The Testimony Regarding Mary Surratt

155 years ago on this day, four of the eight conspirators tried in the death of Abraham Lincoln ascended a hastily constructed set of gallows. Just one week earlier they had been convicted and sentenced to their death but had only learned about their fates the day before. The three men and one woman who climbed those stairs to meet their maker were Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary E. Surratt. When the drop fell right around 1:25 in the afternoon, Mrs. Surratt became the first woman executed by the federal government.

Over May and June of this year, I presented a day-by-day look at the Trial of the Lincoln Conspirators that led to this execution. I tried to make sense of the military trial that saw different witnesses haphazardly take the stand against different conspirators one after another. Today, I’m releasing the first of eight helpful resources that organizes the trial not chronologically as we experienced before, but this time based on the testimony against each of the individual conspirators. Rather than having to look through the entirety of the trial to gain an understanding of the specific evidence against a single person, all of the relevant testimony regarding each conspirator has been organized into an easily accessible and hyperlinked table. For the anniversary of her execution, I have decided to start with the testimony regarding Mary Surratt. The text that follows this paragraph contains the same information that will always be found on a standalone page of the trial project called Mary Surratt Testimony and can be accessed by clicking the picture of Mrs. Surratt on The Trial homepage. The organized testimony regarding the other conspirators will be published over the next month.

The following table shows all of the testimony given at the Lincoln conspiracy trial concerning Mary Surratt. Clicking on any of the witnesses’ names will take you to their corresponding testimony in the chronological Trial project.

The default arrangement of the witnesses in the table is by Relevant Testimony. This organizes the witnesses based on what specific aspect of the conspirator’s case was discussed. In the case of Mary Surratt, I organized the testimony into seven categories, labeled A – G. Descriptions of what each category means can be found after the table. The tabs on the bottom of the table allow you to view the witnesses arranged by Date and Alphabetically by last name.

Mobile users: Due to the smaller screen size on mobile devices, you will likely have to scroll left and right on the table to see the Relevant Testimony column.

Relevant Testimony descriptions:

A. John Wilkes Booth and the other Conspirators’ Presence at Mrs. Surratt’s Boardinghouse

In establishing Mrs. Surratt’s connection to John Wilkes Booth’s plot, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Louis Weichmann, one of the lodgers at Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse. Weichmann testified at length about the presence of Booth and some of the other conspirators at the boardinghouse and how Mrs. Surratt sometimes met with Booth when her son, John, was not at home. The defense tried to show that, as a boardinghouse owner and hospitable woman, Mrs. Surratt’s interactions with Booth and the others was nothing more than politeness.

B. Mrs. Surratt’s Trips to her Tavern in Surrattsville on April 11th and April 14th

The other key witness against Mary Surratt was the tenant of her tavern property in Maryland, John M. Lloyd. Lloyd testified about Mrs. Surratt traveling down to Southern Maryland on April 11th and telling him that weapons hidden at the tavern would be needed soon. On April 14th, the day of Lincoln’s assassination, Mary traveled to her tavern with a package she had been given by Booth. She gave that package to Lloyd and allegedly told him to, “have the shooting irons ready, a party will call for them tonight.” Mrs. Surratt’s defense brought evidence to show that Mrs. Surratt was attempting to settle some debts during this period of time and that was the reasons she made these journeys.

C. The Reputations of Louis Weichmann and John M. Lloyd

As the two key witnesses against Mrs. Surratt, the defense made a great effort to show the questionable reliability of Weichmann and Lloyd. Evidence was presented to suggest that Weichmann may have been disloyal (or even part of Booth’s plot), while Lloyd was portrayed as a drunk of dubious trustworthiness.

D. The Reputations of Defense Witnesses Joseph Knott and John Zadoc Jenkins

In the same way that the defense attacked the credibility of two prosecution witnesses, the prosecution spent a lot of time attacking the character and loyalty of two defense witnesses, one of whom was Mrs. Surratt’s brother.

E. Pictures of John Wilkes Booth and Confederate Generals Found in Mrs. Surratt’s Boardinghouse

During the manhunt for Booth, Mrs. Surratt’s house was searched multiple times and during one of these searches images of Confederate leaders and a hidden photograph of John Wilkes Booth was found in Mrs. Surratt’s room. The prosecution wanted to use this to show Mrs. Surratt’s disloyalty. The defense got Mrs. Surratt’s daughter, Anna, to testify that the photographs belonged to her.

