On the late evening of April 17, 1865, Mary Surratt was arrested. She was suspected of involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After her arrest, Mary Surratt was first held at an annex to the Old Capitol Prison. She had a son, John Surratt, also suspected by the authorities. However John Surratt avoided arrest immediately after the assassination by fleeing the country. He served briefly as a Papal Zouave before his later arrest and extradition from Egypt.
In a follow-up to his widely read book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, Otto Eisenschiml revealed details on the treatment of Mary Surratt by the federal authorities. Chapter 6 (Was Mrs. Surratt Tortured?) and Chapter 7 (The Silencing of Mrs. Surratt) of In The Shadow of Lincoln’s Death are the source for what follows. (In The Shadow of Lincoln’s Death, by Otto Eisenschiml. New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc., 1940.)
In the immediate aftermath of her arrest, Mrs. Surratt was interrogated. “H. [a detective] frequently spent hours talking with her, endeavoring… to entrap her… But in this – smart detective as he was – she foiled him. Sometimes H. would say to her, … ‘Well, madam, we have at last captured your son…; how did you ever hit on so snug a hiding place.'” This encounter was later recorded by fellow prisoner “Mary” (presumed to be Miss Honora Fitzpatrick, a boarder at Mary Surratt’s rooming house).
Mrs. Surratt was taken away from her first place of detention (the Old Capitol Prison) and put aboard a gunboat. (She was later transferred to the Washington Arsenal). On the gunboat she was confined “in perfect darkness and solitude,” continued “Mary” in her written account. “Around the neck of each prisoner was an iron collar, from which was suspended a short chain terminated by an iron ball, which rested on the floor, so that the head was bowed down and retained in that position; and in that position the prisoners sat day and night…”
“This,” wrote Otto Eisenschiml, “is the first intimation that the woman prisoner was subjected to actual torture.”
From the enchained darkness and solitude of the gunboat, Mrs. Surratt was eventually transferred to the old Arsenal prison. There “terrible tortures [were allegedly] inflicted upon the unfortunate lady…”
Mrs. Surratt, a civilian, was tried by a military court. In the courtroom of the military tribunal, Mrs. Surratt “was grossly insulted by spectators, men and women, or things that looked like men and women,” wrote the well-known (at the time) woman writer and civil war nurse Jane Swisshelm. Once, Mrs. Surratt “turned pale when one of these creatures said: ‘I hope they’ll hang her! Just look at her! She looks like a devil!’ I could not bear it,” continued Jane Swisshelm in her account of the kangaroo court proceedings, “but spoke out and said: ‘She does not look like a devil! She looks like a good, kind-hearted woman, and you are a coward for insulting a prisoner.'”
Edward V. Murphy, a court stenographer during the 1865 “Trial of the Conspirators”, in an interview published in The New York Times Magazine of April 9, 1916, recalled that Mrs. Surratt’s treatment had been most severe. For the first few days of the “trial”, she “was brought into the courtroom with an iron ball and chain fastened to her ankle and with her hands manacled,” Murphy told the interviewer. Others however dispute that she had been manacled at trial.
(Edward V. Murphy, the court stenographer, is theorized elsewhere by Otto Eisenschiml to have been the key source for explosive information published in 1868. See: Addenda to the Addenda, Ersjdamoo’s Blog, July 14, 2015.)
Mrs. Surratt, while imprisoned, had communication with her daughter Anna, her three lawyers – Reverdy Johnson, John W. Clampitt, and Frederick Aiken – and with two Catholic priests: Father Wiget and Father Jacob A. Walter (image).
A Colonel William P. Wood had a troubled conscience which led him to later resolve to tell “all he knew about the conspiracy trial, the true story of which he said had never been given to the public” (emphasis in original). A series of articles by Colonel Wood reportedly appeared in the Washington Sunday Gazette in the fall of 1883. A promise of mercy had allegedly been given Mary Surratt in return for her silence on certain matters. Mrs. Surratt however was tricked. Then, in order to keep her quiet, she was quickly hung to death. Not until midday of July 6, 1865 did Mary Surratt learn her fate. She was hung promptly the following day. Commented Father Walter: “To act so hastily in a matter of this kind was certainly strange on the part of the Government.”
Upon the scaffold of death, Mary Surratt begged Father Walter, “Holy Father, can I not tell these people before I die that I am innocent of the crime for which I have been condemned to death?”
“Nay,” replied Father Walter, “it would do no good, and it might disturb the serenity of your last moments.”
Father Walter though later denied he had said any such thing. However Mrs. Surratt had told Father Walter she was not guilty, and he believed her. He firmly asserted his belief in her innocence.
“What was vital was this: the condemned woman must not be permitted to harangue the crowd from the scaffold. There she might go beyond the mere question of her guilt, and every one of her words would be broadcast by news-hungry journalists.” (The federals feared Mary Surratt might “spill the beans” and let loose with details which the feds preferred not be told.)
By 1867, John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, had been captured, tried, and released after a mistrial. Called to the witness stand during the trial, Father Walter “had intimated that Mrs. Surratt had been judicially murdered.”
Father Jacob A. Walter was likely the same priest who “many years later, began a series of magazine articles, promising in the opening paragraphs to tell the story [of Mary Surratt]. The series was never finished.” (Background: Who Was Otto Eisenschiml?, Ersjdamoo’s Blog, July 15, 2015.)