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The Lincoln Assassination Conspirator Who Became The 1st Woman Ever Hanged By The U.S. Government

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 17, 2023 3:00 am

The Lincoln Assassination Conspirator Who Became The 1st Woman Ever Hanged By The U.S. Government

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 17, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, (This Day in History: President Lincoln Died April 15) - John Wilkes Booth did not act alone; eight people were eventually indicted as co-conspirators in Lincoln's murder. One of them was a woman, Mary Surratt. Here to tell the story is Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

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MUSIC That search bar and type in the words Abraham Lincoln and enjoy. John Wilkes Booth did not act alone. Eight people were eventually indicted as co-conspirators in Lincoln's murder. One of them was a woman, Mary Surratt. Here to tell the story is Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin's Accomplice, Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died. Let's take a listen. After I finished my Harriet Tubman book, which came out in late 2003, I started, you know, looking around for another project and every day I Google Harriet Tubman's name.

I've done that since 2000 and I still do it today. And one day when I Googled, this event popped up and it was from the Surratt Museum in Clinton, Maryland, and they were hosting a tour, a bus tour to the eastern shore of Maryland to see sites related to Harriet Tubman. And I'm like, the Surratt Museum?

What is that? So I went to their website and it was, the Surratt Museum is Mary Surratt's former home in Clinton, Maryland. It used to be called Mary Surratt'sville and it's a house museum and it has a research center. And I started reading the story about Mary Surratt and I was shocked because I had gotten my PhD in American history and I virtually knew nothing about Mary Surratt and her involvement in the assassination plot that resulted in the death of President Abraham Lincoln. So I was really intrigued by this woman who was accused of plotting with John Wilkes Booth and who was tried and convicted and hanged for her role in the assassination.

And her story had sort of been lost to me and to other people. And I was reading information on the website and then I went out on the internet and I read some more and it seemed to me that Mary Surratt had been wrongly accused, convicted and wrongly hanged. And I thought, well, I'm a woman's historian, I'm going to go and I'm going to research her life and I'm going to defend her and tell the real story and resurrect her from the ashes of her life.

So I wrote up a proposal and it was optioned by Basic Books and I started researching. And within a matter of a few short months I realized, oops, she's guilty. And it didn't take long to figure out that she was very, very complicit in the assassination. But I knew as a historian I had to have some objectivity and I needed to show how did she become involved in this, a woman of her stature at the time and place to become involved in such a world-changing event. So she was born in 1822 in Prince George's County, Maryland.

That's in southern Maryland on the western shore. And her parents had a, they were modest plantation owners and they had several enslaved people and they had a comfortable life. Mary had a couple of brothers, but her father died when she was a small child, leaving her mother, Elizabeth Jenkins was their family name.

She sent Mary away to boarding school outside of Washington DC in Alexandria. She returned home in about 1839. She was about 17 years old and she met a man by the name of John Harrison Surratt, a local man who was being raised by foster parents who were related in some way, but it's kind of murky. He was several years older than her and he was having an affair with another woman in the community and she bore his child. But Mary fell madly in love with him and he married her in 1840 and she was, you know, 17 going on 18 years old. I don't know what happened to the other woman's child that sort of becomes murky too in the historical record. Mary had three children pretty quickly, Isaac, and then followed by a daughter, Anna, and then a son, John Surratt Jr. in 1844.

John Surratt was a very heavy drinker and gambler. And in 1852, he purchased, landed a crossroads about 12 miles south of Washington DC. And it was becoming a very busy place because DC was growing, of course, in the first half of the 19th century, there was lots of commerce. So he built a tavern and an inn and had a two or 300 acre farm there. He had a blacksmith there. And he also purchased a boarding house in Washington DC on H street that he leased out to other people who ran it as boarding house. As one historian noted, John Surratt became the tavern's best customer. He drank heavily.

