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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

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.

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.


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