F. The Arrest of Lewis Powell at the Surratt Boardinghouse

Conspirator Lewis Powell, who had attacked Secretary of State William Seward, had been arrested at the Surratt boardinghouse on April 17th, while detectives were there searching and making plans to take Mrs. Surratt and the rest of the household into custody. During this arrest, Mrs. Surratt denied ever having seen Powell before. It was later shown that Powell had stayed at the boardinghouse for a few days. The defense attempted to show that Mrs. Surratt suffered from bad eyesight in an attempt to explain her lack of identification.

G. Mrs. Surratt’s Loyalty and Christian Character

Mary Surratt’s defense called several individuals to testify about her reputation as a good, Christian woman and about times where she had demonstrated pro-Union attitudes. The purpose was to persuade the commissioners that Mrs. Surratt was not capable of being involved in such a plot as the assassination of Lincoln.

For the closing arguments in defense of Mary Surratt please click here.

Please remember that the Relevant Testimony descriptor is not meant to be definitive. In some instances, a witness might cover material from more than one category. For example, many of the witnesses were asked about Mary Surratt’s eyesight in the course of their other testimonies. Still, the attempt has been made to determine the most applicable category for each witness’s overall testimony.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “The Testimony Regarding Mary Surratt

  1. George Pappas

    It is very difficult for me to believe that all the activity on H street went on without her knowledge, particularly since John Surratt was knee deep in the plot to kidnap the president but seemingly, away from Washington during the assassination. I am also troubled as to why John did not meet the same fate as his mother; he certainly was in the thick of it all, even though he was not present at the assassination. His past as a confederate courier and spy along with his association with the guilty conspirators made him implicitly guilty as well. If Mary was not guilty as charged, her son let her hang; his testimony could have been invaluable to her defense.

    • jett

      time was on his side and he used it to his best advantage while public sentiment softened. even the prisoners given life sentences were pardoned. Andrew Johnson was impeached and the trial is viewed as a sham by attorneys and public alike; its outcome concluded before it started.

    • John Surratt would never have been allowed to testify in 1865. If he had been caught he would have been put on trial just like his mother. There is an argument to be made that he may have replaced his mother, but I believe the evidence the government put its faith in would have earned her a spot on the stand regardless of her son’s whereabouts. John Surratt escaped the same fate as his mother due to the amount of time that had elapsed, evidence showing he was not in D.C. on the night of the assassination, and the fact that his jury was a civilian one with a majority southerners – one of the worries the government had in 1865 and thus decided on a military trial instead.

  2. t\\

    Thanks very much. The executions are still a chilling event after 155 years. None of the four committed a murder.

    • We have to remember that the laws of conspiracy make them all vicariously liable for Lincoln’s death. So while, yes, none of these four physically murdered anyone, in the eyes of the law they were convicted of murder through the conspiracy charge.

  3. jett

    i have often wondered about the hangman Christian Rath’s responsibility , for only 2 of the 4 hanged having broken necks (based on reports i found of the coroner.) was it on purpose? was he just a lousy executioner? lousy gallows?? lewis payne suffered for over 5 minutes and he had spoken to the hangman about just this, his desire for a quick death, atzerot also. was the executioner ever questioned or interviewed about his failure? the hangman made Surratt’s noose with only five turns instead of the required seven because he had thought that the government should never hang a woman. that makes no sense either because spending the time to make 2 more turns would take maybe seconds longer and not worth the chance of failure regardless. anyway you add it up hangman Christain Rath was a colossal failure.that day.

    • I don’t believe there was any malevolent intent on the part of Christian Rath. If I remember correctly he was unfamiliar with the nuances of performing an execution and had very little time to prepare before it was carried out. It is unfortunate that some of the conspirators had to suffer (Mary was not on of them though) but Rath was unfamiliar with the steps of treating a rope first and how to calculate the weights of the different people to ensure their necks snapped at the end of the drop.

  4. Pingback: The Execution and Burial of Lewis Powell |

  5. Graham Baldwin

    John Surratt had no choice but to stay away from the trial as he would most assuredly have been prosecuted and hanged had he been in custody. It must be remembered that the government had had no qualms about using the perjured testimony of Charles Dunham–for which he would later be convicted–who readily connected Surratt to the alleged plot to kill. Hence, the prosecution had much more “evidence” against Surratt than it did against any of the other defendants, except for Payne. Additionally, Surratt’s appearance would not have saved his mother from the gallows in my opinion for the simple reason he could not exonerate her of the crime since there was no credible evidence he was even aware of the plot, a fact which was ably demonstrated when he stood trial in 1867.

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