When audiences first meet Mary Surratt in the film THE CONSPIRATOR, the only thing they will know about her is that she is the mother of John Surratt, Jr., a Booth cohort. Her boarding house is identified early on as the lair where Booth and his accomplices met and conspired to kidnap the President, but her role in the assassination and her subsequent arrest remain a mystery at first. Imprisoned with other co-conspirators and hundreds of additional suspects (including the owner of Ford's Theater and other Booth acquaintances), Mary appears insignificant and diminutive in the dark, cold, stone room where she is isolated. Who is this woman and how did she find herself swept up in this horrific event?
Mary Surratt was born in Prince George's County, Maryland in 1823, the second child and only daughter of Archibald and Elizabeth Jenkins. Her father died when she was only two years old, leaving her mother alone to manage their sizable plantation and care for her young children. Smart and precocious, Mary was sent off to a private Catholic boarding school for girls in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the few educational settings available for young southern women. At age fourteen, Mary converted to Catholicism, shunning the Episcopal faith of her family. While some historians may view her conversion as youthful rebellion, Mary's commitment to the Catholic Church lasted her lifetime, tested repeatedly by antebellum society's intolerance for Catholics and her own doubts born of a difficult marriage to a non-Catholic. Additionally, anti-Catholic sentiment would play a role defining public opinion about Mary during her trial, offering her little to no protection or advantage.
When the school closed in 1839, Mary returned to her mother's home. It was then that she met John Harrison Surratt, who was ten years her senior. In spite of his relationship with another local woman and fathering an illegitimate child, John married Mary in August of 1840. Within four years Mary had given birth to three children: Isaac, Anna, and John Jr. The marriage was troubled by John Sr.'s excessive drinking. His volatile behavior and risky gambling frightened Mary and the children. Like most 19th century women, Mary was powerless - she had no financial or legal rights as a married woman, and John's abuse was ignored by the community. Alone and struggling to raise her children safely, Mary sought solace in her deepening faith and her local Catholic church. Her close relationship with the resident pastor raised more than a few eyebrows, eventually leading to the transfer of the priest to Boston.
In 1851, the Surratt's home near Oxon Hill in Prince George's County, MD, was burned to the ground. The family barely escaped with their lives. A family slave was suspected of the deed. Though he was never apprehended, his actions were part of an uneasy environment that defined life in a community secured through the denial of freedom to the majority of its residents. John Surratt Sr. determined then to leave the life of a farmer, and build an inn and tavern on land located at the junction of two major thoroughfares twelve miles from Washington, DC, then called Washington City. The tavern became an immediate success. After settling numerous debts with the proceeds from the sale of several inherited properties, John also purchased a small boarding house on H Street in Washington where Booth and his co-conspirators would later plot against the President. John's drinking continued unabated, however, but the tavern's success allowed Mary to enroll her three children in private Catholic boarding schools in Baltimore and Washington.
During the 1850s, the Surratt Tavern was designated as the local post office, and the crossroads upon which it sat was renamed Surrattsville. By appointing John the postmaster, the federal government secured the tavern's place in regional communication and social networks. Business expanded to include a wheelwright, blacksmith, and stable. Day to day operations fell on Mary's capable shoulders, while her husband continued his drinking and gambling, plunging the family deeper into debt. Mary took comfort, however, in the knowledge that her children were shielded from their father's reckless behavior, and far from the raucous public life of a tavern.
With the secession of southern slaveholding states and outbreak of Civil War in April 1861, and fierce negotiations on the part of Lincoln's administration, Maryland parted with its southern neighbors and remained within the Union. This decision allowed Maryland slaveholders to maintain the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, some Marylanders, particularly those in the more southern counties like Prince George's, found themselves swearing allegiance to the Union but secretly supporting the Confederacy. Their close proximity to Virginia and Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, allowed for a flourishing espionage and blockade running networks.
