Mary Surratt: The First Woman Executed By The US

Short biography of Mary Surratt, convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. She was the first woman executed by the United States government.

On July 7 1865, Mary Surratt began the long walk through the house that had been her prison for more than two months. Although the day was oppressively hot she wore the same clothing she'd worn throughout her trial, a long-sleeved black dress that fell to the top of her high black shoes. Two guards supported her elbows as she struggled to remain upright against the sedative drugs she had mercifully been given. They were a small comfort, but she was grateful.

They reached the door leading to the courtyard and the guards gripped her arms tighter as if afraid she would slip from their grasp to fall or run. Mary did neither. Her dark eyes firmly fixed to the toes of her shoes, she slowly descended the wooden steps to the ground, stumbling only slightly at the change in slope. Shadows of the spectators rolled over her shoes as she walked by and she wondered briefly how many belonged to familiar forms. She didn't look up to search out the faces of casual acquaintances, people who had once tipped their hats or smiled at her, she knew there would be no solicitous nods now.

Mary hesitated only slightly when she reached the bottom step to the gallows. The terror was still only a low rumble in her chest as the reality of her situation had yet to completely slip past the drugs. She knew if she continued to watch her shoes, if she refused to set her eyes on the looped and knotted rope, she could keep the fear from crawling into her throat and cutting off her breath. The noose would do that soon enough.

The walk from her room/cell to the gallows had seemed to Mary endlessly brief. Now, standing on the platform, her hands and feet bound, Mary finally knew beyond doubt that she had only moments left to live. She swayed slightly as a small breeze brushed her face in a last caress. Above the din of her heart, she listened to the murmuring of the crowd and the intonations of the preacher. A small beetle crawled over the tip of her shoe and she focused on the progress of the tiny body with such intensity that at the sound of a voice asking if she had any last words, she started and gasped. Tears slipped down her pale cheeks and she whispered softly, "Please don't let me fall." *

A black hood was placed over her head and Mary thought she could smell the lingering fear of those condemned before her. A shudder ran through her as the rope was tightened around her neck, the hangman making certain that the knot was securely under her left ear so death would be quick. Lastly, another rope was wrapped around her dress at the calves to maintain modesty.

At a signal from the general, the executioner pulled the lever and sent Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt into history as the first woman to be hanged by the United States government.

She was 42 years old.

Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in Waterloo, Maryland in the spring of 1823. At the age of twelve Mary's mother chose to give her daughter a better education than most of the farm girls in her day received. To accomplish this, Mary was taken across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia and enrolled in a school operated by St Mary's Catholic Church. There, she converted to Catholicism and chose Eugenia** as her confirmation name, after St Eugenia whose feast day falls on Christmas.

In 1840 at the tender age of 17, Mary was married to 28 year old John Harrison Surratt. 3 children arrived in quick succession: Isaac, Elizabeth, & John Jr. The family of 5 lived on a farm near Oxon Hill, Maryland until the early 1850's.

In 1852, John Surratt purchased and began to develop 287 acres of farmland in Prince George's County, Maryland. He built a two-story house that became - in addition to the family home - a tavern, polling place, and post office. The small local community, now Clinton, was then known as Surrattsville. During the Civil War the Surratt House served as part of the Confederate underground network.

The Surratt family lived in Surrattsville for ten years until the sudden death of John Sr. in 1862. Mary struggled valiantly to survive the mountain of debts left her by her husband, but the war made it virtually impossible to collect on debts owed to the tavern. Finally, in 1864, Mary was forced to rent the Surratt house to ex-policeman, John Lloyd. (His testimony during her trial would ensure her conviction.) She and her daughter, Anne, now twenty, moved into a townhouse the family owned on 541 H Street in Washington City. There she began a respectable boardinghouse business and met the man who would ultimately lead to her inglorious place in history - John Wilkes Booth.

Mary Surratt's son, John Harrison Surratt Jr., continuing the Confederate sympathies of his father, began allowing southern sympathizers to use the boardinghouse for surreptitious meetings. The leader of this group of insurgents was a popular theatre actor named John Wilkes Booth.

It is not clear if Mary knew of Booth's involvement in the assassination plot of President Lincoln or if she was merely running errands for a man with whom she had become infatuated. According to John Lloyd - the man renting her tavern in Surrattsville - she did deliver messages to him on two separate occasions from Booth. The first communication, on April 11, 1865, was to relay that Booth wanted Lloyd to have the "shooting irons" ready and again on April 14, the day of Lincoln's assassination, Mary told Lloyd to have the escape gear prepared.

Lewis Paine, one of the three conspirators executed along with Mary, insisted throughout the trial on her innocence. Although the jury found her guilty of conspiracy and voted for the death penalty, they recommended life in prison in deference to her "sex and age". President Andrew Johnson refused to consider a plea for mercy declaring that Mrs. Surratt had ""¦supplied the nest"¦" for the conspirators.

To this day the consensus of many people is that the government committed a judicial murder by hanging Mary Surratt.

* Mary Surratt's last words as reported by J.R.Norton

**Mary Surratt's often use of her confirmation name has led many to the mistaken belief that Eugenia was her middle name. (Surratt Historical Museum)

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