Mary Surratt's Story
Mary Surratt and Her Beginnings
Very little is known about the early life of Mary Jenkins. However, we do know that she was better educated than most Maryland farm girls of that period. She was just past her twelfth birthday when her mother took her across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, and entered her in the Catholic school operated in connection with St. Mary's Catholic Church. This school was organized and staffed by the Sisters of Charity. A copy of the first receipt for board and tuition (for $25), signed by Sister Bernadina and dated November 26, 1835, is in the files of the Surratt House Museum. The Sisters of Charity very kindly checked their archives and confirmed that Sister Bernadina was in charge of the school during its entire period of operation, 1832 through 1839.
It was during her stay at this school that Mary Elizabeth converted to Catholicism. At her confirmation, she must have chosen to emulate St. Eugenia, a legendary saint whose feast day falls on Christmas. She used her confirmation name of Eugenia frequently, and many writers erroneously give her middle name as Eugenia.
One last word on her education; we need to bury a myth. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1865 that Mrs. Surratt had attended “Miss Winifred Martin’s Catholic School for girls in Alexandria.” Almost without exception, every writer since then has repeated this as gospel. The fact is, however, that it was her daughter, Miss Anna Surratt, who attended Miss Winifred Martin’s school. And that school was in Bryantown, Maryland - not in Alexandria, Virginia. The Martin school was operated in connection with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bryantown. The Martin sisters are buried there and have impressive gravestones. [But] Mary’s ties are with the Sisters of Charity and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alexandria.
Mary Surratt’s Marriage and Beyond
Late in the summer of 1840, John Harrison Surratt of the District of Columbia was married to Mary Elizabeth Jenkins of southern Prince George’s County. Mary was born in 1823, not far from the site of Surratt House, and her parents and grandparents resided on land that is today part of Andrews Air Force Base. During the early years of their marriage, the Surratts lived on a farm in the District of Columbia near Oxon Hill, Maryland. All three of their children, Isaac, Anna, and John, Jr., were born there; and it continued to be their home until the 1850s.
In 1852, John Surratt purchased 287 acres of farmland at the intersection of the Marlboro-Piscataway and New Cut roads (present day Routes 223 and 381, respectively) in Prince George’s County from Charles B. Calvert. The sale marked the beginning of the Surratts’ involvement with the small crossroads community that would soon be known as Surrattsville. John Surratt wasted little time in developing the land, and by April 23, 1852, a two-story frame building was under construction on the property.
The structure would soon become a tavern, a polling place, and a post office, as well as home to John and Mary Surratt and their three children. It was here that the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, would stop thirteen years later on the night of April 14, 1865, during his escape from Washington.
In September, 1852, a tavern license was issued to John Surratt, and he started almost immediately to serve food and drink to local citizens and to provide lodging for weary travelers. His establishment quickly became a community gathering place. In 1854, the Maryland General Assembly passed an act creating the Ninth Election District in Prince George's County. It later was called Surratt’s Election District and even today retains that name. The same legislation specified that the polling place for the district be “Surratt’s Hotel,” as the Surratt House was referred to in the act. Later in 1854, on October 6, the U.S. Post Office Department established a post office at the Surratt House to meet the growing needs of the community. John Surratt was made postmaster at the location, and he continued to serve as such until his death in 1862.
Thus, by the fall of 1854, the Surratt House was a tavern, a polling place, and a post office, as well as an abode for the Surratt family. Those who came there to eat and drink, to talk, and to spend the night were, for the most part, neither the very rich nor the very poor. They were local farmers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, and even fellow tavern keepers. The Surratt House was a lively place where a man could get a good meal to fill his stomach, a drink to satisfy his thirst, and a smoke to just sit back and enjoy. But more than that, it was a place where people could go to converse with friends and strangers alike about the problems that were dividing the country in the crucial decade before the dawn of the Civil War. The Surratts’ sympathies lay with the Southern cause during that great war, and there is ample evidence that the tavern was a safehouse in the Confederate underground network which flourished in southern Maryland.
On the night of August 25-26, 1862, John H. Surratt died suddently, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage or heart attack. Following her husband’s death, the widow Surratt tried desperately to pick up the pieces; but it was an impossible task from the start. He had left her deeply in debt, some of the family’s slaves were gone - probably runaways - and there seemed little hope of collecting on the land [that, in order to cover mounting debts, Mr. Surratt had] sold to John Marshall and John Nothey. There was a war on, and money was scarce for everyone. The tavern bills went uncollected, and there were debts everywhere. Everything went downhill - tavern and farm alike - at Surrattsville. By 1864, life was in turmoil for Mary E. Surratt.
Mrs. Surratt rented the tavern and farm to an ex-policeman named John Lloyd and, in October, 1864, moved to a townhouse which the family owned at 541 H Street in Washington City. There she assumed the respectable occupation of running a boardinghouse. And it was there that John Wilkes Booth came to know the Surratt family.
Following the murder of Abraham Lincoln, a search was started for Booth and his accomplice, David E. Herold, as well as others suspected of having been involved in any way with the assassination. On the night of April 17, 1865, Mary Surratt was arrested at her Washington boardinghouse and then taken before dawn of the next day to the Carroll Annex of the Old Capitol Prison. She remained there until April 30th, when she was transported by Colonel Baker in a buggy to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. It was in one of the administrative buildings at the Penitentiary that the assassination conspiracy trial was held.
The trial proceedings began on May 9, 1865, and continued until the end of June. On the 28th and 29th of June, the Military Commission which heard the case conferred and decided on the death penalty for Mrs. Surratt and her convicted co-conspirators Lewis Powell (alias Paine), George Atzerodt, and David Herold. The tribunal handed down life imprisonment to other conspirators, including Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hanged, along with Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold, thus marking the first time the U.S. government had executed a woman. Her fate had been sealed by her Surrattsville tenant, John M. Lloyd, who became a state’s witness just prior to the trial. He testified that she had requested that he have field glasses and carbines ready for Booth and Herold when they arrived at the Surratt House late on the night of the assassination. Mrs. Surratt is further alleged to have delivered the field glasses to Lloyd for safekeeping earlier on the same day. Despite defense witnesses that attested to Mrs. Surratt’s reputation as a gentle and deeply religious woman, Lloyd’s testimony placed the rope around her neck.
Ironically, at the time of her death, a case was pending before the Supreme Court, questioning the jurisdiction of military courts in cases involving civilians. In 1866, less than a year after Mary Surratt was hanged, the Supreme Court ruled that a military court had no jurisdiction in civilian cases, if the civil courts were open. When the assassination conspiracy trial was conducted by a military court in 1865, the civil courts in the District of Columbia were open. [Note: It should be clarified that the Court held open the question when dealing with the laws of war. Since Lincoln was assassinated while the Civil War was still going on, a military court might still have been justified.] Some historians believe that, had the Supreme Court ruling come a year earlier, Mary Surratt might never have been executed.
This narrative is excerpted from “Surratt House and Tavern…A Page in American History,” published by the MNCPPC, and from “The Surratt Family & John Wilkes Booth - Compiled from the research of James O. Hall,” published and copyrighted by the Surratt Society, Clinton, Maryland. Both resources are available from the Surratt House Museum Gift Shop. For additional information and pictures, see the Mary Surratt section of R. J. Norton’s excellent web site on the Lincoln Assassination.