Historically Yours: Mary Surratt and the Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy

Hon. Bob Diamond

Hon. Bob Diamond

Did Mary Surratt hang for her son’s guilt? Eight people were convicted by the military court of helping John Wilkes Booth murder President Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at the Ford Theater. Four were put to death – one of them, Mary Surratt became the first women to ever hanged by the U.S. government. The evidence against the 45 year-old widow was inconclusive at best, and her guilt has been debated ever since.

Booth had enlisted the aid of Mary’s son, John, who had been a spy for the Confederacy and so Mary’s boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., had been a meeting place for the plotters. Their plotting was enough to arouse the suspicions of another boarder, Louis Weichmann, who later became a chief witness against Mary. Because of a close relationship with the plotters, Mary may have suspected what the group was up to, however, no other testimony even suggested that Mary knew any details of the scheme. As it turned out, Weichmann, the key witness, may have testified to save himself. For it was he who drove Mary Surratt into town on the day Lincoln was shot. There, Booth asked her to deliver a package. It contained binoculars that he used in his escape. Mary later denied all knowledge of its contents. Less than a month after the assassination, John Wilkes Booth was dead and the trial began. John Surratt, considered by prosecutors to be a most important figure in the case, was a fugitive in Canada.  By default, Mary became the focal point. The prosecutors may well have hoped that, by bringing her to trial, they would shame her son into turning himself in. But not even the urgent threat of his mother’s execution impelled John Surratt to return. There was no surprise when three of the conspirators – Lewis Powell (alias Paine), George Atzerodt and David Herald – were condemned to die, but shock followed with Mary Surratt’s death sentence. Four other defendants were given various prison sentences. The night before the execution, Powell declared Mary was innocent- to no effect. Five of the nine military judges signed a letter asking President Johnson to commute Mary’s sentence to life in prison. Denied! And so, mounting the scaffold, Mary Surratt took her pitiful place in history.

Four years after the execution, it was discovered that the prosecutors had suppressed vital evidence, a diary that had been found on Booth’s body at the time of his death. It revealed that the original plan had been to kidnap Lincoln, not to kill him, and that Booth had not decided to assassinate the president until the very day he committed the act. Hence, Mary Surratt could not have known about it. John Surratt was finally arrested and brought home to stand trial. He was tried but not convicted. His mother had already paid the price for his part of the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

Sources: Wikepedia, the free encyclopedia, “Mary Surratt.”: “Strange Stories, Amazing Facts of America’s Past”, Readers Digest; October 1990: Ashevilletribune.com, ‘The Hanging of Mary Surratt’, by Mike Scruggs, For the Tribune Papers: Smithsonian.com, “Was Mary Surratt a Lincoln Conspirator”


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