Mary Surratt: She Who Kept the Nest

By Mondloch, Helen | The World and I, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Mary Surratt: She Who Kept the Nest


Mondloch, Helen, The World and I


In the comic adventure movie, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, treasure hunter Ben Gates and his clever sidekick, Riley Poole, set out on a quest to unravel the mysteries surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. At one point Poole declares: "Look, a hundred years from now, no one is going to remember the names of anyone involved with the Lincoln conspiracy besides John Wilkes Booth ..."

In a plot teeming with Hollywood stretchers, Poole's assertion rings true. Even now, few people recognize the names of the four other conspirators executed by the U.S. government in the summer of 1865 for their role in the president's murder. Their walk to the gallows took place less than twelve weeks after Booth swooped onto a stage at Ford's Theater in the instant following his fatal assault on the president.

The condemned included three men, all in their twenties: George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell (who had brutally attacked Secretary of State William H. Seward on April 14, the same day as the Lincoln assassination).

The fourth conspirator hanged that day was forty-two-year-old Mary Elizabeth Surratt.

Surratt became the first woman in American history to be executed by the federal government. (Booth himself was fatally shot by a federal agent in a Virginia barn following a twelve-day manhunt. Another four conspirators received life sentences.)

The fact that Surratt, like the other accomplices, has faded into obscurity seems strange considering the profound impact these events had on a nation reeling from agonies afflicted by the Civil War, and the impassioned debates concerning the question of her guilt that emerged soon after the execution. And while Americans recently observed the bicentennial of Lincoln's birthday in a plethora of nineteenth-century fanfare, few have resurrected the name or sad story of Mary Elizabeth Surratt.

A visit to the Mary Surratt House Museum

The Surratt House Museum sits at a busy intersection in Clinton, Maryland, a suburb located about twelve miles south of downtown Washington, D.C. The modest, red wood structure was built on a 287-acre tobacco farm for Mary and John Surratt in 1852.

Besides serving as home to the couple and their three children, the building also housed a small tavern and public dining area, as well as sleeping quarters for sojourners trekking through this rural crossroads. Travelers made use of the nearby blacksmith's shop and boarded their horses at the livery just across the road, at a spot now occupied by a bustling gas station. In the fall of 1864, one corner of the Surratts' tavern became a post office and a polling place, where John Surratt, and later his son, John, Jr., served as postmasters. As was customary in locales established to provide these vital services, the U.S. Post Office Department dubbed the site "Surrattsville."

My tour of the Surratt House Museum begins in the tavern, a wooden space no larger than an average bedroom. The tavern's artifacts animate the images in my head. I picture men in dusty boots (the hoop-skirted women of the day were forbidden here) gathering to play cards and imbibe hard liquor, poured from the cloudy bottles that still adorn the tavern shelves. I imagine them crowding around the counter to purchase the serpentine tobacco ropes freshly cultivated from the Surratt farm fields.

A sign posted by the counter itemizes the cost of various goods and services--37.5 cents for supper, 6.25 cents for drinks, and 25 cents to stay the night. Interestingly, the men paid more to board their horses than for their own lodging--a whopping 75 cents to a dollar.

But the Surratt House is more than just a quaint nineteenth-century gathering post. It was here that John Wilkes Booth made his first stop along his escape route following his infamous crime. It was here, too, that like-minded Confederate sympathizers had previously conferred, relayed secret messages, stashed weapons, and found safe haven within an intricate network of the Confederate Underground. …

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