Does Mary Surratt's Ghost Haunt the Senate Chambers Seeking Justice?
"There is no grievance that is a fit object for redress by mob law.” Abraham
Along with fellow conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt, Mary Elizabeth Surratt was sentenced on June 30, 1865 to be “hanged by the neck ‘til she be dead.” Mary Elizabeth Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the United States Government. The Civil War produced great national distress, conflicting loyalties, and changing values in America. The fact that a military tribunal had tried and convicted
Mary Surratt and she was hanged over protests against executing a woman makes
her execution still controversial a century and a half later in a time of modern wars and military tribunals.
Mary Surratt’s Ghost is Said to Haunt the Senate Chamber, Seeking Justice
Outside of Shakespeare’s ghosts that both Edwin and John Wilkes both portrayed, the ghost of Mary Surratt is probably one of history’s most restless spirits. One of her ghost stories in the Brooklyn Eagle states that she is said to haunt the Senate of the United States still seeking justice. She swore to her dying gasp that she had been unjustly convicted for treason, conspiracy and plotting the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Reverdy Johnson Defends Mary Surrat
Like John Wilkes Booth, Mary Surratt suffered a life of dramatic downward spirals. There is a large cast of characters in Mary Surratt’s eternal drama. Her lawyer Reverdy Johnson defended her before the military tribunal on May 8, 1865 in a courtroom on the third
floor of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington D.C. One end of the Senate chamber resounds with Reverdy Johnson’s indignation. He is castigating at Judge Joseph Holt, who
supposedly withheld the Tribunal’s recommendation for mercy for Mary Surratt
until after she had been hanged.
On the other end of the chamber, Mary Surratt confronts John Armour Bingham, the Republican congressman from Ohio and the judge advocate in the trial with complicity in her murder. The Ohio lawyer sits back, pale and trembling at the accusation. The shadowy Senators sit silently watching.
Did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton Rush to Judgment?
Mary Surratt glides through the Senator chamber to the little back office of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. She stands in the doorway, staring at him accusingly, until he looks up at her. Then he takes his pen in hand, documenting the fact that the trial of the Lincoln conspirators began on May 10, 1865, a little less than a month after the president’s assassination on April 14, 1865. The scratching of the pen on paper is the only sound in the
office. There is no breathing.
Mary Surratt’s ghost next confronts President Andrew Johnson during a recess of his Senate impeachment trial and he takes up his pen to explain why he hadn’t granted her mercy. He doesn’t deny his statement that her boarding house was the “nest where the egg was hatched.”
Facts as Cold as a Haunted Cemetery At Midnight
Some of the stone cold reality issues around Mary Surratt’s conviction include the fact that military tribunals had less strict rules of evidence than civilian trial courts, and it was very
unusual for a military tribunal to try a civilian. The military tribunal trial began on May 10, 1865, and the three judges spent almost two months in court waiting for a jury verdict.
Judges Bingham and Holt tried to cover up the fact that there were two plots existed. One called for kidnapping president Lincoln and holding him hostage in exchange for Confederate prisoners. The second plot called for assassinating President Lincoln, Vice
President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward to throw the
government into electoral chaos. The prosecution hid the fact that a diary found on Booth’s body clearly showed that the assassination plan dated from April 14, 1865. The defense didn’t call for Booth’s diary to be brought to court.
The chaos that swirled in Washington D.C. and across the United States in the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination created rumors, mob rule, and uncertainty that has tinged the history record for centuries. The question of Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence is one of the
The Killing of Mary Surratt, and The Conspirators- the Movies
A twenty five minute movie by Chris King called The Killing of Mary Surratt, tells her story and rephrases the question of her guilt or innocence. According to Chris King, Mary Surratt was at the epicenter of the passions stirred by a brutal, divisive four year war
and an equally brutal assassination. He feels that mob rule and political expediency played a large part in her execution. He said,” Talk about wham-bam. Within 24 hours of official final sentencing, President Johnson had the prison build a scaffold overnight to hang them. Unbelievable.”
The Killing of Mary Surratt won the Best Drama award at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival held between April 29 and May 2, 2010, in North Carolina. The Killing of Mary Surratt was shown at the Alexandria, Virginia, film Festival on Saturday, November 6, 2010. It won the third place trophy at the Short Film Drama category of the Indie
Gathering International film in Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and was a finalist in
the Fifty Second Rochester International Film Festival in New York.
The Surratt House Museum contracted Chris King to make the movie and the museum sells a DVD version of the movie.. He is making a documentary of the Killing of Mary
Surratt for television
On April 15, 2011, Robert Redford premiered his film, The Conspirators, at Ford’s Theater
in Washington D.C. The Conspirators tells the story of the Lincoln assassination and the capture, trial, and conviction of the Lincoln conspirators, including Mary Surratt. In an NPR interview, Robert Redford said that he worked to present a balanced view of
Mary Surratt. He said that he didn’t intend for the film to be a commentary on
current military tribunals and trials in the War on Terror, but that he just wanted to
show both sides of the story
The Surratt House Museum
The Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, is offering a free museum tour with a movie ticket stub from The Conspirator through the end of November 2011. The Surratt
House Museum staff said that they were pleasantly surprised by the movie and
recommended it to illustrate the conditions in America after the Civil War and the aspects of military justice.
The Judicial Murder of Mary Surratt?
In 1873, Judge Joseph Holt published a letter in which he claimed that he had presented President Andrew Johnson with a document signed by five of the Military Tribunal members recommending life in the penitentiary for Mary Surratt instead of
hanging. Andrew Johnson counterclaimed that Judge Holt had come to the White
House and he and Judge Holt discussed the matter and agreed that Mary Surratt‘s gender didn’t affect her crime or sentencing.
History hasn’t yet resolved the question and the ghost of Mary Surratt may still haunt the Senate Chambers until there is a resolution and justice for Mary Surratt.
Kundardt, Dorothy Meserve, Twenty Days, A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Castle Books, 1994.
Larson, Kate Clifford, The Assassins’ Accomplice: Mary Surratt, and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, Basic Books, 2008
Swanson, James L. Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution. Harper Perennial,
Swanson, James L. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Harper Perennial,
Titone, Nora, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy. Free Press, 2010
Trindal, Elizabeth. Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy. Pelican Publishing, 1996