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Home > History > The Execution of Mary Surratt - Just or Unjust?

The Execution of Mary Surratt - Just or Unjust?

This article describes the 1865 charges, trial, conviction, and execution of Mary Surratt following the Lincoln Assassination.

Mary Surratt

Introduction

On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman in American history to be executed. Along with co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination: Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, Surratt was hung from the gallows at the Washington Arsenal. John Wilkes Booth, the mastermind behind the plot to murder Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice-president Andrew Johnson, had been hunted down and killed on April 26th. Surratt's guilt or knowledge in the plot has long been the subject of intense debate. Did she deserve to die?

What do we know?

We know that Mary Surratt owned a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., and that she was acquainted with John Wilkes Booth. In addition, in the days before the assassination, Booth gave her a package that contained binoculars and another that contained guns. Surratt delivered these packages to her Maryland boarding house and instructed Lloyd to prepare the "shooting irons" to be picked up. We also know that Surratt's son, Confederate spy John Surratt Jr., agreed to participate in an earlier plot that Booth devised to kidnap President Lincoln and bring him to Richmond. Mary probably knew her son was a spy, but to what extent she knew of either the plan to kidnap President Lincoln, or assassinate him, remains unclear. Additionally, we know that Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, all stayed at or visited Surratt's boardinghouse in the days and weeks before the assassination. Finally, we know that Surratt lied to investigators about knowing Lewis Powell, who showed up at her boardinghouse following the assassination while she was being interrogated by investigators. She also told the investigators that her son had been in Canada for two weeks, as he was a focal point of the investigation. Despite her efforts to lie to protect John, he would fail to repay the favor and instead fled to Canada in an attempt to avoid capture. For this, he was labeled a coward for the rest of his life. He would eventually be captured, but avoided jail time.

Evidence Mounts

Circumstantial evidence began to mount against Mary, although no "smoking gun" would ever emerge. She was arrested and her trial began on May 9th. Surratt, Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and four others, were tried together in a military court. Surratt was charged with aiding, abetting, concealing, counseling, and harboring the co-defendants. The testimony of John Lloyd, who revealed that Mary told him to have "shooting irons" ready at the boarding house for Booth was particularly damaging to Mary. The testimony of boarder Louis Weichman, who claimed to have overheard her son having conversations with Booth, Powell, and Atzerodt, many times in the four and a half months before the assassination was also very damaging. Weichman revealed the connections between the Surratt family and the Confederate spy network of Maryland.

The Verdict

Despite the unreliable witnesses that testified against Mary, she was found guilty on all but two charges and sentenced to death. Five of the nine judges in the case petitioned President Andrew Johnson for Mary's sentence to be commuted to life in prison because of her age and because she was a woman, but Johnson either never saw the petition or refused to sign it. Lewis Powell, who was also sentenced to death, swore that she was completely innocent before his death, although George Atzerodt implicated her further before his death.

Abraham Lincoln Articles

Abraham Lincoln Reading Comprehension (Grades 5 and up). These Include Between 7-10 Critical-Thought, Multiple Choice Qustions. Online Versions Give Immediate Feedback and Score Reports

