Aunt Rachel and the Surratt Family
Many of the circumstances revolving around the history of the Surratts in 1864-65 are directly related to the fact that the family were slave holders. We know very little about the seven slaves that they owned while at Surrattsville – except for one domestic by the name of Rachel. Her testimony at both the 1865 Conspiracy Trial and the 1867 civil trial of John Surratt, Jr. gives us good insight into Rachel’s role within the family.
Very little is known about Rachel before she became part of the Surratt story. Cornelius Wildman, of Charles County, rented her to the Surratts in “the year that John Brown was hung” (1859). Rachel continued to visit the Wildman family and mentioned visiting them at a Washington home on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. We discovered Rachel in the trial transcripts of both the trial of Mary Surratt and her son, John. Rachel testified in the defense of both Mary and John, and through it we can glean insight on the life and relationships of a slave at the end of the Civil War in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Rachel worked on the Surrattsville property for six years as a cook and probably with other domestic duties. Recently, a period room has been created in the loft over the kitchen wing at the Surratt House, reflecting the life of Rachel and others in a position of domestic servitude.
Rachel was living with John Lloyd in Surrattsville at the time of the assassination while her children were living with her former owners, the Wildman family. Rachel later testified that she had children and that one of them lived with Mary Surratt at her H Street boardinghouse in Washington City. We know that John Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Emma Offutt, had come up from Charles County at some point to assist him. It is likely that the paid services of Rachel (who was no longer a slave) were no longer needed, and the Robey family hired her at some point in early 1865. Rachel worked for Mr. Robey helping to mend and make clothing in preparation for their daughter’s wedding to Henry Queen. However, there is no evidence that a Robey family ever lived in the Surratt House. A Robey replaced John Surratt, Jr. as postmaster of Surrattsville, but soon moved the postal operation to his own property down Piscataway Road. Rachel’s duties with the Robeys also included minding the house while Mrs. Robey was away, but there is no record of how long she worked for this family.
Some points brought out by Rachel’s appearance in court:
- Rachel testified that Mary treated her servants “very well all the time” that she was working for Mary.
- Rachel recalled that Mary had fed Union soldiers and she “always tried to do the best for them that she could.”
- The defense lawyers for Mary Surratt questioned Rachel in regards to Mary’s eyesight, which came into question when Mary could not identify Lewis Powell [aka Paine, aka Rev. Wood] on the night of her arrest. Rachel said, “Her eyesight has been failing for a long time; very often I have had to go upstairs and thread her needle for her because she could not see to do it; I have had to stop washing and go up and thread it for her in the day-time. I remember one day telling her that Father Lanihan was at the front gate, coming to the house, and she said, ‘No, it was not him it was little Johnny’ – meaning her son.”
In reference to her visit to Washington on the weekend of the assassination: Rachel left Surrattsville on the morning of Good Friday and arrived at the Wildman household on “the Island” [this would be in today’s Southeast Washington, north of the Washington Arsenal and Penitentiary (now Fort Lesley J. McNair)]. On the following Tuesday morning (April 18), she went to visit her child who lived with Mary Surratt at her H Street boardinghouse and discovered that Mary had been arrested the night before. Seeing all the soldiers, she became concerned for her child vowing “… would not leave the child behind… could take it away.” Rachel was held for questioning until eight o’clock that evening – along with Mary’s servant, Susan Jackson and Susan’s husband.
In Trial of John H. Surratt, Rachel was going by the name Eliza Hawkins. She said that she, indeed, went by the name Rachel Semus, but “they called me Eliza for a short name, and it has been so long since they called me Rachel.”
A few things from this trial:
- In Rachel’s testimony she quoted what she remembered Susan Jackson saying: “The night the President was killed they were here looking for her son John. He was here the first week that I came here, and I went then to take some tea in and Mrs. Surratt remarked to me, ‘wasn’t he very much like’ her daughter Anna, and I told her ‘yes, he was.’” Rachel responded, “Haven’t you seen him since?” Susan said, “No, I have never put my eyes on him since, and that has been about two weeks ago.” Rachel stated that she immediately went to “the Island and told this information that night to her mistress, who was married to Henry Queen.” As a side note, Susan Jackson testified that she did have a conversation with Rachel, but that she did see John, Jr. on the day of the assassination, not two weeks prior.
- Rachel’s name was brought up when Rachel (Eliza) was asked a question about a conversation with Susan Jackson, who testified earlier in the trial. The prosecution contended that the defense made it sound like Rachel and Eliza were two different people and could have confused Susan Jackson to the point of affecting her testimony. The judge cleared up the dispute by going back to the initial question and said that the defense asked if Susan “had any conversation with a person named Rachel Semus, or Eliza Hawkins, or Eliza Semus, or Rachel Hawkins.”
Other than her recorded testimonies during the two trials, we have found very little documentation on Rachel until she was interviewed by a newspaper nearly thirty years later. She was living in Southwest DC and bedridden. It is in this interview that she mentioned that she liked to be called “Aunty” and stated that it reminded her of “old times.”
Some additional items from the interview:
- Rachel mentions that “the kitchen where she was most employed adjoined the pantry where the guns were afterwards found, and she had several times heard Booth and Lloyd in there, but did not know what for.” [This is the only indication we have ever found that Booth might have been in Surratt Tavern. Was Aunt Rachel confused on this?] Of special interest is her claim that Booth and Herold came “…down often and them and Mr. Lloyd were mighty thick.” Rachel also remembers Booth reciting lines and his kindness to the servants.
- During the interview, Rachel speaks fondly of Mary Surratt, describing that she was “kind-hearted and wouldn’t do hurt to no soul.” Rachel still proclaimed Mary’s innocence, and if Mary’s innocence was ever contested, it was “apt to arouse her ire.” In 1865, Rachel was a free woman and could speak her mind. If she harbored ill feelings about Mary Surratt, both trials would have been excellent opportunities to express them – with even the force of the War Department to protect her!
This is the last that we know of Rachel. As was the fate of many born into slavery, we do not know her birth year; and even after freedom, the deaths of many born into slavery are seldom noted in obituaries.
(1) Benn Pitman’s version, The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern and published by Greenwood Press of Connecticut, 1954
(2) Trial of John H. Surratt, in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia…, R. Sutton, Washington City, D.C., 1867
(3) Washington Star, December 21, 1892. In the David Rankin Barbee collection at Georgetown’s Lauinger Library