Conspirator - Mary Surratt - Summary

Soon after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, investigators decide a conspiracy is behind the shooting. Actor John Wilkes Booth fires the fatal shot, but others are involved in the planning (before) and Booth's escape (after). Investigators believe the conspirators include Mary Surratt, owner of a Washington boardinghouse where much of the plotting takes place.

Born on a Maryland plantation, Mary lives in the South before the Civil War. After the plantation she owns with her husband, John, burns to the ground, John opens a tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton), Maryland. He also operates a stable and serves as postmaster. 

Later a widow, Mary opens a boardinghouse in Washington. By now her son Isaac is fighting in the Confederate army; back in Surrattsville, son Johnny serves as postmaster. When local authorities discover that Johnny is also running messages back and forth to the Confederacy, they strip him of his postmaster position. He moves to his mother’s Washington house.

By this time Johnny has met the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. He joins the discussions about Booth’s plans for Lincoln’s kidnapping.

Within six hours after the shooting, authorities arrive at Mary’s boardinghouse to question the absent Johnny.  Two days later, investigators return. This time they arrest Mary and some of her boarders.

Mary denies participating in, or even knowing about, Booth’s plans. Only one tenant known to be a drunkard testifies otherwise. Nevertheless, she and the others, all civilians, face trial by a military commission, even though the U.S. constitution forbids this. Worse, the chief prosecutor assumes conflicting roles as he tries to convict Mary while also supposedly serving as an impartial advisor to the judges in the case.

The military commission sentences Mary to hang. Her lawyer objects strongly to the legal procedure. Also, after her conviction, five of the nine military judges ask President Andrew Johnson to change her sentence to life in prison. Neither action produces any result.

Mary Surratt is hanged on July 7, 1865, alongside three other conspirators. They are all buried on the execution grounds, although Mary’s daughter later moves her Mother's body to a Washington cemetery.

Controversy over the trial and execution outlives Mary. The following year, a Supreme Court decision states that civilians like Mary may not be tried in a military commission.

The prosecutor in the case is accused of keeping evidence – including Booth’s diary – from the defense and the judges’ plea for clemency from the president. When the diary finally surfaces, two years after the trial, 18 pages (the FBI later says 43 pages) are missing. They remain missing today.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Apr 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Nov 09, 2016

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"Conspirator - Mary Surratt" AwesomeStories.com. Apr 01, 2002. Feb 20, 2020.
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