Mary Elizabeth Surratt–Co-Conspirator, Starstruck Fangirl or Helicopter Mom?
Before Mary Surratt gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first female to be executed by the United States federal government, in 1865, she was the owner of a boarding house in Washington, DC. But it’s her story before the assassination of President Lincoln that makes her such a compelling figure.
Mary Jenkins was born in 1823 on a farm in Maryland. She received more education than most girls of this era, and in 1840 married John Surratt. In 1852, Mr. Surratt purchased 287 acres of land in Maryland, which later became known as Surrattsville. He opened a tavern that also provided housing for his growing family. John and Mary had three children, John Jr., Anna and Isaac. This tavern developed a reputation during the Civil War of being a Confederate safe house and became an essential cog in the underground network during the war. Mary may or may not have been involved in the spy network, but all indications are she knew of its existence. John Jr. served during the war as a secret agent, moving messages, money and ammunition to the Confederacy and developed a relationship with several men who later were indicted in the plot to kill Lincoln–George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, Louis Weichmann, David Herold and Dr. Samuel Mudd.
Mr. Surratt died suddenly in 1862, leaving Mary with a mountain of debt. Since the war was still going strong, there were few people interested in purchasing the land and tavern from her, so she rented the tavern to John Lloyd and moved her children, John Jr. and Anna, to a four-story townhouse on H Street in Washington City (Washington, DC) in 1864. Her son Isaac had moved to Texas to fight in the Civil War by then. She opened a respectable boarding house, renting out rooms to gentlemen.
The move to DC was made, in part, to further the espionage activities of her son, John. Dr. Mudd introduced John Jr. and Mary to John Wilkes Booth in 1864, a handsome, charismatic stage actor, who enlisted their aid in the kidnapping plot of Lincoln. Mary may have been awestruck by Booth, who was one of the most famous actors in America at the time, and from an accomplished family of performers. Both Booth and Mary had Confederate leanings and were angry over the outcome of the long war, but Mary seemed to fall under Booth’s spell of enchantment. Booth, Mary and John supposedly hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln while at her boarding house. Mary’s part in the plot involved hiring a buggy to make the two-hour trip to the tavern in Surrattsville with a package for Booth–a pair of binoculars. She asked Lloyd to have rifles made ready for Booth as well.
Mary became extremely agitated after her visit to Surrattsville. It’s my belief she realized Booth was planning more than a kidnapping and began to fear the outcome. She lied to authorities regarding her son’s whereabouts, giving him time to escape to Canada to avoid prosecution.
So, was Mary a willing co-conspirator in the plot to kill Lincoln or was she so in love with Booth she would eagerly do his bidding? Or possibly she was protecting her son. Whatever the reason, Mary was arrested on April 17, 1865. Her tenant at the Surrattsville tavern provided a statement that she had played a role in Lincoln’s death. She was hanged on July 7, 1865 along with three other conspirators.
Her boarding house still remains, much like it appeared in the 1860s, but today houses a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. There is a historic marker on the house.