Mary Surratt and the plot to kill Lincoln

Bob Diamond

Mary Surratt’s life should have been spared. Mary, together with Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold, were found guilty before a Military Tribunal of conspiracy with John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln and, in a rush to justice, all four were hanged on July 7, 1865 – less than three months after Lincoln’s death on April 15th. The three men “were all part of Booth’s inner circle. Not so with Mary.” Just before the hood was placed over his head, Powell cried out, “Mrs. Surratt is innocent!” Mary had testified that she knew nothing about the plot to kill Lincoln. She was “the first and only woman ever hanged by the U.S. government.” The key testimony against Mary came from a highly questionable witness, John Lloyd, who operated a tavern in Mary’s boardinghouse. Mary’s attorney argued that Lloyd, who was a conspiracy suspect, was motivated to “exculpate himself by placing blame” on Mary. Four other men were given prison terms for their passive roles in the assassination conspiracy.” Booth was previously shot and killed at Garrett’s farm in Virginia.

Booth and his conspirators may have discussed the kidnapping of Lincoln at Mary’s boardinghouse. The kidnapping plot was later changed to killing Lincoln. One man, Mary’s son John, could have saved Mary’s life but chose not to do so. John, a co-conspirator with Booth, could have been “instrumental in reducing his mother’s sentence by showing that her part in the assassination, if any, was passive support instead of active participation.” Rather than give testimony that might have implicated himself, but may have spared his mother’s life, John fled to Canada, “where he followed the news of his mother’s trial and execution.” Ironically, John was ultimately brought back to the U.S. and tried before a civilian jury as a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. A recent Supreme Court decision held that trials of civilians before Military Tribunals (as Mary was) were unconstitutional. John testified that both he and Mary were innocent of the plot to kill Lincoln. The jury deadlocked; 8-4 for not guilty. John was freed, to live with his conscience.

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