The Lincoln Lectures — Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Uploaded by usnationalarchives on 29.12.2009

Susan Proctor: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. If you will indulge me just for one second before
we actually start with our speaker, I’m going to give us about a 15 second infomercial. My name is
Susan Proctor, and I’m the education coordinator at the Surratt House Museum, and I would like to
extend an invitation to all of you to visit the museum. We are open Thursday through Sunday. We offer
fantastic, if I may say, guided tours of Mary’s home. The museum, by the way, is located in Clinton,
Maryland. We offer education programs for school groups, and we are the originators of the John
Wilkes Booth escape route tour. And we’ve been offering that tour for 30 plus years. So I hope you take
advantage of that opportunity and come visit the museum. If you would like to learn more about Mary’s
story besides reading our book today, please do visit our website at
Okay, now on to today’s speaker. Like many of us in today’s politically charged world, Mary Surratt was
an ordinary citizen who felt passionately about her beliefs, and so acted upon them. She openly talked
of her dislike of Lincoln. She aided underground Confederate activity by providing lodgings for couriers
and spies. She was seen speaking with Booth and other members of the conspiracy in her time here in
Washington. These and other eyebrow-raising actions were assigned to Mary Surratt.
But were these and other events enough to accuse her of the ultimate crime? Despite her fervent
support for the Southern way of life, did she take that next step? Did Mary Surratt play an active role in
the kidnapping plot and the eventual assassination of our sixteenth president of the United States?
I can personally attest that no matter what side of the discussion you are on, the innocence or guilt of
Mary Surratt is one of history’s best-hidden stories.
And with that being said, I’m extremely pleased to introduce our next speaker, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.
Dr. Larson has a very distinguished career for which I’m going to mention just a few of her highlights.
She received her doctorate from the University of New Hampshire where her dissertation was a finalist
for the Organization of American Historians’ Lerner-Scott Dissertation Award. She received high praise
for her book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. In 2007 she
received the Education Excellence Award from the Maryland Historic Trust for the “Finding a Way to
Freedom” Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Tour. Dr. Larson is currently an adjunct professor at
both Wheelock College and Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and she serves on the Board of
Advisors for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to present to you the author of Assassin’s Accomplice:
Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Thank you. Well it’s a great pleasure to be here in Washington, D.C., the cradle
of so many historical stories that are so captivating and so interesting to tell, including the story of Mary
Surratt. I’m going to tell you a little bit today about how I came to research and write about Mary, and
also a little bit about her life, how I perceive her as a woman, why she decided to participate in Booth’s
plans, and what happened to her during the trial, how is it that she ended up being the first woman to
be hanged by the United States government.
Back in I think it was probably 2004, I had finished my biography of Harriet Tubman, and I was sort of
contemplating my next project. And every day, I do a little pop culture exercise: I Google Harriet
Tubman’s name to see who’s invoking her, you know, what’s going on in the country, what organization
is now naming their organization for her, or what road is being called the Harriet Tubman Highway or
Road. And one day I Googled Harriet Tubman’s name and up pops the Surratt Museum website because
they were sponsoring a tour to Harriet Tubman country on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. And I
thought, “The Surratt Museum? What is that?” So I started reading the website, and of course it tells
the story of Mary Surratt. And I thought, “Well I need to know more about this woman.” My
background is women’s history, and of course I want to research more about women’s lives in our past
and bring those stories to light, to the American public. There aren’t enough stories about women in
our country’s history that our students and the public, our citizens know about.
So I started looking into Mary’s life. And I was indignant at first; I thought “Oh! She was innocent and
she was railroaded and she was hanged erroneously by mean men who were looking out to, you know,
revenge for Lincoln’s assassination.” However, along the way I came to discover that actually Mary was
quite involved with John Wilkes Booth, and I do believe that she was guilty of being an accomplice to
Booth and the assassination. And that wasn’t an easy conclusion for me to come to because I really
truly felt that given the climate of the times that she had been terribly abused, personally in the public
press, and that the truth had not come out. But the evidence is overwhelming.
The beautiful thing about researching this particular story, however, is that there are so many resources
now available to historians who want to do this sort of work. A great many of the materials related to
the trial are located here at the National Archives, and fortunately most of those documents – the
interrogations, the trial testimony, evidence – is actually all posted online. You can go online to the
National Archives, or there’s this organization called Footnote that posts a lot of the information from
the Archives online, and you can look at these interrogations, the original handwritten interrogations
and trial transcripts, and see for yourself the evidence that was presented during this trial. So we live in
a wonderful age where this is available at our fingertips, in our own homes, at our desktop computers.