He gambled heavily. These were things that went on in taverns, particularly in the south. Mary, in the meantime, educated coming from a woman who was a powerfully strong woman who knew how to manage property. Mary sort of emulated her mother and she managed the tavern and the farm because her husband was drunk and gambling all the time. She did such a good job that she could send her children to boarding schools in and around Washington DC. And that allowed her to pay full time attention to the tavern and the business. It became the local post office, which was a big deal for a tavern to be appointed a local post office by the United States government, because that meant local people had to go to that building to get their mail. And if they went there, they would have food, they would have liquor.

You know, it would just became an important, much more important tavern site. So Mary was doing very, very well. And you've been listening to author Kate Clifford Larson tell the story of Mary Surratt. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of the woman who became the first ever to be hanged by the US government here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories in America like we do, please go to our American stories.com and click the Donate button give a little give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming. That's our American stories.com. And we continue with Our American Stories and author Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin's Accomplice, Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

It's available on Amazon and all the usual suspects. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died. Let's pick up where we last left off.

Here is Kate. As the nation is heading towards this sectional crisis over the issue of slavery, abolition is really spreading anti-slavery movement is gaining speed, particularly in the north. Mary and her neighbors are doubling down and more and more committed to slave society.

And she enslaved about 12 people. And of course, in the election of Lincoln in 1860 begins the powerful drumbeat towards civil war. And in 1861, 13 Confederate states in the south separate from the Union. Maryland stays in the Union, part of it by strong arming on the part of the Lincoln administration. But there was an appetite in Maryland to not be part of this sectional crisis. But Mary and her neighbors were all in with the Confederacy, but they could not be part of the secession because Maryland was staying in the Union. And then that set the stage for a lot of spying, a lot of contraband networking, running of munitions and information back and forth across the Potomac River there to southern Maryland and over to Virginia, which was one of the Confederate states. And Mary and her family became involved in that sort of spy network, the traitor network, I like to call it, against the United States. And as the post office, they could do a lot when it came to spying and helping rebel couriers get through the countryside because it seemed so innocuous. It's the post office. So messages could be brought back and forth and pretend or stuffed in regular mail.

And it's actually rebel information and intelligence. So, but John Surratt died suddenly of a heart attack in 1862, kind of throwing the whole operation in trouble because now Mary has to fend off debtors and keep control of the property for her children who are still in boarding schools. So she calls them back. All of them have to come back from boarding school. Isaac immediately, instead of helping his mother, goes off and joins the Confederacy. He joins a regiment in Virginia and is gone the entire Civil War.

Anna comes home to help her mother and John does too. And he's appointed at 18 years old, the new postmaster in the tavern. And young John Surratt becomes heavily involved in this rebel network, this courier system. But the United States Army has posted soldiers throughout southern Maryland because they knew that so many of those southern Marylanders were communicating with and aiding and abetting the Confederacy across the Potomac.

So the army soldiers were there. They were watching the tavern and they recognized that there were spies going through there and there were secret messages being passed through the tavern. So they threw young John in prison. So he signed an allegiance to the United States, promised to behave and they let him go. And of course he didn't behave.

He continued his operations, but they knew that it was too risky to manage it through the Surratt Tavern. So he became a personal courier himself and got involved in some very sophisticated networks of spies that traveled through Maryland into Pennsylvania, New York, all the northern states. And Mary, worried that her son's activities might put the property at risk again, decided to lease the property to a neighbor, John Lloyd. And she moved her daughter and a couple of the enslaved people that hadn't run away by that time to Washington, D.C., to the boarding house. And she became a boarding housekeeper. It could support her. The tavern was leased.

That was good. So they moved to H Street in Washington, D.C. to this boarding house. But of course, because it was the seat of the United States government, there were lots of Confederate spies that were trying to get there and get information and pass information back and forth. So it sort of made sense that Mary might find this advantageous for her son as well.

