Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Ghost of Mary Surratt

Mary Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the American Federal government. She was hanged on July 7, 1865 accused of participating in a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Mary went to her grave proclaiming her innocence.

Mary just like most women of the time dreamed of a good life with a husband and children. She was a devout catholic. When she married John Surratt in 1840 she requested he convert to Roman Catholicism. 

They and their three children lived in Maryland. John had inherited land and money from his family but he and his wife were not happy. Mary discovered her husband’s unfaithfulness when another woman charged him with a paternity suit. After this things went from bad to worse in their marriage.

Not liking his wife’s religious ways John drank more and more and he often failed to pay his debts. As time went by his temper became more volatile. 

He built a tavern and inn on 200 acres that became known as Surrattsville—today it is Clinton, Maryland. Like many wealthy families of the time the Surratts owned slaves. John became postmaster and Mary was active in the local church fund.

Lonely and at her wits end Mary formed a close bond with the local priest. It was rumored they were having an affair and the priest was sent away. Mary continued to correspond with him. 

John bitter about Mary’s attachment to him cruelly suggested she should also service the customers that stayed at their inn. John’s debts continued to mount and his drinking worsened.

John Jr.
When the Civil war began in 1861, Maryland a border state remained apart of the Union—the northern side. But Mary and John were southern sympathizers so their tavern and inn became a safe house for fellow sympathizers and Confederate spies. 

John Jr. their youngest son became a courier for the Confederates moving messages, cash and contraband back and forth across enemy lines. Their oldest son Isaac moved to Texas and enlisted in the Confederate army.

Townhouse on H Street
Mary’s husband died in 1862 from a stroke. He left the family in serious financial difficulty. Both John Jr. and Ann, their daughter, moved in to help Mary with the farm and business. 

John Jr. was appointed postmaster of Surrattsville but he was dismissed in 1863 for disloyalty to the Union. 

In the fall of 1864 Mary weary of running the farm and business, compounded with the fact that several of their slaves had run off decided to move her family to a townhouse her husband had purchased years before, on H Street in Washington D.C. Mary took in boarders, and the townhouse quickly became a center for John Jr’s covert activities.

It was here Mary met John Wilkes Booth. He was handsome, a successful actor, and charming. Mary was flattered by the attentions he paid her. Booth a natural leader and master manipulator quickly viewed the Surratt family as a means to an end. He emotionally seduced Mary, a much older woman than himself, and gained the trust of John Jr.

Booth drew John Jr. deeper into his conspiracies and he arranged to have John Jr. store two guns and a box of cartridges at the families’ Surrattsville Inn. Mary was not informed about these guns. 

On April 14, 1865, the day Booth shot and killed Lincoln Mary naively made a short trip to Surrattsville to collect overdo rent from her tenet John Lloyd yet another southern sympathizer. She also delivered a wrapped package given to her by Booth. Later it was revealed this package contained Booth’s field glasses.

Booth in his escape briefly stopped at the inn in Surrattsville to collect the guns that he would need to fight off his pursuers. Booth was found and shot. John Jr. hearing of his death fled the country. 

Mary was arrested for conspiring to murder Lincoln and was tried in front of a military tribunal—without a jury. She was presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Mary at Military Tribunal
John Lloyd afraid he might be implicated pointed the finger at Mary. It was his testimony that Mary had warned him to get “the shooting irons ready” that convinced the tribunal to convict Mary. 

The irony here is Lloyd during his testimony stated he was not sure Mary had actually said this to him. 

It was also established that when Booth visited the H Street townhouse he most often requested to see John Jr. not Mary. 

Another irony is most of the evidence presented by the prosecutor was circumstantial so if she had been tried in a civilian court this evidence would have been thrown out.

Many historians today believe Mary Surratt was not apart of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. She just trusted the wrong man. 

In fact, when John Jr. was captured and returned to the states two years later the jury at his trial acquitted him for lack of evidence. 

Some state Mary was hanged to satisfy the Union’s need to revenge the death of a most beloved president. In her last confession to her priest she simply stated, “Father I am innocent.”

Mary’s ghost is present in two locations today. 

The inn in Surrattsville is a museum today. The director and many others have heard doors shutting and footsteps etc. without logical explanation. The other place Mary haunts is the Washington Penitentiary where she was held and tried. Today it is quarters for officers and their families—when they move in they are warned of the ghost that resides there. 

The second floor apartment where Mary’s cell was located is very active. People sense a woman at the window looking down on the tennis courts were once Mary’s gallows stood. Some hear a woman’s distress calls in the apartment. Others sense a deep disappointment and sadness in its rooms. Mary does not rest in peace.

Today the question of Mary’s guilt or innocence is still in question but many feel she did not deserve the hanging rope.


Unknown said...

I always find stories about Mary Surratt interesting. I am a relative of hers.

I've always wanted to visit the museum and maybe "investigate" it. Thanks for sharing this story.

Virginia Lamkin said...

I am glad you approve of my attempt to tell her story.

Unknown said...

Well written story about Mary Surratt. Great looking blog as well!

Aura Todd said...

Someone should try and talk to her and try and send her into the light, It is not funny being stuck between the worlds. Does she realise she is dead?

Very interesting blog by the way :)

Virginia Lamkin said...

This haunting is indeed very sad. From what I understand the living who have encountered her are not aware this can be done. In fact in my research I didn't find any attempts to help her cross over. This might be because some feel it is a residual haunting.

Unknown said...

Yeah, it sounds like she doesn't realize she's dead and is still trapped greving her soon-to-come execution. I'm sure she had A LOT of emotion from time after she was found guilty until she was actually executed. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a residual haunting. But maybe it is intelligent and she's just upset over the fact that that's the place that basically took her life. If so, I wonder if she realizes how long it's been since she was executed. Maybe she just wants people to know she's innocent. Even if it's almost 149 years later.