On July 7, 1865, a woman named Mary Surratt was led to the gallows at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. Gripped by fear and nearly unable to walk, she practically had to be carried up the steps to the gallows. There, four nooses awaited her and the three men who were also condemned. As the rope was adjusted around her neck, she could see her own coffin and a freshly dug hole in the ground that was waiting for her corpse. She nearly fainted at the sight but her captors held her firmly. A hood was placed over her head and moments later, the trapdoor opened and Mary Surratt plunged to her death.

It has often been said that a person who dies violently under the shadow of unresolved circumstances becomes trapped in this world – a disturbed spirit in the realm of the living, waiting for a time when the truth behind his or her death can be revealed. If this is true, then Mary Surratt qualifies as one of the most prominent ghosts of the Lincoln assassination.

Mary Surratt’s trial was possibly one of the great travesties of American justice. She had been the proprietor of a Washington boarding house where John Wilkes Booth had stayed while plotting the kidnapping, and then murder, of Abraham Lincoln. At midnight, on the same night that Lincoln had been shot, Mary was rousted from her bed by police officers and Federal troops. She was accused of being a conspirator in Lincoln’s death and was taken to the prison at the Old Brick Capitol. From that point on, Mary never stopped insisting that she was innocent and that she barely knew Booth, but no one listened.

The testimonies of two people were instrumental in Mary’s conviction. One of them was a notorious drunk and the other was a known liar, a former policeman to whom Mary had leased her tavern in Maryland. At the trial’s conclusion, she and three other defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Mary Surratt was the last of the four to die and she became the first woman to be executed by the United States government.

In spite of this, nearly a century and a half after her death, proof of her guilt or innocence remains elusive. And some say, her spirit is restless.

The Hauntings of Mary Surratt are excerpted from Troy Taylor's book, THE HAUNTED PRESIDENT. Click on the Book Cover for more about this book and to order your own copy!

Mary Surratt
Mary Surratt lived a hard life, as photographs of her from the 1860s seem to say. Sent as an orphan to be educated by the Sisters of Charity in Alexandria, Virginia, she became a convert and strict Roman Catholic. She also had a love for the South that would endure throughout her entire life, which may have sent her to the gallows.

At age seventeen, she married John Harrison Surratt, an ardent secessionist and debt-ridden drunk. They purchased land in Prince George’s County, Maryland and built a home that was also used as a tavern, hotel, post office, and a polling place for a town that became known as Surrattville (now Clinton). Located in a county that had deep Southern loyalties – Lincoln received just one vote there in the 1860 election – and with Surratt’s vocal opposition to Union policies, the establishment became a meeting place for those of similar opinions. There is ample evidence that the tavern, just twelve miles from the nation’s capital, became a safe house for members of the Confederate underground.

When John Surratt died in 1862, his wife was left with the burdens of the farm, as well as the many debts of his shiftless husband. With her oldest son, Isaac, serving in the Confederate Army, and with John Surratt, Jr. working as a Confederate courier, it became nearly impossible for Mary to keep the tavern operating. She decided to rent the property to a former Washington City policeman, John Lloyd, and move to a boarding house that she and her husband had purchased in Washington a few years earlier.
John Wilkes Booth became a frequent visitor to the boarding house. The impassioned actor had allied himself with John Surratt, Jr. and the two men became forming a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. The boarding house soon became a meeting place for those recruited to carry out the plan, which was intended to create a better settlement for the South near the end of the war. The kidnapping plan, a rather inept effort, failed miserably and Booth’s intentions turned to murder. The plan was finally carried out, with Booth himself pulling the trigger, on April 14, 1865.

The recently unified nation was stunned by the assassination and an immediate restoration of stability became the goal of Secretary of State Edwin Stanton. He sought swift justice for the horrible crime. After Booth was shot dead in a Virginia tobacco barn, the government began seeking out his fellow conspirators.
By some accounts, Mary Surratt was a minor character in the plot, swept up in the frenzy that followed the assassination. To others, however, she was the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, declared that she had “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of the murderous conspiracy and the military tribunal that he ordered to try Mary Surratt and seven others ensured that his opinion would prevail.

The trial opened on May 8, 1865, less than a month after Lincoln had been killed. A quick, decisive resolution appeared to be its primary concern because a fair trial for the defendants certainly wasn’t.

