Mary Surratt (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)
This story is part of series on female assassins. Previously: The Israeli spy who never meant to be famous and Gerald Ford’s two would-be killers—a mom and a Manson girl
On the afternoon before Abraham Lincoln died, Mary Surratt took a little trip from her boarding house in D.C. to Surrattsville, the town in southern Maryland named after her family and the tavern they once ran there. To make the journey, about 14 miles southwest from the city, she asked one of her lodgers, Lou Weichmann, to rent a carriage and take her.
Surratt said she intended to pay a debt, but as Weichmann would later testify at her trial, before they left, John Wilkes Booth handed her a package. In Surrattsville, she left that package with John Lloyd—telling him, he testified later, to keep it ready, along with a set of rifles.
Just a few hours later, Booth would stop at the tavern to pick up those guns and the binoculars inside the package, while, back in D.C. the police showed up at Surratt’s boarding house, looking for him.
Within the next two months, Mary Surratt was arrested, tried and executed for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. When she was hung, along with three other conspirators, she became the first woman that the United States government ever executed. Until she died, though, she proclaimed her innocence—and for more than a century, many historians argued that she might have been wrongfully killed. But in the past few decades the case against her has been laid out more clearly: She knew exactly what she was doing.
“She was such a tragic figure, like an actress in a play,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author of the Surratt biography Assassin’s Accomplice. “She was a really smart woman who made her own independent decision. She believed in slavery and the way of life in the South. She felt that her life would be better if Lincoln were no longer president. She made a conscious decision to help Booth, like all those other conspirators.”
Surratt was born in a town southwest of D.C., in the lobe of Maryland that dips south in between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. As a young girl, she was sent to Catholic school—she was born Protestant, but converted after a couple years at the school—and married in 1840. She and her husband, John Surratt, stayed in the region, living in D.C. and just outside, until John died of stroke in 1862. By then, the family’s once-healthy finances had deteriorated. But John did leave his wife the tavern in Surrattsville and a townhouse in D.C.
The Surratt boarding house (Photo: Library of Congress)
The area of Maryland where the Surratts lived, though technically still part of the Union, was deeply sympathetic to the Confederate cause. One of Surratt’s sons had joined the Confederate army; the other, John Jr., served as a courier of clandestine information. The tavern was a safe house for confederate spies, and John Jr., once the town’s postmaster, had been investigated for disloyalty and kicked out of the job.
Near the end of 1864, John Jr. was introduced to a handsome actor, John Wilkes Booth. Soon, Booth was a regular at the Surratts’ D.C. boarding house, where Mary had relocated. At the time, Booth wasn’t planning to kill the president—just to kidnap him. But by the spring, after an attempted kidnapping had failed, the plan had transformed.
While John Wilkes Booth was planning Lincoln’s assassination, he and Mary Surratt met and talked many times. The question has always been: Did she know what he was planning? Did she help him?
After she was executed, public opinion shifted to Surratt’s side, as it was unusual for a woman to receive capital punishment for a crime, and it shocked people. In 1894, David Miller DeWitt, a Congressman from New York, wrote an account of the trial titled The Judicial Murder of Mary Surratt, in which he argues that she was, essentially, judged guilty before the trial even began. He notes, for instance, that Weichmann later said that “a statement had been prepared for him, that it was written out for him, and that he was threatened with prosecution as one of the conspirators if he did not swear to it.” Combined with the scandal of executing a woman, the shakiness of the case made Surratt’s conviction, of all the Lincoln conspirators, “the most controversial case both at the time and since,” writes historian Thomas Reed Turner.
“She was viewed as an innocent victim, because number one, she was a woman, she was the first woman ever executed by the federal government,” says American history scholar Ed Steers, “and the testimony seemed weak and circumstantial.” But when scholarly assassination historians started digging into the evidence against Surratt, he says, it became clear that she was indeed complicit. John Lloyd’s testimony, in particular, was damning—he filled out the details of how she had carried that package and told him, in advance of the murder, to ready the “shooting irons”—the rifles Booth would collect while trying to escape.
“In my opinion, if any reasonable historian reads the trial transcript, they will come to the conclusion that that government was quite right,” says Steers. “The evidence is there, and it’s quite good.”
And in Larson’s view, too, the excuses made for Surratt over the years—she was in love with Booth, but had no idea what he was up to; she was too religious to help plan a murder—don’t add up. The idea of a love-lorn or religious woman tapped into 19th century sympathies. But now we know better. “Not all women do things because they’re in love with some man,” says Larson. “They have their own agency. Now we know women were right there doing horrible things with men.” Including help assassinate one of America’s most beloved leaders.