So the war is raging on. John Wilkes Booth appears on the scene. Now, John Wilkes Booth was one of the most famous actors in America at the time. He was born into an acting family.

His father was a famous actor. He grew up in Maryland. He had strong southern sympathies.

So he hatched this idea, and I don't know where it came from, that he would kidnap and ransom President Lincoln. The Confederacy was losing a lot of Confederate soldiers, not only by death, but by capture. And they were imprisoned in northern prisons. And by 1864, the Confederacy was struggling with recruits. Confederate soldiers were running away. They were AWOL. They were abandoning their posts. They could see that it was a desperate cause and it wasn't working out for them so well. So Booth thought if he could capture Lincoln and hold him hostage for the release of Confederate soldiers, that would reinfuse the Confederacy with soldiers again, and they would triumph over the United States.

So it's just amazing this guy thought this plan would work. But he approached some Confederate sympathizers in southern Maryland, including a man by the name of Dr. Mudd, Samuel Mudd, who was a physician there in southern Maryland. And he worked with other Confederate sympathizers in southern Maryland.

And Booth wanted to acquire supporters, money, and supplies. He needed horses. He needed a wagon. He needed someone with a boat to transport the kidnapped president across the Potomac into Virginia, where he would be held hostage. So Dr. Samuel Mudd made these connections in southern Maryland, and some people stepped forward and offered a boat. And other people got involved and said, I'll row the boat.

I will secure a carriage. Well, at Christmas time in Washington, D.C., Samuel Mudd, Dr. Mudd, traveled to the city with John Wilkes Booth with the intention of introducing him to John Surratt. And with the idea that John was very well connected with these Confederate spy networks and that he could help Booth.

Mary Surratt had leased one of her rooms to a young man by the name of Louis Weichmann. And so just before Christmas, John Surratt is walking down the street with Louis Weichmann and they, quote unquote, run into Dr. Mudd and John Wilkes Booth. And Dr. Mudd introduces them and they decide to go have drinks privately in a hotel room. So they go up to this hotel room and this is all based on testimony by Louis Weichmann later on during the trial of the conspirators. And they asked Louis to sit on the other side of the room that he wasn't going to be part of this, whatever they were talking about.

But it wasn't like he couldn't hear what was going on. And Mudd and Booth explained their plan to John Surratt about getting people and resources to capture the president, kidnap him, take him down through Southern Maryland where all those friendly sympathizers were and get him rowed across the Potomac River and into Virginia to ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers. Then you're listening to author Kate Clifford Larson tell one heck of a story about Mary Surratt and about America during the Civil War and how complicated it was. Mary and her peers in Maryland, well, many of them doubled down on slavery, that Mary also had a post office inside her tavern. And then came her kids and some of them joined the cause too.

One actually went off to fight. Another actually was sent to jail for aiding and abetting the Confederacy as a spy. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of Mary Surratt and the American Civil War and Lincoln's assassination here on Our American Stories.

And we continue with Our American Stories. And the story of Mary Surratt is told by Kate Clifford Larson whose book, The Assassin's Accomplice, Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln is available on Amazon and all the usual suspects. Samuel Alexander Mudd worked as a doctor and tobacco farmer in Southern Maryland.

The Civil War seriously damaged his business, especially when Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Mudd met with the would-be Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Let's return to Kate Clifford Larson with more of the story. Well, John Surratt thought this was a great idea. They had maps and plans and it was all, you know, this was really exciting. And so John agreed and he set to work bringing in people that would help with this plan. But they don't bring in Lou Weichmann, even though Lou Weichmann hears all the stuff that's going on, he sees what's happening. They don't include him. I think they thought he was a bit of a wimp.

So throughout the first couple of months of 1865, it's clear the end is coming and the Confederacy is losing and they're desperate and John Wilkes Booth is becoming more and more enraged and more and more determined that he's going to do something. He starts spending more time at the Surratt's boarding house and the other boarders in the house notice him coming frequently. And of course, they're all thrilled because he's like the most famous actor in America and he's handsome and dashing. I remember the director of the Surratt House Museum once said to me, it's like having Tom Cruise come to your house all the time. And this was years ago when he was this big hot actor.

