numerous attempts to see the president at the White House failed.
On the afternoon of July 7, Mary Surratt was hanged, along with George Atzerodt, Powell and Herold.
Convinced that an innocent woman had been executed, the priest spent the rest of his life trying to clear Mary Surratt's name.
Elizabeth Steger Trindal is a free-lance writer and author of "Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy."



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