Part of the USA Today Network

Lincoln Conspirator Mary Surratt – guilty or railroaded?

Mrs. Mary Surratt, a middle-aged widow operating a boarding house in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, was the first woman executed by order of the United States government.

Her accused crime?

Active involvement in a murder plot.

A military tribunal declared her guilty of conspiring with famed actor John Wilkes Booth, her son John Surratt, Jr., and a bevy of associates of varying quality to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. She, along with three other conspirators, died on the gallows at Old Arsenal Prison (now part of Fort Lesley J. McNair) on July 7 of that year.

Recently with the release of the Robert Redford-directed movie, The Conspirator, Mary Surratt has been in the news again, with the debate resurfacing as to whether or not she really knew that Booth and his gang planned to kill the president. Redford suggests she did not, but instead that she was guilty of the lesser crime of knowing of a plot to kidnap Lincoln and failing to report it. Actress Robin Penn does a nice job of portraying Mrs. Surratt.

Some historians argue that Surratt could not have been ignorant of what was going on around here, while a few others suggest she was totally innocent and was either duped into what support she gave to the group or was made a scapegoat by a vengeful Federal government seeking to use her as bait to entice her son John to surrender to the authorities.

Pelican Publishing has recently re-released a 1996 book entitled Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy, by Elizabeth Steger Trindal.
The title reveals the author’s beliefs about Mary Surratt’s role in the death of Abraham Lincoln.

The dust jacket’s rear flap states, “Elizabeth Steger Trindal has worked fifteen years to chronicle the life of this little-known but important figure in American history. In its grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln, did America condemn an innocent woman to death? In the embarrassment over this wrong, most historians have neglected to tell the whole story behind President Lincoln’s assassination.”
Trindal brings the complex and tragic life of Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt to life — raised by a widowed mother after her father died in her childhood, Catholic convert at a young age, married to a compulsive debtor, and widowed herself at an early age, keeping a boarding house to make ends meet, betrayed by her son John, and hung for murder.

In the author’s view, “an American tragedy” played out in the short life of Mary Surratt. She may have been railroaded by a vengeful Secretary of State, Edwin M. Stanton, and his hand-picked tribunal of military officers. A civilian court likely would not have found her guilty of the capital offenses for which she died, according to Trindal. Witnesses such as Lewis J. Weichmann and John Lloyd (who managed Surratt’s tavern in Maryland) lied or misled the judges. They “adeptly played their roles,” charges Trindal.
The “well-known histrionics” of Special Judge Advocate John Bingham “expunged any hope that the prisoners may have held.” The charismatic judge “seemed to be frenzied and his conduct violent,” according to witnesses, but his outbursts influenced the Military Commission, who found Mary Surratt and all the other defendants guilty. After debating less than a day, the commission sentenced her and three others to death by hanging.

Trindal’s book is well documented and she uses a wide variety of primary sources and newspaper accounts of the period. While slanted towards Surratt’s innocence of the capital charges, according to Pelican Publishing, “this moving account will no doubt elicit new debate on the subject of the Civil War and reveal a new perspective on the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination.”
That perspective would not have been shared by Secretary of War Stanton.

Today, Mary Surratt’s boarding house where John Wilkes Booth plotted the kidnapping of Lincoln and then the assassination, is a Chinese restaurant. Ford’s Theater, after much tragedy, is now a museum. The grounds where Mary Surratt met her Maker are now part of a bustling army base and most assassination buffs have never seen the site. Mary Surratt lies in a grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington.
Pelican’s re-release of Trindal’s Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy is well-timed to take advantage of the media coverage and renewed debate on the validity of Surratt’s execution and the truth about what she really knew.

Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy
Elizabeth Steger Trindal
Pelican Publishing Company, 1996
304 pages, illustrated, annotated, indexed
ISBN 1-56554-185-5