Mary Surratt was the first woman ever executed by the governement of the United States. What did she do to gain this distinction? Historical opinion is divided.
Mary Jenkins was born in May or June of 1823 in Waterloo, Maryland. She attended a private Catholic girls’ academy and married young, at age 17, to John Surratt, who was 11 years older. The couple had three children, and supported themselves by farming tobacco and running a gristmill, tavern, post office, and general store, their properties soon becoming known as Surrattsville. When the Civil War erupted, Maryland was officially considered a Union state, but many of its citizens, including the slaveholding Surratt family, sided with the Confederacy. While their post office was nominally Federal, the Surratts also handled mail for the South, and their tavern is believed to have been a link in the Confederate underground network. Certainly John Wilkes Booth and a host of other sympathizers frequented the place, and weapons and money were hidden and stored there.
John Surratt, known as an abusive alcoholic, died suddenly in 1862, heavily in debt. Mary decided to lease the farm and tavern and moved with her duaghter, now grown, to a townhouse in Washington, DC. By converting the upper floors to roominghouse space, the family managed to support themselves. John Wilkes Booth and Mary’s son John, who was operating as a Confederate secret agent, often met at the house, along with Lewis Powell and other cohorts plotting against the US government. Among their plans was a plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln and hold him for ransom, but when the war drew to a close and that plan failed, Booth’s mind turned to murder.
On the day of the assassination, April 14, 1865, Mary took the two hour wagon ride to Surrattsville, ostensibly to collect the rent from her tenant, but in reality to meet with Booth, to deliver field glasses, and to give instructions to the tavern keeper to make ready the hidden carbines, pistols, and ammunition. Returning to Washington, Mary met with Booth for a final time at her house about 9:00 PM. An hour later, Lincoln lay dying. The fleeing Booth, with co-conspirator David Herold, reached the Surrattsville tavern around midnight to collect their getaway supplies.
On April 17, at her boardinghouse, Mary Surratt was arrested and charged with conspiracy and aiding the assassins. Although she swore to her innocence, the evidence against her was strong enough to lead to her conviction, in spite of public ambivalence about her sex and age (thought to be advanced at 40!) Throughout her trial, Mary wore black and covered her head and face with a veil, which infuriated many of the press and courtroom spectators. In her prison quarters, she was manacled and forced to wear a padded hood over head and face. Mary Jenkins Surratt was sentenced to die by hanging. Even her executioner believed, up to the final moment, that a stay would be delivered, but, on July 7, 1865, she was hanged with three other conspirators, her punishment for treason attended by a thousand witnesses. President Johnson said that Mary Surratt “kept the nest that hatched the egg.”
Since the day of her death, the justice of Mary’s conviction and sentence have been hotly debated. Evidentiary problems, such as the supression of Booth’s diary, and her trial, as a civilian, by a military court, are among the contested issues. Mary Surratt is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC.