For a woman hanged for being part of a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, Mary Surratt had a pretty uneventful background. Surratt was the first woman executed by the federal government. Her son, John H. Surratt, Jr., was tried for related crimes after her death but was never convicted.
Despite intense interest in her life among those who study the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, relatively little has emerged about Mary Surratt’s childhood. According to the Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination site, she was born in May or June of 1823 as Mary Elizabeth Jenkins.
Mary Surratt’s birthplace was near Waterloo, Maryland. The site is now within the grounds of Andrews Air Force Base, ironically the home of Air Force One.
The young Mary Jenkins was apparently better educated than most girls her age who grew up on Maryland farms, the Surratt House Museum states. Just after she turned 12, her mother enrolled her in a school in Alexandria, Virginia that was attached to St. Mary’s Catholic Church and operated by the Sisters of Charity. A receipt for her $25 room and board and tuition, dated November 26, 1835, is in the files of the museum.
While she was a student at this school, Mary Jenkins became a Roman Catholic. At her conversion, she apparently took the confirmation name of Eugenia.
When she was 17, in 1840, Mary Jenkins married John H. Surratt, 28. The couple set up housekeeping on land Surratt had inherited. It is within the present-day Congress Heights section of Washington. The couple had three children: Isaac (1841), Anna (1843) and John Jr. (1844).
After a fire razed their home in 1851, the Surratts built a combination home and tavern on a farm they purchased not far from the Mary’s birthplace in Maryland. There they operated a tavern, followed by a post office.
Two years later, John Surratt bought the Washington property at 541 H Street forever associated as Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse. The family continued to live in Maryland. After he was appointed postmaster in 1854, the area was known as Surrattsville. Eight years later, John Surratt died suddenly. The town’s name was changed to Robeystown in 1865 and to Clinton, Maryland in 1878.
After leasing the tavern to John Lloyd, Mary and her daughter moved to the H Street property in Washington on October 1, 1864.
To support herself, Mary Surratt rented rooms in her four-story residence. This was considered a perfectly respectable action for a widow and was commonplace. It was at the boardinghouse that Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth got to know the Surratt family.
During the Civil War, John Surratt, Jr. became a Confederate messenger and spy. He met Booth early in 1865. Others later tried as co-conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination also visited the boardinghouse. To this day, it remains unclear whether Mary Surratt was really aware of their activities.
Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond as part of a Confederate prisoner exchange. Some of those involved with Booth’s plan hid two Spencer carbines in the loft of the tavern leased by John Lloyd. Accounts suggest that he was somewhat uneasy about the hidden weapons but permitted them to be placed in the tavern.
Mary Surratt visited Surrattsville on April 11, 1865. According to Lloyd, whom she met on the road, she told him that the guns would soon be needed. Three days later, on the date of Lincoln’s assassination, she again traveled to Surrattsville. She supposedly delivered Booth’s French field glasses and told him to get the hidden weapons ready, adding that some individuals would call for them.
After Booth shot Lincoln, authorities undertook a massive search for him and suspected conspirators. On the night of April 17, 1865, they arrested Mary Surratt at her boardinghouse. The next morning, they took her to the Old Capitol Prison, where she remained for nearly two weeks before ending up at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.
One of the most controversial aspects of Mary Surratt’s trial for conspiracy was that her case was heard by a military commission instead of a civilian court. She was declared guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. While some of those named co-conspirators received the same sentence, others received life imprisonment. In 1866, the Supreme Court ruled that military courts had no jurisdiction over civilians. This ruling came too late for Mary Surratt, who was hanged on July 7, 1865, the first woman executed by the U.S. government.
For a woman who suffered such a notorious end, Mary Surratt had a gentle and uneventful upbringing. Her boardinghouse eventually became a commonplace site in Washington: the Wok and Roll Restaurant.