Lincoln Assassination Conspirator Mary Surratt Becomes the First Woman Executed by the Federal Government

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 7, 2015

July 7, 2015
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Death warrant for David Herold, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, and George Azterodt being read aloud by General John F. Hartranft.
Death warrant for Lincoln assassination conspirators David Herold, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, and George Azterodt being read aloud by General John F. Hartranft on the gallows

It would have hit a hundred, the day of her death, but for a fitful breeze. When, that morning,  the hinged drops of the gallows were being tested, it was already 92 °, and by the time the prisoners were led out at 1:15 p.m. – she, first – the heat inside the high-walled prison courtyard was searing. In her black dress, black bonnet, a black veil covering her face, she stumbled toward the scaffold – though whether her legs buckled from fear, or the heat, or even her menses, is unknown. Two soldiers, a Lieutenant-Colonel and a Sergeant, one on each side, as much as carried her up the fifteen steps to the platform. She swooned when she saw the nooses.  An umbrella was held over her head, lest she faint from the blazing sun. “Please don’t let me fall,” she said to the hangman. Then the trap door sprang open, and Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt, guilty of conspiring to murder President Lincoln, fell six feet, forever. She was 42, and the first woman executed by the United States government.

“She was cut down and placed in a square wooden box or coffin, in the clothes in which she died…the rope made a clean cut around her neck fully an inch in diameter, which was black and discolored with bruised blood. The cap was not taken off her face, and she was laid in the coffin with it on, and thus passed from the earth Mary E. Surratt. Her body, it is understood, will be given to her family for burial.” – The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators, T. B. Peterson & Brothers

It was not until several months after John Wilkes Booth had decided to kidnap the President, that Mrs. Surratt embarked on murder.

No one, including herself, noticed.  A widow, she kept a boardinghouse.  A Catholic, she went to church every day. A mother, she tended to a 20 year-old son and a marriageable daughter.  Everything about her was respectable. Almost.

She was an ardent secessionist.  Her son was a seasoned rebel spy, deeply involved in Booth’s plotting. Her daughter was deeply involved, too – in a flirtation with Booth. The boardinghouse at 541 H Street was a few blocks from Ford’s Theatre, where Booth got his mail, and just a block away from where Booth stabled his horses. He was, then, in and out of the Surratt home, day and night. He came to see John and to court Anna and to talk to Mary, just the two of them, for hours on end. And Booth met his “friends” there – conspirators all; right up, in fact, to April 14th. That day, he visited Mrs. Surratt alone – three times.

In the morning, stopping by, he learned that she was going to visit her tavern 10 miles away in Surrattsville, Maryland, and tasked her with dropping off his binoculars there. And, he asked, would she tell the tavern-keeper, too, to take the rifles from their hiding place? They would be picked up, he said, later that night.  In the afternoon, Booth came by again to give her the binoculars. And finally, around nine o’clock that evening, an hour or so before Booth pulled the trigger of a 0.44-caliber derringer in the shadows of the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, he visited Mrs. Surratt at home once more. What was said, no one knows, but within hours, Booth was an assassin, lost in a swamp, and Mrs. Surratt, for intents and purposes, as good as dead herself.

Three and a half years after Mary Surratt was hanged as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and her body interred, unmarked, in the prison yard,  her daughter Anna, with this letter, petitioned Andrew Johnson for the return of her mother’s body.

“The undersigned most earnestly and respectfully addresses your excellency on a matter which has been for more than three years to her a source of great affliction. She seeks the privilege of removing the remains of her deceased mother, to have them interred in consecrated ground. She fondly hopes that your excellency will not allow your authority in the premises to expire without granting this request, prompted only by filial love and devotion to the memory of her dear mother.”

Anna Surratt’s request was granted. One month before President Johnson left office, he authorized that the body of Mrs. Surratt – the first woman executed by the United States government – be removed from the Old Penitentiary and released to her daughter for re-burial in consecrated ground. This he did, apparently, by way of binding the war-torn nation’s wounds having also, in the last weeks of his presidency, pardoned Lincoln conspirators Mudd, Arnold and Spangler, and returned, to their  families, the bodies of those hanged on July 7, 1865. The body of conspirator Louis Powell, however, was never claimed and, such is the way of the world, a portion of it – his skull – ended up lost, for a century, in Washington D.C.’s museum system. It was found in 1994, returned to his descendants, and interred in a grave next to his mother.

Mary Surratt always claimed to be innocent. Johnson, however, signing her death warrant, declared otherwise: she “kept the nest” he insisted, “that hatched the egg.”

John Surratt, who may be said to have brought the serpent into the nest, was not in Washington for the assassination. Indeed, he was busy spying in Elmira, New York on April 14th. Hearing the news, he fled – to Canada, to England, to the Vatican and finally, Egypt, where he was arrested and extradited in 1867.  He stood trial as a conspirator but unlike his mother and the others, he faced a civil, and not a military, court. His jury was packed with southern sympathizers: a mistrial was declared. By then, the statue of limitations for a charge of treason, had expired.  One went free.

MARY ELIZABETH JENKINS SURRATT. 1823 – 1865. Convicted conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the first woman ever executed by the United States federal government. She was also the mother of alleged conspirator John Surratt.

ANNA ELIZABETH SURRATT. 1843-1904. Daughter of convicted Lincoln assassination conspirator, Mary E. Surratt, and sister of Confederate courier John Surratt Jr. She appealed unsuccessfully in 1865 to President Johnson to spare her mother’s life and successfully, in 1869, for the return of her body.

Autograph Letter Signed, in the hand of Anna E. Surratt, 1 page, octavo, no place or date [circa February 1869]; to President Andrew Johnson. Docketed on integral back sheet that said petition was forwarded to the War Department, on February 5, 1869, and so attested, by proxy, “Andrew Johnson” in an unknown hand.