Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

FRIDAY, JULY 7, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

DAWN

Two and a half months later, the rounding up of Lincoln’s killers has become a national pastime. Secretary of War Stanton has personally taken charge of identifying the larger conspiracy that has grown out of Booth’s single gunshot, pushing Lafayette Baker from the limelight. While some in the Confederate South now call Booth a martyr and hang pictures of him in their homes as they would for any family member, northerners are even more determined to see every last one of his co-conspirators found—and killed. The jails are full of men and women who have been trapped in the spider’s web of the Stanton investigation. Some have absolutely nothing to do with Lincoln’s death, like James Pumphrey, the Confederate-sympathizing owner of a stable, who spent a month behind bars. No one is immune from suspicion. Federal agents scour their list of suspects, making sure no one is overlooked. One missing suspect is twenty-one-year-old John Surratt, whose mother, Mary, provided Booth and his conspirators with weapons and lodging.

Mary herself sits inside the old Arsenal Penitentiary awaiting her fate. She’s been locked up since her arrest on April 17. The trial of all the co-conspirators, including Mary, began on May 10, and some 366 witnesses were called before it was over, seven weeks later. From the beginning, the public viewed all the conspirators as clearly criminals. Certainly the drunken George Atzerodt and the brutish thug who attacked the Sewards, Lewis Powell, look the part. But Mary Surratt is different. Standing five foot six, with a buxom figure and a pretty smile that captivates some of the journalists in attendance, Mary has initially engendered some sympathy, and many Americans wonder if her life should be spared.

But Mary’s physical appearance, like that of her co-conspirators, began to change as the trial stretched into its sixth and seventh weeks. Stanton was responsible for this disfiguring transformation. When not on trial, he insisted, all the conspirators had to wear a thick padded hood over their heads. Extra cotton padding was placed over the eyelids, pressing hard against the eyeballs. There was just one slit, at the mouth, for eating. The purpose was to prevent them from seeing or hearing one another as they remained chained in the bowels of the Montauk, the warship President Lincoln visited on the last day of his life.

Underneath the hoods the heat was intense and the air stifling. The sweating and the bloating of the skin from the heavy hoods made each conspirator appear more and more swollen and rabid with each passing day.

Mary Surratt endured an even greater private hell. In addition to the claustrophobia and disfigurement caused by the hood, she suffered from severe cramping, excessive menstruating, and constant urinating from a disease known as endometriosis. She was barely tended to by her captors or given the freedom to properly care for herself. One eyewitness called her cell aboard the Montauk “barely habitable.” Sick and trapped in this filthy cell, Mary Surratt took on a haunted, bloated appearance.

After deliberating for three days, the nine-member jury finds Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold guilty. They will be hanged. As for Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Ned Spangler, and Samuel Arnold, their punishment will be the remote penitentiary of Fort Jefferson in the Gulf of Mexico.

Guilty! Sentenced to hang (left column): Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt (not pictured). Sentenced to prison (right column): Samuel Arnold, Ned Spangler, Michael O’Laughlen, and Dr. Samuel Mudd (not pictured)

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There is no one willing to speak up for the men who will hang. But Mary Surratt’s priest comes to her defense. So does her daughter, Anna—though not her missing son, John. Mary Surratt’s attorney frantically works to get an audience with President Andrew Johnson so that he might personally intervene on her behalf. Her supporters say she was just a lone woman trying to make ends meet by providing weapons for Booth and his conspiracy and point out that she didn’t pull the trigger and was nowhere near Ford’s Theatre.

There is hope. Not much, but a little. The other three sentenced to hang are all part of Booth’s inner circle. Not so with Mary Surratt. Although Johnson will not speak to him, her attorney continues to argue to the fringe of President Johnson’s outer circle, those who actively prevent him from speaking with the president, that her life should be spared.

Mary Surratt spends the night of July 6 in prayer, asking God to spare her life.

In the morning, she refuses breakfast, and even at ten A.M., when her visitors are told to leave so that her body can be prepared, Mary is still hoping. She wears a black dress and veil. Her ankles and wrists are manacled. And then she is marched out into a blazing summer sun. She looks up at the ten-foot-high gallows, newly built for the execution of her and the other conspirators. She sees the freshly dug graves beneath the gallows—the spot where her body will rest for all eternity.

Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold climb the gallows staircase. They are seated in chairs on the platform at the top. Their hands and arms are tied to their bodies—the men’s with ropes, Mary’s with white cloth. Their legs are tied together at the ankles and knees so that they won’t kick wildly after the hangman springs the door.

“Mrs. Surratt is innocent!” Powell cries out, just before a white cotton hood is placed over his head.

Outside the prison, Mary’s supporters gather. Time is short. But there is still hope. Soldiers stand atop the penitentiary walls, just in case a last-minute rider approaches with a pardon. Inside the penitentiary, one hundred civilians have won the right to watch Lincoln’s killers die. The muggy air is thick with anticipation.

All it takes is one word from President Johnson. Mary Surratt continues to pray.

“Please don’t let me fall,” she says to an executioner, getting vertigo as she looks down on the crowd from atop the tall, unstable gallows. He puts the white hood over her head, and then she stands alone, terrified that she might topple forward over the edge of the gallows before the pardon can arrive.

The death sentences are read in alphabetical order by General Winfield Scott Hancock, another old friend of Generals Grant and Lee from their days in Mexico.

Each trapdoor is held in place by a single post. At the bottom of the scaffold stand four hand-selected members of the armed forces. It is their job to kick away the posts on the signal from the hangman. Suddenly, that signal is given.

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The trapdoors swing open. Mary Surratt, like the others, drops six feet in an instant. But unlike the others’, her neck does not break, and she does not die right away. The forty-two-year-old mother and widow, whose son would not come to her rescue out of fear for his own life, swings for five long minutes before her larynx is crushed and her body stops fighting for air.

Stanton lets the bodies dangle in the wind for twenty more minutes before pronouncing that he is satisfied. The corpses are buried in the hard prison yard.

Mary Surratt becomes the first and only woman ever hanged by the United States government.

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