Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Hanging of Mary Surratt

On July 7, 1865, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surrat, a Catholic boarding house owner, was convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Sentenced to death, and plagued with great pain and illness due menstral complications, she was hanged, becoming the first woman executed by the United States federal government. Her son, John H. Surratt, Jr., a true conspirator who brought the other conspirators into Mary's boarding house, was later tried but was not convicted of involvement in the assassination. This is her story. 

Mary Surratt

To this very day, much controversy exists about the guilt of Boardinghouse innkeeper Mary Surratt, who was put on trial, convicted and executed for conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln. 

Mary's Boarding House 

As the owner of a boarding house where the conspirators, friends of her son, often met, she was insidiously connected to Lincoln's assassination.

Much has been written of her connection to this heinous crime and the hasty put together trial and lack of adequate defense that saw her hanged, even though numerous attempts to secure clemency for her by President Andrew Johnson.  

Within two months of being charged with the crime she would be dead; swinging from the gallows in Washington D.C.

Before the ink could dry on her execution order, construction of the gallows began. It was 12 feet high and 20 square feet. In charge of all the preparations was a man named Captain Christian Rath. With great care, he made the nooses. Convinced the government would never hang a woman, he made Surratt's noose the night before the execution with five loops rather than the regulation seven. On the night before the executions, he tied each noose to a tree limb and a bag of buckshot, and then tossed the bags to the ground. All nooses held tight and passed the test. When civilian grave diggers refused to dig the graves out of superstition and fear, Rath asked soldiers to volunteer. A large number of soldiers eagerly accepted.   

The Empty Scaffold and Gallows

At 12:00 PM on July 6, Surratt was informed she would be hanged the next day. She wept copiously. In her cell, by her side were two Catholic priests and her daughter Anna. As she waited for her death, her menstrual problems had worsened, and she was in such pain and suffered from such severe cramps that the prison doctor gave her wine and medication to help ease her suffering. The entire time, she continually and vehemently championed her innocence. She spent the night on her mattress, weeping and moaning (in pain and grief), ministered to by Anna and the priests. 

At 8:00 AM. on July 7, Anna left her mother's side and hurried to the White House in a desperate attempt to beg for her mother's life. President Johnson refused to see her. Anna returned to her mother's cell at about 11:00 AM. 

At 11:25 AM, the soldiers began testing the gallows; the sound terrifying and unnerving to the condemned. Shortly before noon, Mary was taken from her cell and then allowed to sit in a chair near the entrance to the courtyard. It was a hot, oppressive day. The temperature was 92.3 °F or 33.5 °C. 

At 12:30 PM, the guards ordered all visitors to leave. Forced to part from her mother, Anna's hysterical screams of grief could be heard throughout the prison. Mary's lawyers made desperate attempts to save Mary's life. One court writ was successful, but President Johnson promptly cancelled it. The hanging was to proceed. 

At 1:15 PM, Mary and the other three condemned prisoners were escorted through the courtyard. Her ankles and wrists manacled, Mary was first to climb the scaffold steps. She wore a black bombazine dress, a black bonnet, and black veil. 

Attendance at the hanging had been limited. Only those who had good reason to be there were allowed a ticket. More than 1,000 people comprised of government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters stood in the hot sun to watch. Attendance had been limited. The photographer who had photographed the body of Booth and taken portraits of several of the male conspirators while they were imprisoned aboard naval ships was hired by the government to photograph the execution. 

The Order for Execution was read. Mary, either weak from her illness or swooning in fear (perhaps both), had to be supported by two soldiers and her priests. The condemned were seated in chairs, Surratt almost collapsing into hers. She was seated to the right of the others, the traditional "seat of honor" in an execution. An umbrella was brought to help shield Mary from the baking sun. 

White bindings were used to tie their arms to their sides, and their ankles and thighs together. The cloths around Surratt's legs were tied around her dress below the knees. 

Each condemned was ministered to by a member of the clergy. From the scaffold, Powell, one of the other condemned men said, "Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us". 

The two priests prayed over Mary Surratt, and held a crucifix to her lips. 16 minutes was all it took to prepare the prisoners for execution. 