He still is. Okay, I'll give you that. But anyway, so he's amazing and everybody's like, wow, he goes to this house. But he's planning with the co-conspirators. They try to kidnap the president in March. Now he's been reelected. Booth is furious and she's determined that they're going to prevent the inauguration.

And that's going to happen on the 4th. But he can't, he can't, he can't prevent the inauguration. He reportedly is there at the inauguration in Washington DC on March 4th, 1865. And there are photographs of the inauguration and some historians have identified Booth down there and he had a pistol with him.

And he later said he was almost close enough to shoot the president right there at the inauguration, but he did not. And so on March 16th, they're out on the road. They're set there waiting for the president's carriage to come. And the president did not travel with protection, which just blows my mind that he did not, but he didn't.

And lo and behold, they had not heard that the president had canceled his trip for that day. So they're out on the road. Their plan is foiled. The boarding house folks see them return to the boarding house. Everyone's furious, yelling. They go up to room, they're upset, screaming.

They're just angry that this has failed. And Booth takes off and so does John Surratt and it seems like the plan is over and done with, but it's not. Booth is so angry that his plan has failed, that now he's decided he's going to kill the president.

And he reactivates in early April, this plan that he is going to shoot the president when he's out in public. Mary becomes privy to these plans and so do the other co-conspirators. So Mary gets heavily involved and she goes to her tavern and she informs John Lloyd. She doesn't tell him all the details apparently, but says, you be ready and things are going to be happening and I want you to be ready. Louis Weichmann is privy to all of this because he takes her in rented carriages down to her tavern three times before April 14th when Lincoln is finally assassinated. On the final trip down to the tavern, on the day of the assassination, he takes Mary Surratt down there and she delivers a message to John Lloyd that he is to have some guns ready and other supplies because her son John will be there and others will be there that night to help, you know, they're going to do something and he has to be ready. So they go back to Washington D.C. and Washington D.C. on the 14th is in jubilation. There are fireworks going off. It is beautiful and exciting because that is the day that the Confederate flag came down in Charleston Harbor at the end of the Civil War. A few days prior to that, Lee had surrendered to Grant Appomattic Courthouse in Virginia and the final, you know, raising of the American United States flag in South Carolina on the 14th was truly a day to celebrate. And as Lou Weichmann and Mary Surratt are approaching the city and they see it all lit up, Mary makes a cryptic comment, something to the effect of, you know, they're all going to be sorry.

And Lou Weichmann's like, you know, what does that mean? So they get back to Washington D.C. They have dinner and then Mary decides to go to church because it's Good Friday.

She's a devout Catholic and there's an evening service. So she heads out the door with another woman who's boarding in the house and they start walking. But it's raining and they decide not to go.

And they turn back and they go back into the house. But as they're entering the house, a man approaches Mary Surratt and his name is Richard Smoot. And he is the person that the boat was being held for for the first the kidnapping and now apparently for Booth's escape. But he hadn't been paid and he wanted to be paid. And he'd been asking for two months to get paid. So he came to Mary and he said, I want to get paid. And in the doorway of the house, she turns to him and says, go away. You can't be seen here. You will be paid tonight.

It's happening tonight. Go away, go away. So he freaks out and he races away and he crosses the bridge into Alexandria because he's afraid they're going to close the bridges and he won't be able to escape Washington, D.C. because he knows something is going to happen. They're sitting in the boarding house and Mary is acting strangely and she gets irritated with everybody because after dinner, someone's playing the piano, they're singing songs, whatever. They're unaware of what Mary knows is going to happen. And she sends them all to bed.