The Surratt tavern and hotel became a haven for Confederate spies, couriers, and smugglers. Its location near Washington and situated at an important crossroads proved an ideal spy lair. John Surratt, Sr., Mary, and their neighbors were pro-slavery and secretly sympathetic to the southern cause, securing the crossroad's reputation as a safe harbor among Confederate rebels.
When John Surratt, Sr. unexpectedly died in January 1862, Mary Surratt was left with large debts incurred by her husband and impatient creditors demanding payment. Most of her slaves had been sold or run away by this time, so operating the tavern and inn herself proved to be difficult. She was forced to recall her children from school to help her. She could not afford to lose the only legacy she had to pass on to them - a successful business and land. Now unencumbered by an alcoholic husband and father, Mary and her children could try to save their inheritance.
Seventeen-year-old John Surratt, Jr., was immediately appointed postmaster, enabling him to re-establish many of the illicit connections his father had made in service to the Confederacy. Isaac had already fled and joined a confederate unit and would not return to Maryland until well after the end of the Civil War. Anna would help her mother run the inn, but for Mary, this would not be an ideal situation for a young, beautiful daughter.
Mary's love for her children ran deep, but so did her love of the southern slaveholding way of life. Union supporters were few in Prince George's County, allowing rebel sympathies, like Mary's, to flourish. Tensions would rise with each month the war dragged on, after each slave ran away to freedom, and after each young man was drafted into Union service or fled to Confederate lines. Mary lived in a border world that brought daily uncertainty and anxiety.
In November 1863, young John Surratt lost his position as postmaster when local Union forces became suspicious of his Confederate sympathies. Unable to use the regular mail system to ferry messages back and forth between southern operatives in Northern communities and Richmond, the Confederacy became dependent upon couriers to keep the lines of communication open. But mail service was not necessary to continue business. Paying customers at the tavern increased as war activity escalated, keeping Mary Surratt more involved than ever in the illicit traffic as rebel couriers and spies traveled more frequently through the area. Her son John became an active courier himself, traveling back and forth from Richmond to different Northern cities.
By the fall of 1864, suspicions were raised again about the family's activities. Mary decided to lease the tavern to John Lloyd, and move her family to the boarding house in Washington City that her husband had purchased a decade before. Whether this move was part of a larger espionage plan is not known, but certainly remains a possibility. Moving to Washington also opened up more desirable social opportunities for her daughter Anna, and for her son John, too. Though no longer running a tavern where alcohol, gambling, and swearing was commonplace, Mary could still provide a safe haven for rebel spies and couriers in a more intimate setting. One of many such boarding houses in the large city, the home on H Street also provided a measure of anonymity and was less likely to draw much attention. The empty house was soon filled with paying boarders, some of whom would be involved in the assassination plot to kill not only President Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant.
John Jr.'s Confederate activities and loyalty to the southern cause brought him to the attention of John Wilkes Booth. The two of them began to recruit like-minded individuals into their early scheme to kidnap President Lincoln. It was through her son's relationship with Booth that Mary became inextricably involved in Booth's plot, providing wise counsel and a comfortable, inconspicuous meeting place. Personal letters reveal Booth's charisma and appeal charmed Mary, Anna, and the home's boarders. Their southern sympathies also matched Booth's, making evenings spent in the parlor both relaxed and welcoming. Other co-conspirators, brought into the home by her John, Jr. and Booth, would find the same welcome accorded to them.
But Mary would hang for opening her door and providing hospitality, support, and counsel to them all. President Andrew Johnson remarked that Mary provided the "nest that hatched the egg." Mary's failure to detail her family's exact role in Booth's plans, and refusal to expose the whereabouts of her son John (hiding in Canada to avoid prosecution), helped secure the fatal verdict. Police interrogations of Mary after her arrest reveal a headstrong and defiant woman, proud of her son and clever in her obfuscation. Her confidence during those interrogations melts away, however, as the trial moves along and each piece of evidence weighs heavily against her. For Mary, protecting her children - John Jr., in particular - would cost her freedom and eventually her life.
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