There was nothing unusual about the three-story boarding house located at 541 H Street in Washington, D.C. It was similar to countless other lodgings that had sprouted up since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., the catalyst that started the Civil War. But this was no ordinary establishment. Under its spacious roof lay the “nest that hatched the egg” in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The proprietor of the house was 42-year-old Mary Elizabeth Surratt, who was born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins in 1823 near Waterloo, Md. At age 17, she married 28-year-old John Harrison Surratt. At the start of their lives together, they lived in place called Oxon Hill, Md. It was at that location that three of their children were born: Isaac, Anna, and John Jr.
In 1852 John Surratt Sr. bought a large tract of land—287 acres—in today’s Prince George’s County from a man named Charles Calvert. They decided to build a new home on the site, and by April 1852 they had constructed a two-story building in a community that would eventually go by the name of Surrattsville. Over time, their home would become their private living quarters, and much more. Soon it served as a place where local residents went to vote, a post office, a tavern, and a meeting place where people went to swap stories and pass the time of day.
By September 1852 John Surratt held a license to serve food and drinks, and began renting out some spare rooms to travelers passing through. As the nation gravitated toward war, the talk among the many people who came to Surratt’s Tavern was the ever-growing rift between the North and South. The Surratts were Marylanders whose loyalty lay with their Southern brethren, and over time their establishment became a way station for the clandestine Confederate network then being set up in the area.
When John Wilkes Booth began planning the abduction of President Abraham Lincoln, he proposed bringing the captured president to Surrattsville and meet up with David Herold, one of his co-conspirators. From there, the president would be taken across the Potomac River into the South.
On Aug. 25, 1862, John Surratt died of a heart attack, leaving Mary alone with three children, a tavern to run, and bills to pay. Falling more deeply into debt, Mary made a decision that would change all their lives. Before his death, John Surratt bought their H Street boarding house and in October 1864 Mary and her children moved permanently to the location. Before leaving Surrattsville, Mary rented her home to an expoliceman named John Lloyd.
The Surratt boarding house would become the focal point for the original kidnap conspiracy that was hatched by Booth, and most of the plot’s participants congregated at one point or another at Mary’s home. Among the conspirators was Mary’s son John, a Confederate agent and courier; Lewis Powell, aka “Lewis Paine,” who was responsible for the vicious attack on Secretary of State William Seward on the night of April 14, 1865 (the night Lincoln was killed); George Atzerodt, whose job it was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson (he got cold feet and failed to take action against Johnson); and, of course, Booth, would make many visits to the Surratt home, meeting at all hours with both Mary and her son John while planning the president’s abduction.
Another boarder at the residence was Lewis Weichmann, a government employee and a college friend of John Surratt Jr. Weichmann would have a ringside seat to both the kidnapping plot and later Booth’s assassination scheme. At the conspirators’ trial, Weichmann’s testimony would place Mary Surratt right at the heart of the plot against Lincoln’s life.
By March 1865, John Wilkes Booth had his kidnap plot in high gear and waited only for the proper time to implement his plan. His action team consisted of John Surratt, Lewis Paine, David Herold, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and George Atzerodt. Their intention was to kidnap Lincoln when he attended Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and take him south to the friendly confines of the Confederacy where, it was hoped, the president would be exchanged for thousands of Confederate prisoners being held in Union jails.
On March 17, 1865, their plans changed; Booth had learned the president was not going to be at Ford’s Theatre, but rather, at the performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep, scheduled for wounded soldiers at Campbell Hospital in the city of Washington.
Booth gave instructions to Herold to take a large supply of arms and ammunition— including carbines, two double-barreled shotguns, and a pistol—to the tavern and await further orders. Their intention was to kidnap the president as he returned by carriage from the play.
To his horror, Booth’s plans went horribly wrong. Lincoln did not go to the hospital performance, but instead attended a ceremony at the National Hotel in Washington, the same hotel Booth was staying at. For Booth, his elaborate scheme had come to naught. A new plan of action was required: assassination.
Toward nightfall on April 10, 1865, four days before the assassination of Lincoln, Mary Surratt had asked Louis Weichmann to take her in Booth’s buggy to her Surrattsville tavern, and they set off the next day. Along the way they met John Lloyd and his sister-in-law, who were headed toward Washington. Both Mary and John Lloyd had a hurried, quiet conversation, none of which Weichmann could hear. However, the message to Lloyd was clear. He was “to have the shooting irons ready that night; there would be some parties call for them.”
Another person who corroborated the “shooting irons” story was George Atzerodt. While waiting trial, he said “Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns which had been taken to that place by Herold. This was Friday.”
The original reason for Mary’s trip to Surrattsville was to meet a man named John Nothey who owed her money for 75 acres of land he had previously bought from her late husband. They did meet, but nothing was resolved.
On April 14, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Surratt made another trip to her tavern. She again called on Weichmann to take her. She said she needed to see a man named Charles Calvert whom she owed money. She was hoping to pay off Calvert from the money owed to her by John Nothey. Before they left, Booth arrived at her H Street home and had a hurried conversation with her. Before leaving, Booth gave Mary a package wrapped in a paper bag. The contents of the bag contained field glasses which she was going to leave with John Lloyd.