Abraham Lincoln Activities

  • Important Places in the Life of Abraham Lincoln Interactive Map - This interactive map allows students to explore the important places in Abraham Lincoln's life such as New Salem, Springfield, New York City, and many others.
  • Mr. Polk's War - This captivating printable requires students to understand the concept of manifest destiny and to conduct a mock interview in which they answer tough questions in the role of Abraham Lincoln (against the Mexican-American War) and in the role of President James K. Polk (in support of the war).
  • Futility Versus Immortality - This activity requires students to analyze the qualities of poor leaders such as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan and contrast them with a leader such as Abraham Lincoln.
  • I'll Always Remember Where I Was - This historical prompts requires students to imagine the earth-shaking effect the news of the Emancipation Proclamation had on Americans in 1862. In the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation, students must write about the biggest news event of their lives and describe its impact.
  • The Power of Dreams - This printout describes Abraham Lincoln's famous dream about his own assassination and then requires students to describe and draw a scene from a powerful dream they've had.
  • Oh Captain! My Captain! - This printout describes Walt Whitman's famous Oh Captain! My Captain! elegy to President Lincoln and then asks students to think of their own hero and to write a similar poem.
  • Primary Source Analysis - Lincoln's Letter to Fanny McCollough This printable activity requires students to analyze a famous condolence letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a teenage girl after her father was killed in the Civil War.
  • With Malice for None, With Charity for All Decoding Puzzle - This activity requires students to decode and interpret the famous presidential quote uttered by Abraham Lincoln.
  • Dr. Samuel Mudd - Critical Thought Questions The printable narrative that describes the role Dr. Mudd played after Lincoln's assassination. It includes three short-answer questions regarding the main ideas of the article content, critical thought about the content, and vocabulary from the passage.
  • Ms. Laura Keene - Critical Thought Questions This printable narrative that describes the role Ms. Laura Keene played after Lincoln's assassination. It includes three short-answer questions regarding the main ideas of the article content, critical thought about the content, and vocabulary from the passage.
  • The Execution of Mary Surratt - Critical Thought Questions - This printable narrative describes the circumstances in the Mary Surratt execution . It includes four short-answer questions regarding the main ideas of the article content, critical thought about the content, and vocabulary from the passage.
  • Abraham Lincoln Paragraph Paramedics - Find and correct the spelling, punctuation, and usage errors in the paragraph. Click on the error and then type in the correction. Immediate feedback is given.
  • Presidential Quotes - This activity first requires students to match the famous quote with the president. Next, students must choose their favorite quote and attempt to explain it in detail.
  • Presidential Heights - Did you know James Madison was the shortest president? Did you know Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president? This fun math activity requires students to answer questions about the heights of presidents by viewing the bar graph and making conversions from feet to inches and inches to feet.
  • Printable Presidents Word Search
  • - All 45 are in there!
  • Illinois State Quarter (Featuring Lincoln) Coloring
  • Lincoln Memorial Coloring
  • Lincoln Home National Historic Site Video

Online Games Involving Lincoln

  • Presidential Mismatch - Students must rearrange the presidential chart so that the presidents are in the correct order in which they served. The number of presidents used in the game is customizable. The timer allows for friendly competitions. Students who enjoy history will love this game!
  • Currency Mismatch - This is a wildly fun game that requires students to drag and drop the correct presidential faces to their correct dollar bills. The game is timed and makes for awesome friendly competitions within a classroom.
  • Glamour Legends - This fun game allows students to dress up George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Harriet Tubman, or Christopher Columbus in more modern, or more primitive clothes.
  • Presidents Word Search - This is an online word search with the 45 presidents. Choose with or without a timer.

United States Presidents

 1. George Washington  16. Abraham Lincoln  32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
 2. John Adams  17. Andrew Johnson  33. Harry S. Truman
 3. Thomas Jefferson  18. Ulysses S. Grant  34. Dwight D. Eisenhower 
 4. James Madison  19. Rutherford B. Hayes  35. John F. Kennedy
 5. James Monroe  20. James A. Garfield  36. Lyndon B. Johnson
 6. John Quincy Adams  21. Chester A. Arthur  37. Richard Nixon
 7. Andrew Jackson  22/24. Grover Cleveland  38. Gerald R. Ford
 8. Martin Van Buren  23. Benjamin Harrison  39. Jimmy Carter
 9. William Henry Harrison  25. William McKinley  40. Ronald Reagan
10. John Tyler  26. Theodore Roosevelt  41. George H.W. Bush
11. James K. Polk  27. William Howard Taft  42. Bill Clinton
12. Zachary Taylor  28. Woodrow Wilson  43. George W. Bush
13. Millard Fillmore  29. Warren G. Harding  44. Barack Obama
14. Franklin Pierce  30. Calvin Coolidge  45. Donald J. Trump
15. James Buchanan  31. Herbert Hoover  

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