Another thing that is now available are digitized newspapers. Thousands and thousands of newspapers
from that period are now digitized and available online. And for me, that was a huge resource, because
10 years ago I would have had to have gone through those giant volumes of bound copies of period
newspapers, looking for the slightest story about Mary Surratt and the trial. But now all you have to do,
and all I did, was type in Mary Surratt or trial or the name of a witness during the trial, and up would
come all the newspapers that covered the trial and mentioned the people involved in the trial, and you
can read the direct testimony.
Benn Pitman was a revolutionary stenographer of the time period. He had invented this particular type
of shorthand, and he was hired by the government to record the trial proceedings. And he published
the trial in booklet form. Unfortunately, he sort of rearranged the testimony, and he used a little bit of
abstraction in recording the testimony, but the period newspapers provided much more detail and
lengthier testimony. And they also provide the courtroom scene, and what was going on there: the
rustling of the women’s skirts, the heat, the smells, people fainting. All these little details: the snickering
and the laughing, the crying. All those things are reported in the newspapers that give a historian like
me this great opportunity to understand and feel that courtroom scene when Mary was being tried.
So today, doing a lot of this research is so much easier than the historians that came before me who
actually went through a lot of those primary source records page by page by page. I owe a great debt of
gratitude to the Surratt Museum. They have a fabulous museum there. They have Mary’s house and
tavern. And they have a research library that holds the records of a man by the name of James O. Hall,
who researched the assassination for 40, 50 years, and his archives are there at the museum, and they
are a treasure trove of information. And also, other historians over the decades who have done
research have deposited their records there as well. So it has made my work so much easier, and I am
deeply indebted to them. And a lot of work has been done on the assassination in the past three
decades that has sort of changed our perspective on what happened, and tracking Booth, and capturing
the accomplices, and the trial. So I have definitely benefited from the work of other historians.
So let me tell you a little bit about Mary, what I learned about her. She was born into a middle class
southern family in Maryland in the early 1820s. She had two brothers. Her father died when she was
about two years old, and her widowed mother was quite a smart and industrious woman. She did not
remarry – which was uncommon for the time period, most widows did marry pretty quickly – and she
managed to maintain and hold onto her farm, her plantation, and her assets, and actually increased
them over time. So she was a pretty savvy businesswoman. Mary was sent away to boarding school as
a young girl and young teen to a Catholic girls’ school. She had been raised as an Episcopalian, but while
at school, she converted to Catholicism. And I bring that up because during the trial, very much was
made of her Catholicism, and those of you who are knowledgeable about the assassination scholarship,
there are some historians, in the past in particular, who have claimed that the Catholic Church was
deeply involved in the assassination. I don’t believe that, but I’m leaving it out there anyway. But her
Catholicism was mentioned often during the trial.
As a young teen, she met a man by the name of John H. Surratt. He was a few years older than she was.
His background is a little murky, but he was the adopted child of a family who owned considerable
property on the outskirts of Washington and in Prince George’s County. He was their only child, and
when they died, he inherited a significant amount of property. He was the father of an illegitimate child
that we know very little about, and he was a heavy gambler and drinker. And so she had her hands full
marrying John Surratt when she was about 16 years old. Her life was turbulent because of John’s erratic
behavior, and because of his gambling he ended up gambling away a lot of his inheritance. But because
he had so much land that he had inherited, he was able to cover himself often by selling off pieces of
property and moving around to different locations to raise his small family. They had two sons and a
daughter – Isaac Surratt, Anna Surratt, and young John Surratt, Jr. – in the early 1840s.
By the 1850s, John Surratt had decided that he no longer wanted to be a farmer, and he invested in
property at the crossroads in what is now known as Clinton, Maryland, but at the time it was just a
crossroads 12 miles from Washington, D.C., in Prince George’s County in southern Maryland. And it was
an important crossroads as it turns out because it was a great place to build a tavern, which John Surratt
did, and it became a way station for people traveling from southern Maryland and also Virginia who
were on their way to Washington, D.C. He and Mary ran the tavern, they lived in the tavern home, part
of the home. They had eventually a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright, and there were people who built
homes in the community, and eventually it was called Surrattsville after the Surratt family. And it
became quite a successful business. But Mary didn’t like the fact that they were running a tavern and a
hotel and her young children were there, so she sent them off to school as well – to Catholic boarding
schools, both of her sons and young Anna – to keep them away
from the characters that were coming through the tavern.
