originally published July 24, 2013
Normally I shy away from writing articles on topics which have already been turned into major motion pictures directed by Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright. But I’ve never seen the film The Conspirator, nor have I spoken to anyone who has, so I’m just going to play this one for the interesting subject matter it truly is.
Mary Surratt possesses the dubious honor of being the first woman in American history to be sentenced to death by a court of law. If ever someone thought to bill a ‘Crime of the Century’ for the 1800’s, Mary’s would most certainly be it: she was part of the conspiracy that took a president’s life. A beloved (and beloathed) president, who had just ended a war and liberated a lot of people.
But Mary’s connection with the assassination may not have been as solid as some (including those in the justice system) may have thought. It all depends on whom you ask.
Mary was a devout Catholic. She met and married John Surratt and promptly spurted out three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr. The family lived on an impressive piece of land that John had inherited in the District of Columbia. It was a lovely set-up, a perfect picture of mid-19th-century life. But beneath the surface, things weren’t good.
First off, John picked up a drinking habit. Then one of their escaped slaves torched the family cabin. No worries, John bought 200 acres of land in Clinton and set up his own tavern, hotel and post office. Mary was less than pleased. She was trying to raise her children in a proper Christian household, and her husband was sopping up every droplet of hooch he could find, while the family slowly sold off their land holdings to pay off debts.
Then the entire country went to hell.
The state of Maryland (and obviously D.C.) was pro-North, but Mary and John Surratt supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. And not just with words – Isaac Surratt left to join the Confederate army three days after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president. John Jr. dropped out of school and got to work as a courier for the Confederate Secret Service. Local authorities snooped around, but never found any reason to arrest the Surratts.
In August of 1862, John Surratt suffered a fatal stroke. John Jr. tried to help out, but the debts kept piling ever higher. Mary decided to move to the family’s townhouse in Washington DC. Some have speculated that Mary and John Jr. moved into the city in order to be better positioned as Confederate spies. Others believe it was a purely fiscal choice. But the crowd that began to frequent the boardinghouse (Mary still took boarders, even though she and her two kids were occupying most of the space) started to look a little suspicious.
- There was Louis J. Weichmann, John Jr.’s buddy who would end up giving the strongest testimony against Mary, naming every wayward Dixie-lover who spent time at the boarding house.
- Lewis Powell, who was supposed to stab US Secretary of State Frederick Seward on that fateful night in April, 1965. He tried, but never landed a fatal blow.
- George Azterodt, whose job was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. George chickened out, got drunk and slept through his assignment.
- David Herold, the guy who drove Powell to his failed murder attempt, then hid out with Lincoln’s killer.
- John Wilkes Booth. Well you knew his name was bound to pop up. Booth was never brought to trial for having plugged the president full of lead. Herold surrendered, Booth did not. This helped to make everyone in the country hungry for some sort of justice.
In addition to hosting the future stars of every wanted poster in the northeast, Mary also allowed the conspirators to stash weapons and ammunition at the tavern. Booth’s original plan had been to kidnap the president in March, then to trade him for the release of a number of Confederate prisoners of war. He felt this would put an end to the war, and force the North to acknowledge the Confederacy as a new nation. He had a team ready to nab Lincoln en route to a play being staged at a nearby hospital, but Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute.
Not long afterward, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. For Booth, that was it. Kidnapping the president was out – to paraphrase Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, he had to go.
And the base of operations for the assassination plot was Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse in Washington DC.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th. Everyone knew who had pulled the trigger, and it took no time for the police to ascertain who else was tied to Booth. They showed up at the townhouse on April 17th. Mary denied any involvement, but they found a photo of Booth in one of her frames. Okay, that might have been coincidence – maybe Mary was just a fan of his acting work. Then Lewis “Crappy-Stabber” Powell showed up wearing a disguise, just as Mary was being arrested. Powell had been hiding out in a tree for three days, freaked out after his botched attempt on the Secretary of State’s life. It was crappy timing, and it landed both of them in jail.
The prosecution produced nine witnesses who testified that the conspirators were frequent visitors to Mary’s townhouse. The fact that her sons had either been in or helped out with the Confederate Army didn’t help Mary’s case. 31 witnesses testified for the defense, trying to either impeach the testimony of the prosecution’s best witnesses or else show that Mary was a good and noble loyal Union supporter.
It didn’t work. Mary was found guilty on seven counts – only six were needed to apply the death penalty.
Mary was sentenced to die along with Powell, Herold, and even Azterodt, who had sucked back whiskey and skipped his contribution to the assassinate-o-rama on the night of April 14th. Powell became very vocal on Mary’s behalf, pleading for her sentence to be commuted, swearing she was innocent. He made no such effort for his own life – only Mary’s.
Five of the nine judges in the case signed a letter asking President Johnson for clemency, to have Mary’s sentence reduced to life in prison. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt claims he’d shown the letter to the president, and that the president refused to sign an order for clemency. Johnson claims he never saw the letter. On July 7, 1865, at 1:15PM, Mary Surratt became the first woman in American history to swing from the gallows.
Whether or not Mary was truly involved in the conspiracy – and really, most of the evidence seems to indicate she was, though perhaps she was more involved in the kidnapping plot than the murder scheme – her fate was sealed by the company she kept. Sometimes it really is about who you know.