The Family that Plotted Assassination
By David O. Stewart
Mary Surratt of Maryland and her son John were America’s most notorious mother-son crime partnership of the 19th century. Their crime was infamous: conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
In late 1864, when John Wilkes Booth was organizing his plot against Lincoln, he met John Surratt Jr., only 20 years old but a seasoned agent for the Confederate Secret Service. They hit it off. Surratt helped Booth find recruits in Southern Maryland, including his mother, the redoubtable Mary Surratt.
Born in 1823, Mary lived most of her life in tobacco-growing southern Maryland, a region with a long tradition of slavery. As a teenager, she married John Surratt, 10 years her senior, and together they built a tavern, accumulating a half-dozen slaves. Upon John Sr.’s death in 1862, Mary became proprietor.
The family’s Confederate allegiance was strong. Older son Isaac joined the Confederate Army in Texas. John, 18, joined the Confederate secret service while succeeding his father as federal postmaster. The tavern became a key communications link for Confederate spies.
Southern Maryland was the best route for secret messages between Richmond and its agents in the North, and John was good at the work. “I devised various ways to carry the messages,” he recalled after the war, “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He crowed that he easily evaded the “stupid set of detectives” sent after him.
John loved the game. “It was a fascinating life to me,” he said. “It seemed as if I could not do too much nor run too great a risk.” His adventures were no secret to his mother, whose tavern was flypaper for Confederate agents and couriers.
Enter John Wilkes Booth
Then came Booth. Like his father and brothers, he was a star of the American stage. In December, Booth wanted to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. Perhaps, Booth implied, Lincoln might be bartered for an honorable peace.
At the same time, Mary leased her tavern to a neighbor and moved into Washington to open a boarding house on H Street Northwest, near 7th Street. It swiftly became a way station for Confederate agents. Booth and John Surratt recruited more men for the kidnapping team and used Mary’s house as their meeting place.
Through early 1865, Mary and Booth became an unusual pair: the dashing young actor and the middle-aged landlady, described as stout, who attended daily Mass. He called frequently at the house, sometimes to see only Mary.
On March 17, 1865, Booth, John, and six others waited beside a lonely road in Washington to kidnap the president. A schedule change kept Lincoln away, frustrating the plotters.
In early April, Booth’s gang reassembled for a second try. This time, they aimed to murder the president and at least three other Northern leaders: Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Ulysses Grant.
Booth shot Lincoln during an April 14 performance at Ford’s Theater, then fled. Another conspirator stabbed Seward in his bed. Johnson’s intended assassin lost his nerve. General Grant unexpectedly left Washington, thwarting any attempt on his life.
John Surratt claimed he was far from Washington on April 14. Shortly before the assassination, he carried Confederate messages to agents in Montreal, then traveled to Elmira, New York, to plan an uprising at a large prison camp. After the assassination, he fled to Canada.
Wheels of Justice
Union soldiers killed Booth 11 days after the assassination while investigators rounded up Mary Surratt and others. Four weeks later, eight defendants faced trial for plotting against Lincoln.
The accused, in addition to Mary, were Lewis Paine (Seward’s attacker), George Atzerodt (who failed to attack Johnson), David Herold (who guided Booth’s escape), Edman Spangler (who held Booth’s horse during the shooting), Dr. Samuel Mudd (who treated Booth’s broken leg during his escape), plus Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, who had been part of the kidnapping plot.
Prosecutors highlighted Mary’s actions on April 14. She met Booth twice that day. After the first meeting, Mary rode to Surrattsville to direct the tavern manager to expect visitors that night and to give them whiskey and rifles.
Mary met Booth again an hour before the assassination. That night, Booth and Herold collected the guns and whiskey from the tavern. Mary’s aid showed that she knew Booth’s plan.
The commission of nine convicted Mary of assisting the conspirators, but disagreed on her sentence. Five urged clemency because of her sex and age. President Johnson entertained no doubts and ordered her hanged with Paine, Herold and Atzerodt.
The One Who Got AwayJohn’s talent for evasion kept him alive. In mid-September, with a $25,000 reward on his head, he sailed in disguise from Canada to Britain as John McCarty. Traveling to Italy, he enlisted as John Watson in the Pope’s army in Rome. Another American recognized him. John was arrested in early November but escaped again, this time to Naples.
A “British gentleman” paid his way to Egypt under another false name. In late November, American officials arrested him in Alexandria, Egypt, and sent him home in chains.
In the summer of 1867, the trial focused on John’s whereabouts on the assassination day. For the defense, several tailors from Elmira testified to seeing the dapper John on April 14, but 13 prosecution witnesses swore he was in Washington. Prosecutors brandished railroad timetables showing John could have traveled from Elmira to Washington, then fled to Canada. The jury deadlocked. John walked free.
He journeyed to South America, then tried school teaching. He gave public lectures boasting of wartime exploits but denying any role in the Lincoln assassination. In the 1870s, John joined a Baltimore shipping company and worked there for 40 years. He died in April 1916, in bed.
Some despised John as a coward who left his mother to hang for his crimes. Many saw Mary, as President Johnson put it, as the temptress who “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Others insisted she was the innocent victim of national hysteria. Between them, they made a unique family of crime.