- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

Small brown street signs point the way to a modest 19th-century home in Clinton that guards a notorious past.

The Surratt House Museum is adorned with the standard historical marker and the customary visitors center, but this is no ordinary historical site. It's a lasting tie to the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln and the heated debate about the role of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed in the United States.

"I am very surprised that historians have not done more investigation into the Mary Surratt case since it is such a heavily argued issue. A 21st-century perspective views her as a woman railroaded by circumstantial evidence," says Laurie Verge, director of the museum.

The home's history is the background for an exciting tour in which guides clad in authentic 1860s garb provide the evidence regarding Surratt and the conspirators and leave the verdict up to the visitor.

"Historians have not been able to make up their minds … so how can we?" Ms. Verge says on divulging the museum's stance on Surratt's guilt or innocence.

The house's infamous reputation was sealed the night of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth retrieved guns and supplies from the home after mortally wounding Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Bits of evidence, including a tenant's testimony and a gun left in a storage space at the house, hint at Surratt's involvement, but historians have been unable to prove her direct participation in the conspiracy to assassinate the president.

A tour of the house indulges the curious visitor with details on the conspiracy. The house, which served as a hotel, tavern and post office, was occupied by the Surratt family from 1852 to 1864. When Mary Surratt's husband died in 1862, leaving her in debt and incapable of maintaining the 300-acre estate, she leased out the house and moved to the District. There she started a boardinghouse where Booth met with others, including her son, John Jr.

Tour guide Louise Lunn says few people realize the initial plan was to kidnap the president. It was not until the situation became muddied that the plot turned to assassination.

"The plot against Lincoln was supposedly a direct response to the Union raid in Richmond, the Confederate capital, and their similar plan to kidnap and perhaps assassinate Jefferson Davis," Ms. Verge says.

John Jr. fled to Canada after Lincoln's assassination, while Mary was arrested and faced a military trial. The museum displays photos of the military judges and jury. Among the evidence against Mary Surratt is the gun left for Booth to pick up, which visitors can view dangling in its original location on the wall; a picture of Booth underneath a painting in Mary's Washington home; and testimony from her Surratt House tenant, who claimed Mary came to the house on the day of the assassination to collect rent and left behind a package she said would be picked up later. The package supposedly contained field glasses for Booth, who retrieved it in his escape.

Those fascinated by the circumstances surrounding Booth's escape should check out the museum's John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour, a tour sponsored by the Surratt Society that retraces Booth's 12-day flight from the District to a farm near Port Royal, Va., where he was found by federal soldiers and killed.

"The tour has been a great success for many years now, but should be reserved for people 13 years and older due to the 12-hour length of the guided tour," says education coordinator Katrina Dodro.

Aside from the focus on the assassination conspiracy and the debate over Mary Surratt's role, the Victorian house offers a unique look at middle-class living at that time. At the beginning of the tour, children are given a list of items to discover throughout the house.

Visitors are permitted to view all of the rooms in the two-story house, a rarity among historical house tours. The upstairs features a guest bedroom set up as it would have looked for an overnight traveler and also a private master bedroom.

The museum is expanding constantly. A research facility was created recently to house a library of information on Lincoln, Booth, Surratt and the history of the mid-19th century. Ms. Dodro is working with teachers to create a curriculum for visiting students.

"With our new research facility, we are hoping to increase family-oriented activities. In the springtime we offer History Is Child's Play, a weekend of free admission into the house and grounds. Children can participate in 19th-century chores, such as butter churning. It gives them a chance to experience what life would have been like back then," Ms. Dodro says.

Visitors are encouraged to examine the exhibit in the visitors center, which offers a helpful electronic map that traces Booth's escape route. Artifacts displayed range from personal Surratt family letters to curious human-hair jewelry, including a bracelet owned by Mary Surratt's daughter Anna.

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES


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