Her name is Mary Surratt and her execution is somewhat of a mystery; however, she was the first woman executed in the U.S about 150 years ago.Mystery and intrigue surround this woman, because of her place in time, and political position during the Civil War. In fact, her death sentence was almost precipitated. Her family owned seven slaves, and her birthplace; Maryland was, “a state that straddled North-South loyalties,” according to Erin Blakemore, and partly because of an indefensible connection with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (1820 or May 1823 – July 7, 1865) Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Whether her past tainted, or other affiliations, or was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time, her participation in the assassination is still in question. Here’s a short recap of her infamous life, and why this may have swayed the courts to convict her. First, it was reported Mrs. Surratt’s “testimony under police questioning was confident and arrogant,” and being obstinate never works! Strike one.
Secondly, her fate, as owner of a Washington DC boarding house and tavern, was viewed as a place of Confederate intrigue and conspiracy. This is a place where John Wilkes Booth frequented regularly. Strike Two. She was well-known as the wife of a secessionist, who used his home as a Confederate safe house, and her son, was known as a Confederate Secret Service member. Strike Three. Also, her son was “suspected of helping attack U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was shot by one of Booth’s accomplices,” which was simultaneous to the assassination of Lincoln. The plot thickens. Remember, her birthplace, Maryland straddled the North-South political views? This contradiction probably infused her with a lot of ambiguity her entire lifetime.
Now, to add insult to injury, and that may not even be the right phrase at this point, but her son after hearing of the assassination, roundly condemned his Mother for her part in the dastardly deed. To make matters worse for Mrs. Surratt, her tavern keeper John Lloyd reported her saying “that guns were at the ready on the day of the assassination.” He besmirched her saying, “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!”
A military tribunal versus a civil court conducted her trial. That gesture seemed to be “motivated by lingering distrust between the North and South, bitterness over the assassination and desire to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.” She was sentenced to death by hanging.
On July 7th 1865, according to author Robert K. Elder, Mrs. Surratt dressed herself in black and walked up the gallows’ stairs “leading the procession of prisoners to their death,” all who professed their innocence. Her final words to the guard were “to not let her fall,” taken from his book, Last Words of the Executed. Meanwhile, Mrs. Surratt’s son, who did confess to “conspiracy to kidnap the President” was set free after a civil trial. What irony that her own son disowned her to save himself.
Tell us what you think. Did she get what she deserved, or did the tribunal rush to judgment?