John Surratt, Sr. died of a heart attack or some ailment in 1862 after the Civil War had started. The
Surratts had been slaveholders, and over time they had sold some of their enslaved people because of
debts that John Surratt continued to incur. Living there at the tavern he gambled more and he drank
more, and one historian made a comment that he actually drank many of the profits of that tavern. So
Mary certainly had her hands full with this husband and this business. But he died in 1862, leaving
Mary in quite a bit of debt. And this is a scary time for women who are left with the debt of their
husbands. Creditors appear out of nowhere and they demand payment immediately. There were no
protections at the time for a widow to give her breathing space
to collect herself and work with her assets to pay off her debtors.
But Mary was smart like her mother, and she did succeed in paying off her debts or renegotiating them
so that she could maintain control of that tavern and the property that went with it. In the meantime,
her husband had, through purchase and also a trading of a debt, acquired a boardinghouse, or a
building, in Washington, D.C. on H Street. And actually it’s just a few blocks from here; it is now a
Chinese restaurant. And they had rented out this home, this building, throughout the 1850s. And Mary
was able to maintain possession of that building as well. She was very, very smart; I have to give her a
tremendous amount of credit. She was well-educated and a determined woman, and given the climate
of the times – the Civil War, people had little money – the creditors must have been knocking hard on
her door and demanding payment, but somehow she was able
to stave off some, pay off some, and keep her properties.
She required her children to come home from school, however, because she couldn’t afford them to
stay in school and she needed help with the tavern. So the boys came home and Anna did too. Isaac
actually immediately went off and joined the Confederate Army, and so he left Mary and the two other
now teenagers at home. John Surratt took over running the tavern and did the things that his father
had done, including being the postmaster for the area. Surrattsville had been designated as a local post
office, and John Surratt, Sr. had been nominated as the postmaster in that area.
So when he died, his son John Surratt, Jr. took over that position.
Now in southern Maryland, there were very few Union supporters. Most of them had very strong
sympathies for the southern cause, and there was a tremendous amount of rebel activity going on in
southern Maryland at the time. The records of the Union Army are full of records of arrests and
investigations of people living near Mary and throughout the counties in southern Maryland for their
rebel activities. Quite a few of them ended up in jail. Most of them seemed to get off without much
trouble by swearing an oath of allegiance. Some of those that did swear the oath of allegiance actually
ended up taking off and joining the Confederate service, you know, going across the Potomac to
Virginia. But others tried to hide their rebel activities even more, and some of them were very
successful in doing that. And in spite of the Union Army’s activities in southern Maryland, they could
not stem the tide of smuggling and spying and the carrying back
and forth of contraband materials, in spite of how much they tried.
And of course John Surratt, Jr. at Surrattsville was in a perfect position to contribute to this Rebel
contraband work back and forth and spying because they would use the post office to send things back
and forth from Virginia to the northern states. However, he got caught, and that put Mary at great risk,
because if you were caught participating in rebel activities you could lose your property. For some
reason, he was not tried. Now whether he swore an oath of allegiance we’re not really sure, I couldn’t
find that in the records, but he was not tried. But he did lose his position as the post master, and it went
to a Union man in the community instead. So that sort of messed up that courier activity, the
contraband smuggling activity that was going through the Surrattsville post office.
John Surratt had become very used to this activity, and it was quite lucrative, so he became a courier on
his own. He knew the countryside, he had connections just like his father throughout southern
Maryland, and so he began to work as a courier himself, secretly going back and forth to Richmond and
to other places in order to carry on espionage activities.
Mary, in the meantime, of course, had to have known what was going on in her tavern. She’s a
Southern woman, Southern sympathies, former slave holder. By the middle of the Civil War, most of her
slaves had been sold or had run away, so she didn’t have much investment in slaves anymore, but she
was deeply, deeply committed to the Southern cause. She recognized that they were in a precarious
position and she did not want to lose her property. So in the fall of 1864, she decided to lease her
tavern and move to Washington into the vacant boardinghouse
that her husband had purchased back in the 1850s.
