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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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  • 09/30/2011 at 8:01pm


    To an extent it matters. Mary Surratt knew Booth was up to no good. I think she knew about the assassination. She was probably the last to find out about it. I'm not sure which child she was protecting.

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  • loveshistory63
    09/30/2011 at 5:22pm


    Mary Surratt was one of John Booth's victims not another conspirator, she was guilty of many things but should not have hung for the murder of President Lincoln...not a moment the American goverment should be proud of but ashamed. Fear and revenge sealed her fate.

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  • americanhistory1on1
    09/29/2011 at 4:05am


    I believe Mary was a shrewd woman who suspected rather than completely understood what was happening under her own roof. Thinking that the Goverment had more evidence on her son than on herself she portrayed herself as an innocent victim of circumstance in order to save him. She did not want to believe that they would hang her based on what evidence they thought they had. She realized too late that they had already tried, convicted and sentenced her to death before she ever went to trial. With the volatile state of the country Mary also chose the fatal mistake of displaying her Southern pride in public. In the end she might also have believed that her chosen God would save her. Reality, I do not think truly hit her until the trapdoor let go.

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  • laverge-01
    09/26/2011 at 7:15pm


    We will never know what Mary Surratt did and did not know. She left no diary or papers and made only two statements during her incarceration - both of which gave no clue about her knowledge of the plots. By today's standards, her fate would be at the hands of circumstantial evidence. Many historians today believe that she had to know about the kidnap plot, but stop at declaring that she knew that it had turned to assassination. Vicarious liability - an English common law - did her in. When one enters into a conspiracy, one is liable for what any member of that conspiracy might do.

    Col. Borch is better to address the issue of the Milligan case, which dealt with civilians being tried in military courts. I believe that I am correct in saying, however, that the Supreme Court still allowed a loophole in which "enemy belligerents" can be tried by the military, even today. Enemy belligerents do not have to be members of an armed force. There was a case during WWII involving German saboteurs who came ashore in New York (civilians executed by a military court) and another case in Quirin vs. ?

    It seems to me, if questions of the legality of such courts are still around 150 years after the Lincoln assassination, The American Film Company has done a legal service by bringing the situation to light again. I say that while understanding why the U.S. government handled the Lincoln assassination case the way it did.

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  • lifelonglearner
    09/26/2011 at 1:01am


    In the film The Conspirator Stanton stated that it did not matter to him if Mrs. Surratt was actually innocent. If he could not have the son, the mother would do just as well.

    Obviously, he was interested only in what appeared to be true and to appease the lust for revenge in the populous. Finding the truth would take more time than what the populous and the military wanted to spend for justice to be done. Yet, was that really true?

    The choices of others created a pathway leading to Mrs. Surratt's ultimate death. Yet, she should have reported the kidnapping plot. Is her reason for not doing so because she was trying to still keep her son close and protect him?

    Didn't she realize that by concealing information and activities in her home was treason and could lead to the death of her whole family? Since no woman had ever been executed by the government, she must have thought herself safe? Even her own son did not think they would execute her for his actions. When her sentence was changed from life in prison to execution, she became the first.

    A year later,the Supreme Court ruled, all citizens, whether in times of war or peace are entitled to a trial with a jury of their peers. It came too late for her but not for us.

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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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