She says, everybody just go, just go to bed and go away. That evening, Abraham Lincoln had plans to go with his wife and his son and other people to Ford's Theatre to watch the play Our American Cousin. And Booth knew this because he's so connected to the theater world. He knew that the president was going to show up at the theater that night and he made plans to go there and assassinate the president.

And you've been listening to Kate Clifford Larson tell one heck of a story about Mary Surratt. And in the end, the story of the foiled kidnapping plan of Abraham Lincoln and ultimately the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And we learned in this particular segment about how that kidnapping plan had been foiled and it infuriated Booth.

And he had one option left. Kill Lincoln. And he went and lobbied some of his co-conspirators who he had gotten together to kidnap Lincoln. And then comes those final days, April 14th, the day the Confederate flag came down in Charleston and led to a jubilant celebration in DC, the illumination it was called because the sky was so lit up. And then it comes April 15th, Good Friday. And that's the day that Lincoln is assassinated. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever hanged by the United States government. The story of Abraham Lincoln who died on this day in 1865 here on Our American Stories.

And we continue with Our American Stories. On the day of Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, John Wilkes Booth made sure his second attempt to decapitate the union would be successful. Let's return to Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin's Accomplice, Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

Here again is Kate. Earlier in the day, he had jury rigged the door to the balcony where the president would sit so that he could get in there and hide and then he could shoot the president and then escape without being caught. And so he was lurking around, not at the Surratt house, but he's doing that. He had given orders to George Atzerod to assassinate the vice president at the time. George Atzerod sat at a bar and got drunk and did not assassinate the vice president. Booth did not know that at the time. And Lewis Payne had been given the job of assassinating William Henry Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state.

Booth had hoped to decapitate the chain of command in the US government. He had hoped also to assassinate General Grant who was supposed to attend the theater that night, but he and his wife went to visit their children instead. Lewis Payne goes to the Seward house, pretends he's there with medication because secretary of state Seward had been terribly injured in a carriage accident and had broken his jaw a few days beforehand and he's recuperating in his Washington DC home. And so there was a guard at the door, but he convinced the guard to let him in and delivered the medication.

He goes upstairs. Seward's two sons are there. Payne pulls out a knife and starts stabbing the sons. And then he goes and he starts stabbing Seward who falls off the bed and is protected because the bed, between the bed and the wall. Payne flees the house having injured a bunch of people and he races away and he goes to Mary Surratt's house and it's 11 o'clock at night and he's racing there. But in the meantime, Lincoln has been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. He kills him, jumps off onto the stage.

The crowd is crazed. He runs off. He jumps on a horse that's waiting for him in the back alley of the theater and he races away. David Arnold, the other co-conspirator is waiting for him outside a bridge to get out of Washington DC and they escaped together into Southern Maryland. I don't know how or who told the police very quickly that Booth had been seen at Mary Surratt's house frequently, but they go there looking for Booth and it's about midnight or so and they knock on the door of the police and they come in, they wake everybody up and they search the house looking for John Wilkes Booth.

They don't look for evidence. They just look for Booth himself and of course he's not in the house. While they're there searching the house, who comes knocking on the door but Lewis Payne and he looks suspicious.

They're asking him, what are you doing here? And he says, I'm here to dig a ditch tomorrow morning for Mrs. Surratt. And they turn to Mary Surratt and they say, do you know this man? And she raises her hand and says, I swear to God, I do not know this man.

And they're thinking, really? You have to be that dramatic. Well, eventually they arrest her and everybody else in the house. Over the next couple of days, it becomes crazy and Lewis Weichmann gets nervous and he goes to the police and tells them he's been watching crazy things go on in the house and he thinks this whole plot has been going on. So they take his testimony and he travels around to different places trying to find the co-conspirators with them. He tells them who these people are that have been meeting in the house. So over the next couple of weeks, they arrest all of the co-conspirators except for John Surratt Jr., who just happened to be outside of the state at the time.