At the same time, John Wilkes Booth was travelling through southern Maryland, and making
connections in order to set in motion his plan to kidnap President Lincoln in exchange for Confederate
prisoners. And during the fall months of 1864, he met with Samuel Mudd, Dr. Queen, and other people
in the community trying to make connections, get information, figure out who should be part of his plan
because if it was going to work, if he was going to kidnap Lincoln, he’d have to carry him out of
Maryland, across the Potomac, and into Virginia, and hopefully to Richmond, where they could hold him
and ransom him. And that would require a tremendous amount of organization,
and planning, and a lot of people had to be involved.
So Booth was starting this process in the fall. Mary moves to Washington DC with her daughter.
John Surratt cleans up loose ends at the Surratt tavern and farm; they lease it to a man by the name of John
Lloyd and his family. John continues his rebel activities, but now he is based out of Washington, D.C.
and the boardinghouse on H Street. Mary fills the boardinghouse with good paying boarders. Lou
Weichmannn – who becomes famous during the trial and afterwards because it’s partly his testimony
that convicts Mary and the other conspirators – he’s one of the first boarders. He had been a school
chum of John Surratt’s in Catholic boarding school. A couple of young women moved into the house,
and a family, the Holohans, moved into the house as well. And then there were boarders that came and
went over the next few months leading up till April. Some of them were spies and couriers and rebel
sympathizers, but Mary kept her doors open for anybody and as long as she had space people could stay
at her inn. But the permanent boarders were Weichmannn, the Holohan family,
and a couple of other women – a niece and another woman.
John Surratt met John Wilkes Booth in December of 1864. John Wilkes Booth was in Washington DC
with Dr. Samuel Mudd and they met John Surratt on the street. Ostensibly Mudd wanted to introduce
Booth to John Surratt because John was a currier, he knew southern Maryland, he had many contacts,
and he would be very useful to Booth and his plan; which ended up being very true. Booth and Surratt
hit it off immediately. And actually the day they all met Lou Weichmann was with John Surratt, so he
could place John Surratt and Booth together early in December at that first meeting. From there Booth
became a fixture at the boarding house on H Street. After the first of the year John Wilkes Booth
frequently visited the home; not only to talk to John Surratt, but also to meet with Mary. And according
to the testimony of people in the house, he met with her frequently alone.
But he also went there and entertained the young women in the household, including Mary’s daughter
Anna who clearly had a deep crush on John Wilkes Booth. He was one of the most famous actors in the
country, he was handsome and charming and dashing. And you can imagine what it was like having this
famous actor come to your house. So Mary and the other women in the house thoroughly enjoyed John
Wilkes Booth’s company. But Booth often came because he had other business, and that business was
planning to kidnap Lincoln. John Surratt helped him collect other people who would participate in the
plot. One man was George Atzerodt, who was a blockade runner. He helped run contraband back and
forth across the Potomac. Union gun boats were patrolling the Potomac all the time, but the local
people were really good at getting by the gunboats. And George Atzerodt was one of them.
Another co-conspirator, David Herold, who worked at the pharmacy at the navy yard, joined on. Booth
brought on two of his childhood friends, Sam Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen. And the other conspirator
was a man by the name of Lewis Powell, who went by the alias Lewis Paine. He’d been a Confederate
soldier. He had been wounded at Gettysburg. He escaped the hospital there and joined Mosby’s
rangers in Virginia. And after a year left them and walked across to Maryland and gave himself up. He
swore an oath of allegiance and soon thereafter he joined Booth in his plot to kidnap Lincoln.
In the meantime, Mary kept her home open to Booth and all of these co-conspirators who came through
the house. Some of them stayed overnight, some just came for meetings. And there was no way that
woman could have not known what was going on in that house. It’s not that big of a house. If you drive
down H Street you can see it. 604, I think, is the number. And she is a smart woman. She knows what’s
going on. And that was one of the defenses during the trial, that she didn’t know what her son was
doing. She knew exactly what her son was doing and she knew exactly what John Wilkes Booth wanted.
They had southern sympathies together, they both believed strongly in the same things. They talked
about those things in her living room. There’s no doubt about it. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t really good
at keeping secrets that long, so I can’t imagine him visiting that living room so many times and not
letting Mary know what he was doing. And if he was meeting her privately in
her room they must have been discussing his plans.
