Richard Stride Commentary: A Look Back at Mary Surratt, Abraham Lincoln Assassin's Accomplice


Many people don’t remember Mary Surratt. Her name has been mostly lost to history. 

Surratt was executed for being a co-conspirator on President Abraham Lincoln's murder by John Wilkes Booth. Her story is vividly outlined in a book by Kate Clifford Larson titled “The Assassin’s Accomplice.” It’s great reading if you are so inclined. 

Mary Surratt ran a boarding house in which she, her son John Surratt and Booth recruited accomplices to carry out the kidnapping of President Lincoln. The kidnapping plan changed to murder when Lincoln shifted his planned trip to attend a military ceremony. Oddly, Lincoln had recurring dreams about his assassination several days before he was murdered. 

Booth's other co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, who was sent to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, got too drunk to carry out his part of the plot. He ended up wandering around town in a drunken stupor. Lewis Powell, an additional accomplice who was sent to kill Secretary of State William Seward, was more of a psychopath who seemed to enjoy violence. Powell ended up stabbing Seward, and severely injuring several of his family members. Seward would end up living, although the entire right side of his face was nearly severed, protected only by a splint he was wearing from a previous accident. 

The public at the time was somewhat torn about executing 42-year-old Mary Surratt. It was hard for the public to imagine that a woman could take part in plotting such a heinous crime. Many at the time wondered if her life should be spared. Mary, however, was no innocent bystander. She not only took part in plotting Lincoln's assassination but aided in the escape of Booth and David Herold (another accomplice of Booth). Although she never took part, at least directly, in Lincoln's murder, she despised him. She was an unapologetic southern sympathizer and believed Lincoln deserved to die for his part in decimating her beloved south. Mary's death sentence was never commuted by President Andrew Johnson. In his words said, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.” 

Mary was never thought of as anything but a suspect. An anonymous tipster had alerted Washington police to the fact that Mary's boarding house on H Street was the hub of the conspiracy. Detectives had questioned her long into the early morning hours as Lincoln lay dying on April 14, 1865. Later, in the following week, after one of Mary's boarders Louis Weichmann offered additional damning information to the authorities about the many times Booth and the conspirators came in and out of Mary's boarding house, Mary and her daughter, Anna, were arrested. Mary, although espousing to be a devout Christian, lied about knowing the psychopath Lewis Powell to the police officers. 

After a time in jail, Mary's physical appearance began to change, as did the others on trial. The stress of the seven-week trial and nearly 366 witnesses took its toll on all the people being tried. Mary in addition had endometriosis, which made her situation even worse as she suffered from cramping, excessive menstruating and constant urinating. After three days of deliberation, the nine-member jury found Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold guilty. They were all hanged. 

It was said that Mary and her accomplices could hear the constant hammering and sawing of the scaffolding being built for their hanging. The constant noise only added to their anguish and despair. Mary spent the night of July 6 before her execution in prayer pleading with God to let her live. On the morning of July 7, Mary and the others were marched into the hot sun. As Mary was escorted out, she saw the 10-foot-tall gallows built for the execution. She also saw the freshly dug graves where she and her accomplices would be placed after they were pronounced dead. 

The men's hands and feet were tied with ropes. Mary's hands and feet were tied with cotton cloth. Four chairs were lined up for the condemned to sit as the charges were read. 

"Mrs. Surratt is innocent!" yelled Powell, just as a hood was placed over his head. Mary and her supporters outside the prison walls were hoping for the word from President Johnson to spare her life. Mary was heard praying. Mary told the executioner, "Please don't let me fall," as she felt dizzy and lightheaded just before a hood was placed over her head. The four were escorted over the trap doors. Each trap door was held by a single post, which would be removed by members of the armed forces at the proper time. The signal was given and the trap doors opened, dropping all four individuals 7 feet to their deaths. 

Mary, it was said, didn't die right away. She suffered at the end of the rope for five minutes before her body stopped moving. 

Mary Surratt thus became the only female in history hanged by the government of the United States.


Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at