Friday, April 22, 2011

Mary Surratt: Victim or Villain?

While we are on the subject of Mary Surratt and "The Conspirator," I will post a couple of posts that my sister and I collaborated on about two years ago in her blog. As I have mentioned, my original paper on her is only in hard copy form now. But I will first post Part 1, written by Melissa (In the Swan's Shadow):

And here is Part 2, written by myself. The original can be found here:

Mary Surratt was arrested on the night of April 17, 1865, along with her daughter Anna, her niece, a young female boarder, and Lewis Powell (alias Paine). Before being taken away, Mary requested a moment to pray in her parlor. Upon searching the boardinghouse, detectives found some pieces of incriminating evidence, such as bullet molds and a carte-de-viste of John Wilkes Booth on the mantle.

After her arrest, Mary was first incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison, Carroll Annex. Then on April 30, she was transferred to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, where the seven other conspirators to be tried were imprisoned. Initially, her cell had only a straw pallet and a bucket for furnishings, but these conditions were later somewhat improved due to her failing health as well as her gender.

The trial of the conspirators began on May 9 in one of the administrative buildings of the Penitentiary. A Military Tribunal of nine men was to decide the fate of these eight conspirators. Mary was represented by two young lawyers appointed for her. Most of the testimony regarding Mary Surratt was favorable; many witnesses attested to her devout nature and kindness. Her daughter Anna also claimed on the stand that her mother had poor eyesight, which could explain why she had failed to recognize Powell on the night of their arrest. Mary – dressed in black and wearing a veil – sat silently through the trial, occasionally waving a fan.

Two witnesses ultimately sealed Mary Surratt’s fate. The first was John Lloyd, to whom Mary had leased her tavern. Lloyd claimed that she had reminded him about the “shooting irons” and other supplies several days before, and on the day of, the assassination. One of Mary’s lawyers, Frederick Aiken, attacked the validity of his testimony because Lloyd was known to be a drunk.

The other damning witness was Louis Weichmann, one of Mary’s former boarders and a War Department clerk, who had gone to Surrattsville with her the day of the assassination. Mary ostensibly was going to Surrattsville in order to collect a debt owed to her . . . in a buggy that Booth rented for her. Weichmann claimed that he had seen Booth give Mary the package he wanted her to deliver to Lloyd, which turned out to contain Booth’s field glasses. He further stated that Booth, Herold, Paine, and Atzerodt had met at Mary’s boardinghouse multiple times. Weichmann claimed that he had told Mary that he was concerned, and she dismissed him, saying that the men were armed because they often rode through the country and needed such protection. There has been some speculation that Weichmann sold Mary out not only to get a better government job, but also because he resented John Jr. – an old schoolmate - leaving him out of participating in the kidnapping plot.

The trial continued until June 30. All eight conspirators were found guilty for their roles in the assassination. Three were given life sentences in the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys; another was given a six-year sentence there. The remaining four – Herold, Atzerodt, Powell, and Mary – were sentenced to be hanged. The Commission relied heavily on the testimony of both Lloyd and Weichmann in order to convict Mary. However, five of the nine members of the Commission signed a document for President Andrew Johnson, recommending Mary’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment on account of her age and sex. Johnson claimed that he had never seen this document, and maintained that Mary deserved her sentence because she “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of the conspiracy. He believed that if Mary’s life was spared, men would hide behind women to commit crimes.

The condemned were not informed of their sentences until July 6, the day before their executions. At the time, few people believed that the United States Government would hang a woman. Nor did many believe that she deserved this severe of a sentence. Anna Surratt and Mary’s lawyers attempted to plead for Mary’s life before Johnson, but they were all turned away.

Anna was permitted to spend the night with her mother, as were two Catholic priests, who prayed with her all night.
The executions were scheduled for noon the next day, July 7. At 10 AM, Anna was ordered away from her mother. This final goodbye was by all accounts heartbreaking. Mary’s priests remained with her. The execution was held off as long as possible, in case a last-minute commutation sparing Mary’s life came from the White House. It never did. Mary was thus about to become the first woman executed by the United States Government.

By noon, the weather was already at least 95 degrees. Spectators climbed trees and crowded outside of the Penitentiary gates in order to get a glimpse of the execution. The four prisoners, who were still manacled, were marched outside to the gallows in the prison yard. Mary – veiled and dressed in a black bombazine dress – could barely stand, and had to be supported by two Union soldiers.

The prisoners climbed the thirteen steps of the gallows and were seated. General Winfield Scott Hancock read the charges aloud to them. Their hands and feet were bound with white cloth and white hoods were placed over their heads. Mary’s priests stayed by her side, whispering prayers. Finally, the nooses were placed around their necks. Significantly, Mary’s only had five turns instead of the usual seven because not even the hangman, Captain Christian Rath, believed that she would really be executed. Rath turned to Hancock, as if to say, “Her too?” Hancock nodded. Mary whispered her final words, “Please don’t let me fall.”

Soldiers released the front of the platform out from under the condemned, and the four dropped to their deaths. Mary died relatively quickly, while the men struggled for at least five minutes. When they were dead, the bodies were cut down and placed in simple pine ammunition chests. Glass bottles containing their names were placed beside the bodies, and they were buried right in the prison yard.

Ironically, one year later, the Supreme Court ruled that a military tribunal had no jurisdiction in civilian trials if civil courts were open, which they had been in the summer of 1865. Such a ruling would have at least saved Mary’s life. Also, it has been claimed that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton withheld evidence – namely Booth’s diary (which had been found on his person when he was cornered and killed) - from the trial that could also have saved her. The diary ultimately proved that Booth and his conspirators had initially planned to kidnap, but not kill, Lincoln. Indeed, about thirty pages are also missing from the diary.

John Jr., who was supposedly in Montreal at the time of the assassination, escaped to Europe shortly thereafter. He joined the Papal Zouaves [in Italy], but fled when he was recognized, subsequently captured in Alexandria [Egypt], and brought back to the States. His civil trial was held in 1867 in Washington [DC]. With virtually the same witnesses that had testified at his mother’s trial, it resulted in a hung jury, and he was released on bail. Some have held that Mary was arrested and tried in order to bring John out of hiding, and that the commissioners took out their resentment of being unable to capture John out on her. In 1869, Anna succeeded in claiming her mother’s body, and Mary was reburied in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington. Ironically, John Lloyd is buried within a hundred yards of her.

Mary’s guilt or innocence has long been a subject of historical debate, and probably always will be. Some have held that her execution was a result of anti-Catholic sentiment that was then prevalent in America. At the time, some of the public believed that Lincoln’s assassination was a Papist plot; Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had been tried and convicted for setting Booth’s broken leg and aiding him and Herold while were on the run, was also Catholic. It did not help that the country was in a vengeful mood after the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination.

Just before Weichmann died in 1902, he swore an affidavit on his deathbed that everything he said during the trial was true. In 1977, a “Lost Confession” by George Atzerodt surfaced, confirming her involvement: “Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get the guns (Two Carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold. This was Friday.” Many historians hold that while Mary almost certainly knew about the kidnapping plot, she may or may not have known about the assassination plot. Her story continues to divide people, who argue how much she knew of the assassination plot, and whether or not she deserved to die for it.
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