But at that point early on before April, it was a plan to kidnap. In the meantime there were other spies
and couriers who came through the house. There was a mysterious Sarah Slater, who had several
different aliases. A beautiful French woman, that’s how she was described. She was somehow involved
in espionage activities. It was believed that she was involved in the plot, but that was never proven.
And even though she was arrested and jailed she was never brought to trial. Augustus Howell was
another spy and courier. He was arrested, and he testified at the trial. And he stayed at the Surratt
home. So it was a little haven for Confederate sympathizers, spies, and couriers. It was a safe place for
them to stay. So none of this could have gone on without Mary’s participation. In fact she spent some
time with Sarah Slater and Augustus Howell travelling into southern Maryland. She knew that her son
was travelling back and forth to Richmond.
In March, Booth tried to kidnap Lincoln but Lincoln had changed his plans to go out to the soldier’s
home. And that is where Booth had set up the trap to capture Lincoln on his way back from the soldier’s
home. But Lincoln never went, so the plan fell apart. Booth was destroyed, he was angry, and everyone
disbursed. But the night that had happened, the 16th of March, one of the co-conspirators had been
sent ahead to southern Maryland to wait for the group to arrive with Lincoln. He had guns, he had a
spare carriage, he had a monkey wrench in case the wheel on the carriage had broken, he had ropes, he
had ammunition. He was waiting and waiting and waiting for the group to come. He didn’t know that
the plan had failed, that Lincoln had never come down the road and that he wasn’t captured.
So after the failed attempt that early evening on the 16th of March, John Surratt and George Atzerodt
went down to southern Maryland to find David Herold. The following day they found him on the road
kind of wandering around trying to figure out where he was going to go with this stuff and what
happened to his comrades. And they finally meet up, and they decide to take the guns and the rope and
the monkey wrench to the Surratt tavern and hide the items there. John Surratt convinces John Lloyd,
the tavern tenant, to hide the items in between the walls on the second floor above the dining room.
And that’s where they stay until the day that John Wilkes Booth assassinates Abraham Lincoln.
Now we know that Mary must have known about this plot because several times in the two weeks
leading up to the assassination Mary met John Lloyd and reminded him to have those items ready. That
they would be called for very soon. Now if she wasn’t aware of the plot, why would she know about
those items and why would she be telling him to be ready at a moment’s notice to have those items
available for who would come by and ask for them? On the 14th of April John Wilkes Booth arrives at her
home and speaks with her privately. Lou Weichmann is there but he doesn’t know what they talk about.
Later that afternoon he is asked by Mary Surratt to drive her to Surrattsville to ostensibly talk to
somebody who owes her money. He agrees and he rents a carriage. And as he arrives back at the
Surratt boarding house to pick up Mary to go to Surrattsville, Booth is there giving her a package
wrapped in brown paper. He leaves, she gets in the carriage, and they go off to Surrattsville. Mary is
very excited, Lou later testifies. They get to Surrattsville and John Lloyd is not there. And she’s edgy and
nervous. And Lou Weichmann is waiting and waiting for her.
Eventually John Lloyd arrives and he’s drunker than a skunk. And she’s furious with him because it’s
important that he have his wits about him. She says to him, “You have to have those items ready.
They’re going to be called for tonight.” And he says, “Okay.” And then she gives him the package, which
holds the spyglasses that Wilkes Booth uses when he escapes. And on the twelve days of hiding he uses
his little French spyglasses to see what’s going on. He keeps them and eventually that night he gives
them to John Wilkes Booth when he stops at the Surratt tavern.
In the meantime the co-conspirators had sort of been disbursed because they really weren’t sure what
Booth was going to do. But on the day of the assassination he called several of them together and said
the plan was on. And of course now it was going to be an assassination. And he assigns Atzerodt the job
of killing Andrew Johnson, the vice president. Actually he also wanted Atzerodt to travel to Surrattsville
and tell Lloyd to have the items ready. But he didn’t trust Atzerodt, and that’s why he went to Mary and
asked her to do it. He asked Paine to kill William Henry Seward. And Booth was going to kill Lincoln and
General Grant, who was supposed to be at the theater that night watching the play with the Lincolns.
The night comes and Booth kills Lincoln and takes off and luckily gets out of Washington DC. While that
is happening Lewis Paine is a few blocks away attacking William Henry Seward, his children, and the staff
in the house in a bloody, crazy rage. He slashes and beats and crushes the skull of Seward’s son and nearly
kills William Henry Seward. He flees the house, and he’s all bloody and a mess. David Herold, who was
supposed to help him, has fled. So Paine goes and hides in the cemetery. He stays there for three days.
