“…the Commission do, therefore, sentence her, the said MARY E. SURRATT, to be hanged by the neck until she be dead, at such time and place as the President of the United States shall direct.”
At 1:22pm on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman ever to be executed by the United States government. Surratt, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne), David Herold, and George Atzerodt were all involved in John Wilkes Booth’s elaborate plot to completely disrupt the Union government by killing President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Atzerodt was supposed to kill Johnson, but he got cold feet and got drunk instead. Powell was supposed to kill Seward, but Seward survived his attack. Herold brought Powell to Seward’s home and helped Booth escape Washington, DC. Surratt, according to Johnson, “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” She, it was believed by many, was the center around which the whole plot evolved. After a month long trial and just two days of deliberation, all four were charged with conspiring to assassinate the President of the United States and were sentenced to hang for their crime. In June and early July of 1865, Mary Surratt was the most hated woman in the country and there was little doubt in Americans’ minds that she played a definite role in the assassination plot. For the almost 150 years since her death, though, public opinion has been somewhat divided.
For nearly her whole life, Mary Surratt lived just outside of Washington, DC in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She and her husband ran a successful tavern/hotel in the county and, in the early 1850s, the area surrounding the their business was named Surrattsville (now Clinton, Maryland). Maryland was a slave state and Surratts owned slaves whose labor they depended on to keep up their business. This was especially true when Surratt’s husband died and she was left to run things herself. As the North and South became more and more divided over the issue of slavery during the 1850s, the Surratts, like many of their Surrattsville neighbors, felt a growing allegiance to the southern way of life. Maryland did not secede from the Union like other southern slave states did in 1860 and 1861, leaving many families feeling stuck in a Union state with Confederate sympathies. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Surratts’ older son left Maryland to fight for the Confederacy and their younger son, John, became an informant who traveled to collect and deliver secret messages to the Confederate Army. During the Civil War, the Surratts’ views grew stronger. They became known as Confederate sympathizers and the Surrattsville tavern became known as a safe haven for people who held similar views. Read the rest of this entry »