A white bag was placed over the head of each prisoner after the noose was put in place. They removed Mary's bonnet and placed the noose around her neck. When she complained that the bindings around her arms hurt, an officer said, "Well, it won't hurt long." 

Finally, the prisoners were asked to stand and move forward a few feet to the nooses. The chairs were removed. Mary Surratt's last words, spoken to a guard as he moved her forward to the drop, were "Please don't let me fall." Surratt and the others stood on the drop for about 10 seconds.

Th Captain clapped his hands. Four soldiers knocked out the supports holding the drops in place, and the condemned fell. Surratt, who had moved forward enough to barely step onto the drop, lurched forward and slid partway down the drop—her body snapping tight at the end of the rope, swinging back and forth. 

Surratt's death appeared to be the easiest. Atzerodt's stomach heaved once and his legs quivered, and then he was still. Herold and Powell struggled for nearly five minutes, strangling to death. The bodies were left to hang for 30 minutes. Afterwards, they were inspected by a physician to ensure that death had occurred.

At 1:53 PM the bodies were ordered to be cut down. A corporal raced to the top of the gallows and cut down Atzerodt's body, which fell to the ground with a thud. He was reprimanded, and the other bodies cut down more gently. Herold's body was next, followed by Powell's. 

At 1:58 PM Mary's body was cut down. As her body was cut loose, her head fell forward. A soldier joked, "She makes a good bow". An officer immediately rebuked him for his poor sense of humor. 
The physical examinations determined that no one's neck had been broken by the fall. The manacles and cloth bindings were removed, but the white execution masks were left on. Each body was placed into a pine coffin. Each of the dead's names were recorded on a piece of paper, placed into a glass vial, and laid into the coffin beside them. The coffins were buried against the prison wall in shallow graves, just a few feet from the gallows. A white picket fence marked the burial site. 
That night, a mob attacked the Surratt boarding house and began stripping it of souvenirs until the police arrived to halt them. 
For 4 years, Anna begged for her mother's boy, but was denied. In October of 1867, the government decided to tear down the portion of the Washington Arsenal where the bodies of Surratt and the other executed conspirators lay. The coffins were disinterred and reburied in at another location at the Arsenal, with a wooden marker placed at the head of each burial vault. John Wilkes Booth's body lay alongside them. 
In February 1869, Edwin Booth asked President Johnson for the body of his brother, John Wilkes Booth. Johnson agreed to turn the body over to the Booth family, and on February 8 Mary Surratt's body was also turned over to Anna.
Mary Surrat was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 1869. 
The untold story of Lincoln's Assassination
1864, Washington City. One has to be careful with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.
A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he's invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.
But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?
Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.


Author Susan Higginbotham has written an very real, in-your-face, interpretation of the events leading to President Abraham Lincoln's assassination told through the point of view of Mary Surratt and the conspirators. From start to finish, she captured the historical era brilliantly. We see how easy it was to walk to the White House to stroll its lawns and pathways to wait for the president to appear with a speech. She describes how the aftermath of the Civil War affected Americans, both in the north and south, while capturing societal norms and rules. 

To say this novel stirs up the reader's emotions would be an understatement. I could not help but feel empathy for Mary whose son was conspiring to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. He brought his co-conspirators into her home, and without telling her much, preyed on her good nature and kindness to do them some favors which turned out to cause her great harm, and which ultimately saw her hung. In the aftermath of the assassination, her cowardly son fled to Canada, and while his mother faced execution, he did not return to aid her in her defense. His word could have saved her. But he didn't do anything on her behalf. When he finally was caught, he was acquitted and did not suffer the same fate as his mother. 

Of all Susan Higginbotham's books, this is by far her best. Unlike some of her other novels where there are sometimes too many characters to fully keep the story straight, this story is the opposite. There are slightly more than a handful of characters, and she brings them to life with great clarity and immense understanding. I loved this book and learning about Mary Surratt's dreadful story which continues to haunt me. It is one of the best books I've read this year and I rate it with a very strong 5 stars! 

I received a copy of this novel through Netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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