In the meantime Mary comes back from Surrattsville with Lou Weichmann. They arrive at about 8:30.
They have a little dinner. Mary decides to go to church with Eliza Hollahan, another woman in the
house. They leave but walk a few feet down the street and decide it’s too miserable outside or she’s too
tired. And they don’t go to church, and they come back to the house. And as she’s going in the door she
is approached by a man by the name of Richard Smoot who had leased his boat to Booth and John
Surratt so that they could use that to carry Lincoln across the Potomac River when they kidnapped him.
He had leased it to them back in January or February, and he was getting ticked off
because he hadn’t been paid yet because the event hadn’t happened.
So he came to Mary’s house looking for money, looking for payment, looking for John Surratt. That
night of the assassination. Talk about timing. And she hurriedly says to him, “Go away, go away. It’s
going to happen soon. You’ll get your money in a couple of days. He gets frightened, tries to leave the
city, and he can’t. So he goes to Alexandria and waits until the next day and heads into southern
Maryland, finding out that Lincoln has been assassinated.
Mary is tense in the house all night. Lou Weichmann can’t figure out why she’s so tense. But they end
up all going to bed early. In the wee hours of the morning there’s a loud banging on the door.
The metropolitan police are there, and they’re looking for John Surratt. The metropolitan police had done
some pretty good detective work very quickly on, and they had found out that John Surratt had been
seen in the company of John Wilkes Booth frequently, so they came to Mary’s house. The problem is
when the police came they didn’t look for evidence, they were looking for John Surratt.
He was not there, so they left the house.
It would take another couple of days – three more days – before the Union army would get their
information together. Because the metropolitan police was doing their own investigation, the Union
army was doing their own investigation, and they hadn’t quite gotten it all together yet. So the Union
army comes to Mary’s house on Monday the 17th to interrogate her about her son, John Surratt. They
had assumed he was the one that had tried to kill William Henry Seward and they wanted more
information. But this time the army came and they searched for evidence.
And they found a few weird things in the house – or that they perceived as weird – like pictures of
Confederate generals, bullet molds, and other items. Letters that Mary said that she had that would
prove that her son was in Canada suddenly she could not find. Now maybe those letters could have
been found on the 14th in the few hours after Lincoln’s assassination if the police had bothered to look
for evidence. But those letters disappeared quickly, and I think that Mary destroyed them because they
gave too much evidence against her son in particular.
They decide they’re going to bring everyone in the household down to the War Department
headquarters for the assassination investigation. And as they’re about to leave there’s a bang, bang,
bang on the door. It’s late at night, past 11 o’clock, and they’re wondering who could be knocking on
the door. So the officers get all tense and nervous. They’ve got their guns drawn. They open up the
door, and who is standing there but Lewis Paine. They invite him in. He has a pickaxe that he had stolen
from the grave digger's shed at the cemetery. It was over his shoulder. He comes in and he asks for Mary.
And they said, “Well what do you want?” And he said, “Well I’ve been hired
by her to dig a ditch for her in the morning.”
And they’re a little suspicious, so they ask Mary to come out to the hallway and identify him. She comes
out and they say, “Do you know this man?” And in a very dramatic fashion she says, “I swear to god I do
not know this man.” And the officer thinks that’s a little dramatic. All he asked was do you know this
man. So he became very suspicious, and they decide to arrest Lewis Paine as well. Well it would just be
a matter of hours where they would realize that Lewis Paine had attempted to murder William Henry
Seward. And then they realized that it wasn’t just John Surratt that they were looking for, but that Mary
Surratt was implicated in this plot.
And that was the unraveling of Mary’s life. And it would be just a couple of months before she would
also be dead. The trail commenced fairly quickly after the rest of the conspirators had been arrested.
And they decided to try eight of them together: Mary, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Arnold,
Michael O'Laughlen, and Dr. Samuel Mudd – and Ed Spangler, the Ford Theater
hired help who had held Booth’s horse. He was also tried at the same time.
The great tragedy about this trial for Mary is she had the most incompetent council you could possibly
imagine. She had asked Reverdy Johnson, who was a state senator, a very well-respected and well-
renowned lawyer to represent her. He agreed, and he brought on two of his junior associates: Frederick
Aiken and John Clampitt. And when the trial started Reverdy Johnson made an inexplicable comment.
