By Tom Clavin
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It was 156 years ago this week that the United States executed a woman for the first time. To this day, there are many doubts about her guilt.
Mary Surratt was a boarding house owner in Washington D.C. in 1865 who was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. She maintained her innocence until her death. Surratt was the mother of John Surratt, who was most likely involved. He was later tried for his alleged role in the conspiracy but was not convicted because the statute of limitations had expired.
Born in Maryland in the 1820s, Mary converted to Catholicism at a young age and remained a practicing Catholic for the rest of her life. She wed John Harrison Surratt in 1840 and had three children with him. An entrepreneur, John Sr. became the owner of a tavern, an inn, and a hotel. The Surratts were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and often hosted fellow Southern sympathizers at their tavern.
Upon her husband's death in 1862, Mary Surratt had to manage his estate. Tired of doing so without help, she moved to her townhouse in Washington, which she then ran as a boardinghouse. There, she was introduced to John Wilkes Booth. Booth visited the boardinghouse numerous times as did at least two other co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. Shortly before killing Lincoln, Booth spoke with Surratt and handed her a package containing binoculars for one of her tenants, John M. Lloyd.
After Lincoln was assassinated, Surratt was arrested, then tried by a military tribunal the following month along with the other conspirators. She was convicted primarily because of the testimonies of Lloyd, who said that she told him to have the "shooting irons" ready, and Louis Weichmann, who testified about Surratt's relationships with Confederate groups and sympathizers. Surratt was steadfast in maintaining her innocence, insisting she had no knowledge that in her boarding house a plot was being hatched to assassinate President Lincoln. Five of the nine judges at her trial asked that Surratt be granted clemency by President Andrew Johnson because of her age and sex. Johnson did not do so, though accounts differ as to whether or not he received the clemency request.
Construction of the gallows for the hanging of the conspirators condemned to death began on July 5, after the execution order was signed. John Wilkes Booth would not be one of those strung up. After shooting Lincoln, he had fled to southern Maryland and then to northern Virginia. Twelve days after the event, he was found in a barn in the company of another conspirator, David Herold. The latter surrendered but Booth held out against lawmen. After the barn was set on fire, a Union soldier shot Booth in the neck. Paralyzed, he died a few hours later, on April 26.
At noon on July 6, as the gallows was being constructed, Mary Surratt was informed she would be hanged the next day. She wept profusely. She was joined by two Catholic priests and one of her three children, Anna. Chronic menstrual problems had worsened, and she was in such pain and suffered from such severe cramps that the prison doctor gave her wine and medication. She spent the night on a mattress, weeping and moaning in pain and grief, ministered to by the priests.
On the morning of July 7, Anna left her mother's side and went to the White House to beg for her mother's life one last time. Her entreaty rejected, she returned to the prison and her mother's cell. The soldiers began testing the gallows about 11:25 a.m., and those sounds unnerved all the prisoners. Shortly before noon, Mary Surratt was taken from her cell and then allowed to sit in a chair near the entrance to the courtyard. The heat in the city that day was oppressive. By noon, it had already reached 92 degrees. The guards ordered all visitors to leave at 12:30 p.m. When she was forced to part from her mother, Anna's hysterical screams of grief could be heard throughout the prison.
Perhaps all was not lost: Surratt’s lawyers had not finished trying to save their client. That morning, they asked a District of Columbia court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the military tribunal that had convicted Surratt and ordered her execution had no jurisdiction over their client. The court issued the writ at 3 a.m., and it was served on Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was ordered to produce Surratt by 10 a.m. General Hancock sent an aide to the comander of the Old Capitol Prison, ordering him not to admit any U.S. marshal, as that would prevent the marshal from serving the writ there. President Johnson, when informed that the court had issued the writ, promptly cancelled it at 11:30 a.m. under the authority granted to President Lincoln by the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863. General Hancock and U.S, Attorney General James Speed personally appeared in court and informed the judge of the cancellation of the writ.
At 1.15 p.m., a procession escorted the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner's ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. Surratt led the way, wearing a black bombazine dress, black bonnet, and black veil. More than 1,000 people, including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters, watched.
Alexander Gardner, who had photographed the body of Booth and taken portraits of several of the male conspirators while they were imprisoned aboard naval ships, photographed the execution for the government. As the order of execution was read Surratt, either weak from her illness or swooning in fear, had to be supported by two soldiers and her priests. The condemned were seated in chairs, Surratt almost collapsing into hers. She was seated to the right of the others, the traditional "seat of honor" in an execution.
White cloth was used to bind their arms to their sides and their ankles and thighs together. (The cloths around Surratt's legs were tied around her dress below the knees.) Each person was ministered to by a member of the clergy. From the scaffold, one of the condemned men stated, "Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us." The priests prayed over her and held a crucifix to her lips. A white bag was placed over the head of each prisoner after the noose was put in place. Surratt's bonnet was removed and the noose put around her neck by a U.S. Secret Service officer. When she complained that the bindings about her arms hurt, the officer replied, "Well, it won't hurt long."
Finally, the prisoners were asked to stand and move forward a few feet to the nooses. The chairs were removed. Mary Surratt’s last words, spoken to a guard as he moved her forward to the drop, were, "Please don't let me fall." Surratt and the others stood on the drop for about 10 seconds, then there was a clap of hands by the execution supervisor and four soldiers knocked out the supports holding the drops in place. The condemned fell.
Surratt, who had moved forward enough to barely step onto the drop, lurched forward and slid partway down the drop, her body snapping tight at the end of the rope, swinging back and forth. She appeared to die relatively quickly with little struggle. That was true of one of the men, too. But the remaining two men struggled for nearly five minutes, strangling to death.
The bodies of the executed were allowed to hang for about 30 minutes. Soldiers began to cut them down at 1:53 p.m. Surratt's body was the last to be cut down, at 1:58 p.m. As it was cut loose, her head fell forward. A soldier joked, "She makes a good bow.” He was rebuked by an officer for his poor use of humor.
The manacles and cloth bindings were removed but not the white execution masks. The bodies were placed into the pine coffins. The name of each person was written on a piece of paper and inserted in a glass vial, which was placed into the coffin. The coffins were buried against the prison wall in shallow graves, just a few feet from the gallows. A white picket fence marked the burial site. The night that she died, a mob attacked the Surratt boarding house and began stripping it of souvenirs until the police stopped them.
Repeatedly, and without success, Anna Surratt asked for her mother's body. In 1867, the War Department decided to tear down the portion of the Washington Arsenal where the bodies of Surratt and the other executed conspirators lay. The coffins were disinterred and reburied in Warehouse No. 1 at the Arsenal, with a wooden marker placed at the head of each burial vault. Booth’s body was buried alongside them. In February 1869, Edwin Booth asked Johnson for the body of his brother. The President agreed, and in addition Surratt's body was turned over to her family. She was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington D.C. on February 9, 1869, and there she remains.
Mary Surratt would certainly not be the only woman executed in the U.S. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 55 women hung, electrocuted, gassed, or killed by lethal injection since 1900. The most recent was Lisa Montgomery, executed in a federal prison this past January.
Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.