Was Mary Surratt guilty? Historians and researchers have been asking that questions for over 150 years. Her involvement in the Lincoln assassination has been highly debated since her arrest, and even inspired the major motion picture, The Conspirator (amazon), directed by Robert Redford. The evidence against Mary Surratt was mostly related to aiding and abetting through her boarding house, but in addition, her misleading answers to investigator's questions and being the mother of John Surratt proved vital in her arrest. Ultimately she was found guilty, becoming the first woman executed by the U.S. government.
Mary was born and raised in southern Maryland, to tobacco farming parents. She went to catholic school in D.C. and then in her late teens met John Harrison Surratt. The couple was married in 1840 and over the next four years they had three children; Isaac, Elizabeth and John.
John Surratt, Sr. built several homes and businesses in his lifetime, including a home and tavern in Maryland. He also purchased a house in Washington D.C. on H Street. Both of these locations would later play vital roles in the assassination. Mary moved to the house in Washington in 1864, two years after the death of her husband. She kept the tavern in Maryland, renting it out to John Lloyd.
After the passing of her husband, Mary struggled to make money. In addition to renting out the tavern, she also turned the Washington home into a boarding house. Located at 541 H Street, the boardinghouse was only a few blocks away from Ford's Theatre, and centrally located in the city. Because of her son's, John Surratt, Jr., involvement with the Lincoln kidnapping, many of the conspirators stayed at the boarding house and a meetings took place there as well. This was part of the evidence against her in the later trial. However, despite her owning the building, nothing concrete was offered showing she was aware of the topic of discussion.
Evidence that proved more harmful to Mary Surratt was the testimony of Louis Weichmann. Weichmann, an old friend of John Surratt and resident of the boarding house on H street since November 1864, was privy to many instances of Mary in the company of John Wilkes Booth. Weichmann even accompanied Mary Surratt to the tavern in Maryland on the day of the assassination to deliver a package. The conversations that Weichmann overheard usually consisted of little more than a request to "go upstairs and spare a word" or that she needed to speak with Booth about "private business" (Trial Testimony).
On the trip to the tavern, Weichmann noted in court that he arranged for the buggy to driver Mary to Surrattsville and accompanied her on the trip. He stated that she delivered a "package, done up in paper, about six inches in diameter" and spent about two hours there. He noticed John Wilkes Booth at the tavern as well, and Mary Surratt speaking with him. Weichmann and Surratt returned to Washington, but there again he saw John Wilkes Booth one more time, approximately nine o'clock at the boarding house. Weichmann stated that after that last meeting, Mary turned "very nervous, agitated and restless." (Trial Testimony)
After the assassination, investigators placed John Surratt in the company of John Wilkes Booth and reward was offered for his capture. On April 17th, near midnight, the investigators visited the boarding house to question Mary and others at the residence. They discussed Mary's son, John and completed an inspection of the house, where the found a picture of John Wilkes Booth. Then during the questioning Lewis Powell showed up on the doorstep of the boarding house, carrying a pick-axe. They found him immediately suspicious, due to both his appearance and the late hour. When they questioned why he was there, he stated Mary Surratt hired him to dig a gutter. The investigators asked Mary if this is true and she responded, "Before God, sir, I do not know this man, and I have never seen him, and I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me." (Trial Testimony). Based on their strange behavior, links to John Surratt, and the picture of John Wilkes Booth, both Lewis Powell and Mary Surratt were arrested.
Once the trial against the Lincoln assassination conspirators began in May 1865, the most damning evidence against Mary Surratt came to light. It was provided by John Lloyd, the man she rented the tavern out to. According to Lloyd, John Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt visited him at the tavern "five or six weeks before the assassination". Surratt brought in two carbine rifles, ammunition, rope, and a monkey wrench. He asked Lloyd to hide them at the tavern, which he reluctantly did. The items remained hidden and were not spoken of until the day of the assassination, when Mary Surratt visited to the tavern. The trip that Weichmann referred to. During this trip, Lloyd states that Mary asked him to "have those shooting irons ready that night, there would be some parties calling for them, and that she gave him something wrapped in a piece of paper, and asked him to get two bottles of whisky ready also." (Trial Testimony)
Based on the evidence discussed, the military tribunal found Mary Surratt guilty of consipracy. She was sentenced to death along with David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell. Her lawyer, Frederick Aiken, fought until the end to have sentence lowered, but President Andrew Johnson disagreed. She was hanged July 7, 1865.
Other Pages You May Be Interested In:
The Surrratt Boarding House in Washington, D.C. on H Street
Source: Library of Congress