In his opening arguments – which included charging and arguing that the trial was illegal because it was
a military tribunal and not a civilian trial, and he believed the military trial was illegal, that they should
not be trying civilians. That did not sway the court, but in his closing arguments he said, “If Mary Surratt
were guilty I would not represent her.” And then he never appeared in court until the end of the trial.
Poor Mary. Regardless of how guilty she was, that was horrible. And then she has these two junior
lawyers who are so completely incompetent they actually made the case for the prosecution. They
couldn’t find anybody that seemingly liked Mary or that could defend her. And every witness he
brought up – the prosecution would get the testimony they wanted out of those witnesses and then
Mary’s defense team would ask the same questions all over again and get the same horrible answers
just to make sure that the tribunal heard the damaging testimony. They did this over and over and over
again. It is remarkable reading the testimony how terrible these lawyers were. Very, very bad lawyers.
And I really felt badly for Mary because she could not cut a break at all. They just were totally incompetent.
George Atzerodt had given a confession, and he implicated Mary. Of course that was never introduced
at trial. It was discovered in the 1970’s. And it’s been published by the Surratt Museum, and you can
buy copies of it there. And it’s been printed in several books that have been published as well. Lewis
Paine said nothing for a long time. And the night before the hangings he said that he thought that Mary
should not be hanged because she was a woman. And they pleaded and pleaded with him to say that
she was innocent, and he agreed. He signed a statement saying that she was innocent. But then he
said, “Well, she might have known what was going on but we
shouldn’t make war on women and she shouldn’t be hanged.”
After the trial the decision was four were going to hang and four would go to prison. Mary, George
Atzerodt, David Herold would hang. And it was just stunning that the country would decide that they
would hang a woman. Mary Surratt was vilified for the seven weeks of the trial. The press crucified her.
They ridiculed her, they caricatured her. They called her an Amazon when she was actually about 5’4” –
she was a small woman. They just imagined her evil face and that it as the face of a criminal, and they
were incredibly cruel to her. Which is unusual to think about, that they would do this to a middle-class
woman. The press was very much against Mary throughout the trial. But suddenly, after the hanging,
the press did a complete turnaround. And so did the public. They were completely horrified that a
woman had been hanged. It didn’t seem to be real, apparently, to most people before. But once she
was hanged the horror of it really sank into the public psyche, north and south.
President Andrew Johnson was the one who made the final decision that she would hang. He declared
that she kept the nest that hatched the egg. And he had no qualms about having her hanged. Later on
he would deny that he had seen a clemency plea from five of the nine judges that made the decision on
the guilt or innocence of the conspirators. They had asked that, even though she was guilty, that she
should have her sentence commuted to life in prison rather than hanging. But Andrew Johnson decided
no, she deserved to hang with the rest. So she did.
And since that day people have argued, “Was Mary Surratt guilty?” In my mind there is no question that
Mary Surratt was guilty of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth. This has nothing to do with the legality
of the trial as a military tribunal versus a civilian trial. Mary was absolutely guilty of aiding and abetting
John Wilkes Booth, and that cannot be denied. And the evidence is so strong against her it is
remarkable. So I think it’s time to take a fresh look at that, and also to understand that because she was
a woman then it was horrifying – and today people still have a hard time imagining a woman being
involved in such a horrific crime. Thank you.
Are there any questions?
Audience Member: Yes, do you believe that she had guilty
knowledge for the kidnapping or for the assassination?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: I think for both. I believe both, yes.
Audience Member: At what point did she find out about the assassination?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: I think that Friday the 14th she knew.
Audience Member: Considering the advanced state of the war, what did the conspirators hope that
killing Lincoln and a few of the cabinet members – his vice president and cabinet members would accomplish?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: It’s my understanding that they believed that by throwing the government into
disarray that it would allow the Confederacy to recollect itself and reform itself and fight again.
Audience Member: Even if she was guilty, do you agree that her culpability rose to the level that
she should have been hung? Or should she have been imprisoned with some of the other co-conspirators?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: I can’t say. I’m not sure. She could have prevented it. So with that, I think…
I’m not in favor of the death penalty, so that kind of confuses the issue for me. But I think that she could
have prevented it and she didn’t. So she was very, very guilty in my mind. Yes?
Audience Member: You mentioned that -
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Microphone?
Audience Member: You mentioned that your specialty is women’s history.
