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The Conspirator

Posted By - Kate Clifford Larson
Apr 20, 2011 at 9:41pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Mary Surratt - Guilty, Innocent, or does it matter?”

Less than three months after her arrest at her boarding house on H Street in Washington City, Mary Surratt would be hanged for her role in John Wilkes Booth's murderous plot. The military tribunal that found her guilty never doubted their verdict, but five of the nine commissioners petitioned President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, to show mercy because of her sex and age. President Johnson, however, was unmoved, convinced that Surratt "kept the nest that hatched the egg," and demanded her execution anyway.

On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt would become the first woman ever executed by the United States government. At the time, this was a shocking and uncomfortable consequence of a horrific crime committed at the end of a grueling, divisive war. That a woman could have been so bold, so beyond her place in society that she could have, would have, been involved with Booth and his supporters defied expected norms of femininity, piety, and motherhood. But, stepping out of such gendered roles left her vulnerable to the same deadly punishment historically reserved for men.

A few decades ago, a small group of doggedly determined Lincoln assassination historians and researchers, began reexamining the history of the assassination and the trial of the co-conspirators. They recovered long lost interviews, confessions, and extensive court testimony that had been filed and left untouched for one-hundred-and-fifty years. More recently, this new research has provoked a reassessment of the conspiracy behind Booth's attack, and this, in turn, has focused a bright light on Mary Surratt's role. Those records reveal that testimony regarding Surratt's knowledge of the kidnapping plot was substantial, but it was her actions on the day of the assassination that fatally linked her to the murder. While there is no evidence that Surratt knew of Booth’s intentions to kill Lincoln, by aiding and abetting him she was doomed.

Damning testimony by two key witnesses, Louis J. Weichmann and John Lloyd, sealed Mary's fate. Their detailed and unwavering testimonies during the trial convinced many court observers that Mary was guilty. Some Surratt supporters, then and now, believe Weichmann and Lloyd lied about Mary to save their own necks. But the evidence does not bear this out. While both were privy to information and details about Booth's plans - Lloyd aided Booth and Herold the night of the assassination - their testimony regarding Mary's actions was never contradicted. More importantly, however, it did not exonerate them of complicity, either.

While true believers in Mary's innocence refuse to accept their testimony, no one has been able to offer evidence that the testimony was engineered or manufactured by the prosecution. It was only after Lloyd's interrogation on April 22 that the government looked more deeply into Mary Surratt's personal role. Mary could have revealed details of Booth's plans when she was interrogated, but she refused. Unlike Lloyd and Weichmann, Mary had much more to lose. Revealing her knowledge of Booth's plans would have further implicated her son John, Jr. This, for a mother, was a bargain she could not make.

Interestingly, three of the other co-conspirators fingered Mary, too. The day of the execution, William E. Doster, attorney for both Lewis Payne and George Atzerodt, wrote that co-conspirator David Herold complained that Mary "is as deep in as any of us." Doster was also in possession of Atzerodt's confession, taken in early May, in which Atzerodt implicates Mary in the plot. Additionally, Atzerodt swore so loudly that day that Mary was as guilty as the rest of them that it was reported by numerous journalists stationed at the prison.

Lewis Payne, the fourth conspirator to hang with Mary, gave his own confession during those final hours, admitting his guilt and role in Booth's plans. He told Doctor Guillette that he went to Mary’s house that fateful evening of April 17th because he "believed Mrs. Surratt knew about the plot and would help him through, but was not sure she would not give him up...and would not therefore have blamed Mrs. Surratt if she had caused him to be arrested. He [Payne] never has either said she was guilty or innocent, but has more than once said that the conversations of Booth and John H. Surratt led him to believe that she knew in general terms what the plot was." Mary, Payne said, "does not deserve to die with us. If I had no other reason, Doctor - she is a woman, and men do not make war on women." Payne truly believed that Mary was unaware of the assassination plans, though he understood she was cognizant of the kidnapping plot. To Payne, the distinction was very important.

Was Mary privy to Booth’s final decision to murder the president? Did he tell her his plans when he met with her early on Good Friday, when he asked her to deliver the field glasses to John Lloyd at the Surratt Tavern? We may never know. But actual knowledge of the murder plot was not a requirement to receive the death penalty. Being an accessory to the murder through helping Booth, and concealing her knowledge of the conspirators' plans, resulted in her conviction.