When they arrived at the tavern, Mary gave the delinquent Lloyd the field glasses and told him “I want you to have those shooting irons ready. There will be parties here tonight who will call for them.”
After the assassination, Booth and David Herold picked up the guns and the field glasses en-route to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home in Maryland.
In his memoirs of the assassination published many years after his death, Weichmann recounted an incident that took place while en-route to Surrattsville. They had passed a group of Union soldiers who were resting along the road. Mrs. Surratt asked a farmer who was nearby who they were, and he replied they were pickets. She then asked the man if they (the pickets) remained out all night. The farmer replied that around 8 p.m. they were called in.
Weichmann wrote that on the night of the assassination, both Booth and David Herold safely crossed the Navy Yard Bridge, and never encountered any pickets, who surely would have stopped them if they tried to leave the city earlier. Weichmann said he believed Mary told Booth about the schedule of the Union pickets while planning his escape from Washington.
Upon their return from Surrattsville, Mary was surprised to find Booth waiting for her at H Street. They met for several minutes, after which Booth returned to his hotel. It is not known just what transpired between the pair that afternoon but it is most likely that Booth told her about his plans to assassinate the president that night when the president and Mrs. Lincoln were going to attend the performance of the play, Our American Cousin, staring Laura Keene, at Ford’s Theatre. In the hours before the assassination Booth assembled his hit team consisting of Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt to finalize their plans.
After the assassination, both Booth and Herold fled the city for Maryland and, they hoped, safety. In the wake of the assassination, Washington was in a state of frenzy as the manhunt for Lincoln’s killer began. The War Department received a tip from a woman named Mary Ann Griffin who had learned from a niece who worked for Mary Surratt that suspicious men were at the H Street home. Col. Henry Wells dispatched a number of soldiers under the command of Maj. Henry Smith to arrest Mrs. Surratt. When Smith ascertained that he had correctly identified Mrs. Surratt, he told her that everyone in the home was under arrest.
As they were about to leave, there came a knock at the door. A young, hulking man carrying a pickaxe entered the room. When asked whom he wanted to see, the stranger replied, “Mrs. Surratt.” He told the policemen that Mrs. Surratt had hired him to dig a ditch and he wanted to make sure that she still needed his services.
The police then asked Mary if she knew the stranger, and she replied, “Before God, I have never
seen him. I did not hire him to dig a ditch.” The stranger was Lewis Powell who, only hours before, had brutally attacked Secretary of State William Seward. Mary also lied when she said she never met Powell/“Paine” before. He had previously been at her home and was introduced to her by Louis Weichmann as “Mr. Wood.”
Mary was taken to the headquarters of Gen. Christopher Auger, one of many officials investigating the president’s murder. Mary was questioned intensely by Wells who demanded to know the relationship between Booth and her son John, and pressed her for John’s current location. Mary refused to respond about her son’s relationship with Booth and said she didn’t know where John was. She had lied. She’d previously received a letter from John who told her he was in Montreal. (At the time of the assassination, he was in Elmira, N.Y., en route to Canada.)
Further pressed about her relationship with George Atzerodt, Mary claimed he had stayed a few days at her boarding house but that she subsequently threw him out because of his drunkenness. Further, she denied her son John had any relationship with Atzerodt, an assertion that was contradicted by her daughter, Anna. She also steadfastly denied knowing David Herold who had visited John at the boarding house on numerous occasions.
Wells peppered Mrs. Surratt about whether her son was in Ford’s Theatre with Booth and told her that John was believed to have been the assailant of Seward. Mary’s composure began to crumble, and Wells believed she was hiding something regarding events leading up to the assassination. He based his assumptions on Louis Weichmann’s testimony of the odd goings on at the Surratt home prior to the assassination, the appearance of Booth, Herold, Atzerodt, and Paine there, and the many contradictions Mary presented during his interrogation.
The women were taken to the Carroll Annex in Washington’s Capitol Prison, and within a few days all the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination were arrested and charged. The conspirators were tried before a military commission and found guilty. Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen were given life sentences, while Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt were sentenced to die. No one in the legal community believed Mary Surratt would be put to death, and her lawyers frantically worked to save her life. They petitioned the court to issue a writ of habeas corpus, and a federal judge ordered that Mary be taken to his courtroom on the morning of her execution.
The order was ignored and—despite desperate pleas from Anna Surratt—President Andrew Johnson refused to commute her sentence. Two days before Mary was to be hanged, Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general, took the military commission’s recommendations—including a plea that Mrs. Surratt be given clemency—to President Johnson. Johnson later said he was not told of the clemency plea until after the conspirators had been hanged.
On July 7, 1865, the four condemned prisoners were hanged before a packed audience made up of soldiers at the prison yard at the Arsenal. In the heat of the afternoon sun, the trap doors fell away, and in the eyes of those in attendance, justice had finally been served in the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Today, 145 years after the death of President Lincoln, the role of Mary Surratt—the first woman to be hanged by the U.S. government—in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln continues to be debated by historians. For many, the jury is still out.