Would you consider writing a book or at least an article about Sarah Palin?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Well I’m a historian, so she’d have to be dead and gone before I write about her.
Audience Member: My question is a very simple one. Why did they decide to hang X number and not
hang the others? What was the reason for that split? And do you have any idea how they made their
decision of who to hang and who not to hang?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: I am not aware of how they made their decision because it was secret. So I
think it must have been how they perceived how much culpability each person displayed. I’m surprised
that Dr. Mudd actually was not given a death sentence considering he had harbored Booth, et cetera.
But for the others – Paine certainly because he tried to kill William Henry Seward and he admitted it. He
never denied that he had tried to do that. He was the one person that spoke up and said, “I did it and
I’m sorry.” And Herold of course aided and abetted Booth through the countryside until he was finally
killed. And Herold was tried and convicted. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen had left the gang,
let’s say, several weeks beforehand. So I think that their culpability was not the same as Mary’s or Lewis
Paine or Atzerodt or Herold. So I think that’s what the
tribunal was trying to decide – the level of culpability. Yes?
Audience Member: I have two questions. The first is: Do you have any idea what kind of guard Lincoln
travelled with? And the second question is: Do you think it’s possible that Mary’s lawyers failed her intentionally?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: I don’t know what types of guards Lincoln had. I know that was an issue for
those who wanted to protect him because he didn’t necessarily always want them around. I know that
Booth and John Surratt both believed that they could overpower
those guards no problem on the road back from the soldiers’ home.
Audience Member: Just another couple guys?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Yeah. They just thought the four or five of them could do it. It seems crazy to
me, but they thought it was going to work. And Mary’s lawyers – did they do it on purpose? That’s an
interesting idea. However as lawyers I don’t think that they would want their reputations so ruined,
because their performance was just horrific. Even the newspaper reporters sometimes commented on
how appalling their performance was in the courtroom. So maybe they just were really bad lawyers.
The bigger deal is why did Johnson not come back and help her? That I think is a total breach of his
office. He should have been there for her and he was not.
Audience Member: What happened to John Surratt, her son, after the assassination?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Actually he escaped to Canada and then to Europe. And the next author is
going to talk about what happened to him. But I don’t like John Surratt, Jr. because he did not come
back and save his mother and I think he should have been an upstanding guy and come back and saved
his mother. And he didn’t. But I don’t know what Andy says about that.
Andrew Jampoler: Don’t leave and you’ll find out!
Audience Member: Why did the authorities go to the Surratt house on the night of the murder?
What led them to go there and why did they think John Surratt, Jr.
may have been the assassin of Seward? Where did that all come from?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: This is one piece of evidence that is missing. Who was the first person to tell
them to go to the Surratt house? I don’t think it’s really in any of the interrogations or any of the
evidence. Somebody told them to go there. And I can’t recall why they thought Surratt tried to
assassinate Seward – I think it was because he was so deeply involved in the plot. And they didn’t know
who else was, at the time. They had no knowledge of Atzerodt or Herold or Paine. They didn’t know
who they were, but they knew Surratt. So that’s probably why they assumed he was the guilty party.
And it was because of Lou Weichmann, who was interrogated the next day when he went to the police
station, that they found out about Paine and Atzerodt and Herold.
And he kind of opened up the investigation for them.
Audience Member: In Washington at the same time there was living a very infamous Confederate spy,
Rosa Greenhill, who lived not far from the Surratt house.
Ever detect any kind of connection between the two women?
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: No, I think – didn’t Greenhill die in prison? Yes. So I don’t think – I think she died in ’63.
Audience Member: She drowned.
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: She drowned. So I don’t think they had any interactions. But Virginia Lomax,
another Confederate spy, was actually imprisoned at the same time that Mary was early on. And she
roomed with Nora Fitzpatrick, who was another boarder in the house. And she wrote about Nora in her
autobiography about her incarceration at the prison. So Virginia may have known Mary – actually did
know her in prison. So that was one connection. But they had to restrict Mary’s movements because
people were trying to send her messages through the jailhouse window, and that became a problem. So
clearly she had connections within the rebel community in Washington DC.
Any other questions? Thank you very much for coming.
Doug Swanson: Folks, we’re going to be moving up to the shop at this point for the book signing. Don’t leave.
Come back at 1:30. Andrew Jampoler is going to be talking about John Surratt, Jr.