Mary maintained her innocence throughout the proceedings, although she may not have been as blameless as she claimed to be. It seems impossible to believe that she did not have some knowledge of the conspiracy, especially with her son so closely involved, but many historians doubt that she was directly involved in the murder plot. To say that the evidence against her was circumstantial is a gross understatement and in light of that, and other factors, the punishment certainly was much harsher than what was believed to be her crime.
As with all of the other convicted prisoners, Mary Surratt was sentenced to die. However, the board that convicted her almost immediately sent a petition to President Johnson, asking that her sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Whether this is because she was a woman or because they had doubts about her guilt is unknown. The commander of the Federal troops in Washington was so sure that a last minute reprieve would arrive on the day of the execution that he stationed messengers on horseback along the shortest route from the White House to the Washington Arsenal Prison. Until the time the hood was placed over her head, officials in charge of the execution were sure that Mary would be spared – but she was not. President Johnson refused to change his mind.
Three other defendants were executed alongside Mary Surratt, but three others received long prison sentences, including the famous Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mary’s son, John Surratt, Jr. fled to Canada after the assassination but was later returned for trial. Although directly involved in the plot with Booth, he was acquitted of all charges.

Why Mary Surratt was sentenced to die, and what stopped President Johnson from issuing a reprieve, remains unknown. However, there are many today who believe that Mary Surratt was innocent of the crimes that she died for. And it is possibly this injustice which keeps her spirit lingering behind...

Mary Surratt (far left) and the other convicted conspirators on the gallows. Mary became the first woman in American history to be executed by the federal government.
In time, the Washington Arsenal Prison was converted into Fort Leslie McNair. A courtyard at the north end of the fort marked the spot where the execution of Mary Surratt and the others took place and where they were cut down from the gallows and buried. They were later moved to permanent graves in other locations but there was an old story that maintained that Mary’s spirit caused the sudden appearance of a boxwood tree on the spot where the scaffold once stood. It was claimed that the growth of the tree was her way of continuing to attract attention to her innocence.

The courthouse in which Mary was tried, and found guilty, was turned into an officer’s quarters for the army base, while the courtroom itself became a five-room apartment. For years, it was reported that occupants of the apartment would hear the sounds of chains rattling throughout the rooms. According to records, the defendants in the conspiracy trial were shackled together with chains and sat on a bench where the apartment is now located. Tradition holds that the reported sounds are these same chains, still echoing over the decades.

And sounds are not the only things reported. A number of residents of this apartment, and others which are located close to it, have claimed to see the apparition of a stout, middle-aged woman, dressed in black walking down the hallways of the officer’s quarters. They have also heard the unexplainable sound of a woman’s voice and have reported the sensation of being touched by an unseen hand. Could this be the ghost of Mary Surratt?

Within a few years of Mary’s death, rumors began circulating that something strange was taking place at her former boarding house on H Street in Washington. Her daughter, Annie, had sold the house for less than half its value not long after her mother was executed, which is not really surprising considering the notoriety of the case.

But that may not have been the entire story. In the years which followed, the house was plagued with a rapid succession of new owners. People would move in and out very quickly, sometimes in a matter of months. Someone who worked for a newspaper heard about the story and soon local journalists began to interview the former owners. Most of the accounts reported “strange sounds” and “whispers” in the building, voices that seemed to come from nowhere and whispers that would be heard inside of rooms where no living person was present. It was also said that the phantom footsteps and creaking boards of the second floor were caused by the spirit of Mary Surratt, doomed to wander Washington until her name was cleared.

Mary’s ghost was also said to frequent her home in Clinton, Maryland, located off of Brandywine Road. She was believed to be just one of the ghosts who haunt the place. John Wilkes Booth was said to have stopped at the tavern after making his escape from Washington, leading the tenant to inform the authorities of Mary's part in the assassination.

Stories of odd events at the tavern began in the 1940s when a widow lived in one half of the house and rented out the other side. People spoke of seeing the ghost of Mary Surratt on the stairway between the first and second floors, while others spoke of hearing men's voices, engaged in conversation, in the back of the house when no one was there.

In 1965, the site was taken over by the state and turned into a historical landmark. People who have worked and have visited there since claim to have seen apparitions of people in period clothing, have heard the phantom cries of children and footsteps pacing through the upper floor of the house when no one else was present.

Why does the spirit of Mary Surratt still linger in our world? Is it because of her role in the Lincoln assassination? Or is it, more likely, her grief over the fact that her name has never been cleared?

© Copyright 2009 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.