He's in Pennsylvania and New York. He hears what happened, so he flees to Canada, so they can't find him. And Mary gets arrested and the rest is history because she ends up being tried with all the other conspirators. She's the only woman that's part of this conspiracy trial.

There are eight of them, seven of the co-conspirators and Mary Surratt making eight of them. And the trial is the trial of the modern era. It really is. It's made even more dramatic because the Pittman brothers, you know, shorthand Pittman shorthand, it's just been created. And so there and there and people are in there taking testimony in shorthand and then transcribing it and sending it over the wires that night so the next morning the newspapers across the country have word for word testimony during the trial.

And it is sensational. She was found guilty and four of them, including Mary, were sentenced to hang and four were sent to prison in the Dry Tortugas in Key West, Florida. There's a famous prison there.

It's a national park site now. People pleaded for clemency for her. They went to the president, the new president, Andrew Johnson, and he said that he would not commute her sentence, that she kept the nest that hatched the egg of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She was 42 years old and it shocked the nation. Once she was hanged, the nation turned against the government's decision to hang her.

And the press vilified the decision, even though they had vilified her throughout the trial and made her to become this monster. And John, you know, what a horrific son he was. He runs away. He knows his mother's been arrested.

He's watching from afar. He's protected in Canada by Jesuit priests. And he watched from afar his mother going through that trial and being vilified. And then she's convicted and then she's hanged. She died because of him. She died protecting her son. And I think we need to acknowledge that she did do that for him.

She did not become a witness for the prosecution. She died for him. He escapes to England where he is spotted and then he races through Europe. He ends up in Rome and he joins the Vatican, the papal guard.

And then he's, it's crazy. And then he's recognized by someone who knew him and they were in Rome and they recognize him. So he escapes from the Vatican and it's this madcap thing. And they find, you know, he's followed to Alexandria in Egypt where he is finally captured and brought back to the United States in 1867. He's put on trial and it ends in a mistrial, a hung jury. And then the government decides not to try him again. Something about the statute of limitations.

It was some crazy thing. And they thought, you know, we're trying to move on here. We're trying to rebuild the nation.

We don't need this trial again. So he set free. He goes out on the lecture circuit, ridiculing the Lincoln administration and how stupid they were and that they didn't know this was coming.

And so he made a little bit of money, but not much because audiences were like, oh, you know, go away. And his brother Isaac, who survived the war, came back after the war was over, after his mother was hanged. And he set up a, he worked for a steamship company in Baltimore. So John started working with him and they lived their lives in obscurity there in Baltimore.

And Anna ended up marrying a young man who was a, who fell in love with her during the trial and they got married and moved to Baltimore as well. But you know, the legacy just lived on. What a terrible thing that Mary had participated in. And some people spent the rest of their lives decades, decades trying to prove that she was innocent and to restore her good name.

And it worked right through most of the 20th century. And so that's part and parcel of women's history, retelling the stories of women. Women can do bad things. They can be criminals too. And so I just found it interesting, the context of rewriting her history.

So I, it's just such a curious thing to me. So anyway, there you have it. Mary Surratt, guilty.

And there you have it indeed. A terrific job on the production, storytelling and editing by our own Greg Hengler. A special thanks as always to Kate Clifford Larson, who's done several stories for us. Terrific stories. This one, the assassin's accomplice, Mary Surratt and the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. Go out and buy it. It's a terrific read.

Go to Amazon for the usual suspects. And what a story this is. Talk about the trial of the century. Forget the OJ trial or the Leopold and Loeb trial. Can you imagine what this one was like with the Telegraph and all these newspapers hitting the line every day with court transcripts? Four were sentenced to hang and one of them was Mary because she refused to give up her son and turn state's evidence and become a witness for the prosecution. The story of Mary Surratt, the story of the Lincoln assassination. President Abraham Lincoln died on this day in 1865 here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-17 04:16:42 / 2023-04-17 04:29:28 / 13

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