Mary Surratt: Executed as Conspirator in Assassination of Lincoln

Mary Surratt grave

Getty Images / Interim Archives

Mary Surratt, a boardinghouse operator, and tavern keeper, was the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government, convicted as a co-conspirator with Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, though she asserted her innocence.

Mary Surratt's early life was hardly notable. Surratt was born Mary Elizabeth Jenkins on her family's tobacco farm near Waterloo, Maryland, in 1820 or 1823 (sources differ). Her mother was Elizabeth Anne Webster Jenkins and her father was Archibald Jenkins. Raised as an Episcopalian, she was educated for four years at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Virginia. Mary Surratt converted to Roman Catholicism while at the school.

Marriage to John Surratt

In 1840 she married John Surratt. He built a mill near Oxon Hill in Maryland, then bought land from his adopted father. The family lived for a time with Mary's mother-in-law in the District of Columbia.

Mary and John had three children, including two sons involved in the Confederacy. Isaac was born in 1841, Elizabeth Susanna, also known as Anna, in 1843, and John Jr. in 1844.

In 1852, John built a home and tavern on a large plot of land he'd purchased in Maryland. The tavern was eventually also used as a polling place and post office as well.

Mary first refused to live there, staying at her in-laws' old farm, but John sold it and the land he'd bought from his father, and Mary and the children were forced to live at the tavern.

In 1853, John bought a house in the District of Columbia, renting it out. The next year, he added a hotel to the tavern, and the area around the tavern was named Surrattsville.

John bought other new businesses and more land and sent their three children to Roman Catholic boarding schools. They were enslavers. and sometimes "sold" the people they enslaved to settle debts. John's drinking worsened, and he accumulated debt.

Civil War

When the Civil War began in 1861, Maryland stayed in the Union, but the Surratts became known as sympathizers with the Confederacy. Their tavern was a favorite of Confederate spies. Though it is not known with certainty if Mary Surratt was aware of this. Both of the Surratt sons became part of the Confederacy, Isaac enlisted in the cavalry of the Confederate States Army, and John Jr. worked as a courier.

In 1862, John Surratt died suddenly of a stroke. John Jr. became postmaster and tried to get a job in the Department of War. In 1863, he was dismissed as postmaster for disloyalty. Newly a widow and saddled with debts her husband left her, Mary Surratt and her son John struggled to run the farm and tavern, while also facing investigation by federal agents for their possible Confederate activities.

Mary Surratt rented the tavern to John M. Lloyd and moved in 1864 to the house in Washington, DC, where she ran a boardinghouse. Some authors have suggested that the move was meant to advance the family's Confederate activities.

In January 1865, John Jr. transferred his ownership of the family's properties to his mother; some have read this as evidence he knew he was engaged in treasonous activity, as the law would permit the property of a traitor to be seized.


In late 1864, John Surratt, Jr., and John Wilkes Booth were introduced by Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth was seen at the boardinghouse frequently from that time. John Jr. was almost certainly recruited into the plot to kidnap President Lincoln. The conspirators hid ammunition and weapons at the Surratt Tavern in March 1865, and Mary Surratt traveled to the tavern on April 11 by carriage and again on April 14.

April 1865

John Wilkes Booth, escaping after shooting the President at Ford's Theater on April 14, stopped at Surratt's tavern, run by John Lloyd. Three days later, District of Columbia police searched Surratt's home and found a photograph of Booth, possibly on a tip associating Booth with John Jr.

With that evidence and testimony of a servant who overheard mention of Booth and a theater, Mary Surratt was arrested along with all others in the house. While she was being arrested, Lewis Powell came to the house. He was later linked to the attempt to assassinate William Seward, Secretary of State.

John Jr. was in New York, working as a Confederate courier when he heard of the assassination. He escaped to Canada to avoid arrest.

Trial and Conviction

Mary Surratt was held at the Old Capitol Prison's annex and then at the Washington Arsenal. She was brought before a military commission on May 9, 1865, charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president. Her lawyer was the United States Senator Reverdy Johnson.

John Lloyd was also among those charged with conspiracy. Lloyd testified to Mary Surratt's prior involvement, saying she had told him to have "shooting-irons ready that night" on her April 14 trip to the tavern.

Lloyd and Louis Weichmann were the main witnesses against Surratt, and the defense challenged their testimony as they were also charged as conspirators. Other testimony showed Mary Surratt loyal to the Union, and the defense challenged the authority of a military tribunal to convict Surratt.

Mary Surratt was quite ill during her incarceration and trial and missed the last four days of her trial for illness. At the time, the federal government and most states prevented felony defendants from testifying at their own trials, so Mary Surratt did not have an opportunity to take the stand and defend herself.

Conviction and Execution

Mary Surratt was found guilty on June 29 and 30 by the military court of most of the counts on which she'd been indicted, and was sentenced to be executed, the first time that the United States federal government had subjected a woman to capital punishment.

Many pleas were made for clemency, including by Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna, and five of the nine judges of the military tribunal. President Andrew Johnson later claimed he had never seen the clemency request.

Mary Surratt was executed by hanging, with three others convicted of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, in Washington, DC, on July 7, 1865, less than three months after the assassination.

That night, the Surratt boardinghouse was attacked by a souvenir-seeking crowd; finally stopped by police. (The boardinghouse and tavern are today run as historical sites by the Surratt Society.)

Mary Surratt was not turned over to the Surratt family until February of 1869, when Mary Surratt was reburied in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Mary Surratt's son, John H. Surratt, Jr., was later tried as a conspirator in the assassination when he returned to the United States. The first trial ended with a hung jury and then the charges were dismissed because of the statute of limitations. John Jr. admitted publicly in 1870 to have been part of the kidnap plot which led to the assassination by Booth.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Surratt: Executed as Conspirator in Assassination of Lincoln." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, October 2). Mary Surratt: Executed as Conspirator in Assassination of Lincoln. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Surratt: Executed as Conspirator in Assassination of Lincoln." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).