The military judges must have known their decision would provoke strong reactions. The weight of the historical and legal precedent they were about to set may have tempered their decision. Testing historical tradition, they determined that Mary must hang. But five members of this jury recommended mercy for Mary and a reduction in her sentence. By requesting an alternative to putting her to death, they placed the final decision in President Johnson's hands. Johnson would have to approve the verdicts and sentences, and now it would be up to him to decide Mary's final fate. They gave their separate clemency petition to Judge Advocate Burnett, who then attached it to the written statements detailing the prisoners' sentences, and prepared them for Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to present to the President.

For three hours, Judge Advocate General Holt and President Johnson discussed the findings of the court and each prisoner's sentence. When the two men emerged from their meeting, Johnson remarked to his private secretary General R. D. Muzzey that several Commissioners recommended leniency. Johnson, however, "thought the grounds urged insufficient, and that he refused to interfere; that if she was guilty at all, her sex did not make her any the less guilty." Later, Johnson reiterated his feelings on the subject, telling Muzzey, "that there had not been ‘women enough hanged in this war.'"

That Mary was found guilty of conspiring with Booth and the other conspirators does matter. Placed in its historical context, she was party to a heinous crime and deserved punishment. That the military trial was and is contested, casting doubts as to its fairness, complicates our ability to view the evidence against Mary objectively. But we must, as a nation, remember and acknowledge the historical record. Our nation's history is complex and messy. Films like "The Conspirator" help shed light on this history, stimulating a welcomed debate that finally brings Mary out of a marginalized place to the center of one of America's notorious crimes.

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  • LiverLovesNancy
    03/15/2012 at 3:05pm


    Im 15 And my Class is doing a project on mary surratt and it has to do with her being inoccent but im not finding a lot of of her being evidence of her being inoccent just of her being guilty.. can anyone help me?

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  • tomlitton
    12/14/2011 at 2:56am


    Mary Surratt, like most mothers probably tolerated her son's foray's into political activism until things progressed well beyond just idle talk and passive observation. Mary played some role in the kidnapping conspiracy, however, I believe that the actual assassination decision was made by John Wilkes Booth and others as time had become critical and non action was no longer an option. Being a father, I believe that I would sacrifice my life for my son in similar circumstances and therefore, Mary Surratt did what most any other mother or father would do, die for our children no matter the current political current or firmly held beliefs at the time. She protected her children and I do believe that she was enamored with John Wilkes Booth and his status as an actor and celebrity.

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  • ernie
    10/31/2011 at 2:42am


    but I feel that she was involved in the conspiracy, but not in a big way, I sometimes wonder what she would've said if she was able to speak her mind during the trial, I'm a girl, I felt her pain and pressure when she was on and they should have not done the trial

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  • teamsarratt77
    10/11/2011 at 7:41pm


    I think that Mary was innocent, but I feel that she was involved in the conspiracy, but not in a big way, I sometimes wonder what she would've said if she was able to speak her mind during the trial, I'm a girl, I felt her pain and pressure when she was on trial, but I'm only 12, so I didn't feel her pain and pressure as a mother.
    (I think that Robin Wright did an amazing job playing Sarratt.)

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  • laverge-01
    10/01/2011 at 12:03pm


    First, Mary Surratt was likely protecting her youngest child, John H. Surratt, Jr., who had been serving the Confederacy for at least two years as a courier, carrying secret dispatches between Richmond and the agents based in Montreal, Canada. At the time of the assassination, young Surratt was in Elmira, New York, spying under the command of Gen. Edwin Lee (not Robert E.). When hearing of the murder, he hightailed it into Canada. Some historians believe that the federal government intended to use his mother as a decoy to drive him out of hiding. Obviously, that didn't work.

    As others have stated here, however, if his mother was suspicious of what was going on, she should have reported it to the authorities. However, she would then be implicating her son. By not reporting it, she was tried under the laws of conspiracy (vicarious liability) and charged with treason (punishable by death) as well as knowledge of the assassination.

    BTW: In addition to John and Anna, the two children featured in the film, Mary also had her oldest child, Isaac, fighting in the Confederate Army. Her husband (before his death in 1862) was a known secessionist and ran a safe house for Confederate agents in their Maryland home. Confederate records dated in the last quarter of 1864 still list that home as a safe house - even though Mr. Surratt had been dead for two years.

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Kate Clifford Larson

Historian and Author

Kate Clifford Larson, PhD., is an historian and author of "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln" (Basic Books, June 2008). With degrees from Simmons College and Northeastern University, and a doctorate in history from the University of New Hampshire, Larson... More

Kate Clifford Larson

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