Friday, May 6, 2011

Sepia Saturday: Mary Surratt

There's a Robert Redford film out now about the trial of Mary Surratt before a military tribunal for conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.. That film inspired today's SEPIA SATURDAY post. (Click on the link to visit Alan and the other Sepia Saturday participants).

Mary Surratt (nee Mary Elizabeth Jenkins) was born in Waterloo, Maryland in 1823. She was educated in Alexandria, Virginia by the Sisters of Charity at the school for girls run by St. Mary's Catholic Church.

Mary Surratt photo from the website

In 1840, at 17, she married John Harrison Surratt of the District of Columbia. They lived on a small farm in Oxon Hill where they reared three children : Isaac, Anna, and John Jr.

John H. Surratt bought 287 acres of farmland in Prince Georges County, Maryland (near present-day Andrews Air Force Base) in 1852. On the land, he built a two-story frame building that became not only the family's living quarters, but the Surrattsville tavern, polling place, and post office.

In the decade leading up to the Civil War, the tavern was a community gathering place and likely housed lively discussions about the country's political direction (and divisions).
From the website - Reproduction of Harper's Weekly cover 1867 showing Surrattsville

Though Maryland did not secede during the Civil War, the Surratts' sympathized with the Confederacy during the war and there is much evidence that their tavern served as a safehouse in the Confederate underground network in southern Maryland.

And it was to the Surratt Tavern that John Wilkes Booth fled after the assassination of the President at Ford's Theater on the night of April 14, 1865.

Currier and Ives print - in Library of Congress Collection LC-USZ62-2073 (b&w film copy negative)

By then, Mary Surratt was widowed and no longer the proprietress of the tavern.. Her husband had left her deeply in debt and of necessity, she rented the tavern and farm to an ex-policeman named John Lloyd. In 1864, she moved to northwest D.C. where she owned a townhouse. 

Mary Surratt House, 604 H Street N.W. St. in Washington, D.C.
taken about 1908 - photo in Library of Congress Collection LC-USZ62-92592  

There, she opened her dwelling to boarders and visitors - including John Wilkes Booth.

Carte de Visite by Alexander Gardner showing John Wilkes Booth
Library of Congress Photo Collection
(digital file from original recto) ppmsca 19233

In the post-assassination search for Booth and his accomplice David Herold, the net was widened to include any who rendered assistance to the plot. (For info on Booth's death, click HERE.)

David Herold, convicted co-conspirator in the Lincoln Assassination
Library of Congress Photo Collection - LC-USZ62-121530.

Mary Surratt was arrested as a conspirator almost immediately and taken to the Old Capitol Prison

Library of Congress Photo Collection - LC -DIG - ppmsca -12611 (digital file) 
where she was held pending trial before a military tribunal at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.

J. Orville Johnson photograph of Surratt jury -- apparently the jury for John Surratt's trial, Mary's son

Trial began May 9, 1865 and lasted throughout June. Despite vigorous defense by attorney Frederick Aiken, Mary Surratt was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, along with convicted co-conspirators Lewis Payne (a/k/a Powell, Hall and Wood), David Herold, and George Atzerodt.

George Azerodt, Lincoln Assassination Conspirator - photo by Alexander Gardner
in Library of Congress Collection - LC-USZ62-22995 b&w print negative

Lewis Payne, Lincoln Assassination co-conspirator
Library of Congress photo collection LC-USZ62-134024 (b&w film copy neg.)

Five of the nine military tribunal members recommended to President Andrew Johnson that "because of her age and her sex" that her death sentence be reduced to life in prison. Johnson refused, saying Mary Surratt "kept the nest that hatched the egg."

President Andrew Johnson - photo reproduction from Library of Congress Collection

Surratt, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt were hanged on July 7, 1865. She was the first woman executed by the U.S. government.  

Execution of Lincoln's Assassins 1865 - Library of Congress photo collection

At the time of her death, a case questioning the jursidiction of military courts in cases involving civilians was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Less than a year after Surratt's execution, the court ruled that -- so long as civil courts were available -- military courts have no jurisdiction in civilian cases. Some legal experts think that, had this case been decided before the execution, that Mary Surratt's conviction would have been overturned, though the court did not specifically address the application of the laws of war and the respective jurisdictions of military tribunals and civil courts. Lincoln was assassinated, of course, during time of war.

Several other co-conspirators were also found guilty but were sentenced to life in prison. At the time of Mary Surratt's trial, her son John was in hiding and thus wasn't tried with her and the other principal accused. After the Supreme Court decision, he was arrested and tried in regular criminal court and judged by a jury of his peers. They could not reach a guilty verdict.

For more information, see the Surratt website.

Here's a trailer for the Redford-produced film.  


Brett Payne said...

Great story and photos, Meri. The photos of the hanging are included in many books about the history of photography, as are the photos of the conspirators, and it's nice to see another take on the story.

Christine H. said...

Wow, Meri, very nicely done! Fascinating story and very well told. I will now have to see the movie.

Kristin said...

I never realized there was such a large group of conspirators involved.

Little Nell said...

Like Kristin, I was unaware that there were so many conspirators. A fascinating piece of history. Look forward to the film

Bob Scotney said...

Thank you Meri for giving me a lesson in American history. I had no idea there was such a big conspiracy.
This is one of the best Sepia posts I've seen.

Meri said...

Thanks Bob, Brett and Christine H. And for all of you, the film is wonderful -- superbly acted and directed, posing questions about right and wrong use of power, whether civil liberties must be sacrificed in times of turmoil to satisfy the objectives of those in power, and the personal costs of standing up for what's right. James McAvoy and Robin Wright are marvelous as Frederick Aiken and Mary Surratt.

Postcardy said...

Interesting history. I didn't know about the conspirators.

Howard said...

Great post, can't wait to see the film.

Alan Burnett said...

Love it. You almost single-handedly re-invent the old art of photo-journalism making what was a fascinating historical story even more interesting with some really well-chosen illustrations.

MuseSwings said...

Excellent post with great photos! The best book I've read about the assassination is an old one - The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop. It covers that 24 hours in fantastic detail. A great read. Thanks for another a wonderful post.

boots said...

that photo of the "Surratt Jury" is not a photo of the men presiding at Mary Surratt's military trial. It is a picture of the jury who presided over her son's civil trial some years later. this is the military commission who sentences her to death:

otherwise, a very nice post.

too bad the film was such a dud.

: D