Mary Surratt–Guilty or Innocent?

by Al Benson Jr.

Member, Board of Directors, Confederate Society of America

Guilty or innocent? That question remains to this day in regard to Mary Surratt and you will still find people on both sides of this question that are perfectly sincere in their contentions.

Theodore Roscoe in The Web of Conspiracy  observed that: “By March she must have known that Atzerodt, Wood, and Herold were engaged with her son and Booth in some underground activity. Evidence indicates that she was aware of a plan to abduct the President of the United States and carry him prisoner to Richmond…Yet to the day of her death, Mrs. Surratt would deny any complicity in Lincoln’s murder.” I feel that is the crux of the whole matter. I have no doubt she was aware of the abduction plot. I do not think she was aware of the murder plot. Though both were crimes, there was a big difference between abduction and murder.

Kidnapping a general or an opposing head of state was considered to be fair game during the War. Assassination was not–at least in the South, although after the Dahlgren Raid in 1864 and the papers found on Dahlgren’s body advocating the killing of Southern political leaders, you have to wonder what the policy was in the North (unofficially anyway).

I did two articles on this subject back in 2015 that you can still find on for April 4, 2015. They might be good background reading for this article.

Back on August 27, 2016 carried an article by Jack Perry titled The Martyrdom of Mary Surratt. Perry made some interesting observations. He noted: “If you were given the government’s side of the story in high school history class, you were told John Wilkes Booth crept up behind President Lincoln and, bang, he shot him. End of story…However, the reason the government leaves off the entire assassination conspiracy is because they executed an innocent woman. Mary Surratt’s ‘crime’ as it were, happened to be owning a boarding house that the Lincoln assassination ‘conspirators’ rented rooms in. She was promptly seized in the federal sweep-and-clear operation to find the assassins, even if they really weren’t. Anyone with Southern heritage would do.”

Perry continued: “Here’s the way it went down: Mary Surratt was to stand trial before a military tribunal, even though she was a civilian. This was a federal government kangaroo court show trial because a guilty verdict was already demanded by the Secretary of War, for one. But they needed to have a sham trial so it didn’t look like they railroaded this woman into an execution without a trial. The government produced false witnesses, doctored evidence, and refused to allow Mary to testify on her own behalf. Nor was secret government evidence against her allowed to be made public. Probably because it didn’t exist in the first place.”

Mr. Perry seems to have a pretty fair idea of how the government operated (and still does).

An article on for May 7, 2011 was of interest. It stated: “Recently with the release of the Robert Redford-directed movie, The Conspirator, Mary Surratt has been in the news again, with the debate resurfacing as to whether or not she really knew that Booth and his gang planned to kill the president. Redford suggests she did not, but instead she was guilty of the lesser crime of knowing of a plot to kidnap Lincoln and failing to report it.” There isn’t much I agree with Robert Redford on politically. We are at opposite sides of the spectrum. However in this case, I think he is on target. Mary was guilty of the lesser crime, not of complicity in murder.

Pelican Publishing in Gretna, Louisiana even published a book about this in 1996 and then released it again, I guess after the Redford movie came about. The name of it is Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy and it was written by Elizabeth Steger Trindal. Supposedly this lady worked fifteen years to chronicle the life of Mary Surratt and the comment on the jacket of her book says “In the embarrassment over this wrong, most historians have neglected to tell the whole story behind President Lincoln’s assassination.” That’s true, but also, in retrospect, I think there are some that do not dare to tell the whole story because, were it told, the history books would have to be rewritten and federal fables about the assassination would be exposed for what they have been–fables! This book is still available on Amazon.

Another informative article about this was written by Ryan Walters back on July 6, 2017 and appeared on that date on And this one is worth reading too. Its title is A Miscarriage of Justice? The Trial of Mary Surratt.  In referring to the Lincoln conspirators Mr. Walters wrote: “All would eventually face the hammer of American justice, in one form or another, for what was proving to be a wide-ranging conspiracy, which included other targets–Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was viciously stabbed multiple times but survived, Vice President Andrew Johnson, whose attacker, Atzerodt, apparently backed out, and perhaps General Ulysses S. Grant who escaped a possible attack by deciding not to attend the play that night. Killing all four leaders in one fell swoop would have effectively decapitated the US government. Whether or not Mary Surratt had knowledge of this vast conspiracy, or actively aided in its implementation will never be known…However, her actual guilt or innocence matters not. What matters is the manner in which federal authorities obtained a conviction and ultimately her execution.” There were those who wanted her tried in a civilian court, where she would at least have had a fighting chance. Edwin Stanton was having none of that! Sort of makes you wonder what he had to hide.

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