Mary Surratt's Gravesite

Mary Surratt’s Gravesite

Mary Surratt was a D.C. boarding house owner who was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Sentenced to death, she was hanged on July 7, 1865, alongside three men who were also convicted of playing a part in the plot to assassinate the 16th President, thereby becoming the first woman executed by the United States federal government.

Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in Waterloo, Maryland, raised by her mother after her father died when she was still a toddler, and schooled in a Catholic female seminary. She married John Harrison Surratt at age seventeen, and they bought approximately 300 acres of land in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where they built a tavern and a post office.  There they raised three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr., on the property which became known at that time as Surrattsville.

After the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Maryland remained part of “the Union,” but the Surratts were Confederate sympathizers. Isaac Surratt left Maryland and traveled to Texas, where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army, while John Jr. quit his studies at St. Charles College and became a courier for the Confederate Secret Service. And during the war, the tavern was thought to have doubled as a safe house for rebel agents and spies in the Confederate underground network.

When her husband suddenly collapsed and died in August of 1862, Mary found herself in dire financial straits and decided to move to D.C., where she lived in a townhouse her husband had previously purchased. The 39-year old widow rented out the family farm in Maryland, and converted the townhouse’s upper floor into a boardinghouse. Through renting the farm and operating the boarding house, Mary managed to eke out a modest living.

While debate among historians still continues over the role Mary and her boardinghouse played in Lincoln’s death, it is widely accepted that she hosted and possibly attended meetings about the conspiracy convened there by John Wilkes Booth and her son, John Jr.  Mary herself denied any involvement during her trial. After her conviction, attempts were made, particularly by her daughter, Anna, to persuade President Andrew Johnson to commute Mary’s death sentence. He refused, stating, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

On this bike ride I chose to stop by some of the locations in D.C. that were part of both her life and her death. First I rode to the boarding house which she owned where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices met. The building is still standing, and is located at 605 H Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Although the building has retained much of its original character, it is no longer a boarding house. The building is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. An historic plaque next to the restaurant’s door reads, “A Historical Landmark, “Surratt Boarding House”, 604 H Street, N.W. (The 541), is said to have been where the conspirators plotted the abduction of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Plaque by Chi-Am Lions Club.”

I also rode to the location where Mary was hanged.  At the time it was the Parade Ground of the U.S. Penitentiary at 4th and P streets (MAP), fronting the Washington Channel in southwest D.C.  Today it is part of Fort McNair, and the courtyard where the hanging occurred is now a tennis court.

Lastly, during today’s ride I also rode to her final resting place, which is in Mount Olivet Cemetery, located at 1300 Bladensburg Road (MAP) in northeast D.C. This was the most interesting part of the bike ride. When I got to the cemetery I stopped at the front office to ask where Mary Surratt’s grave is located. Upon being told by the manager that they do not give out that kind of information, I assumed she did not recognize the name. So I explained that Mary Surratt was the Lincoln assassination conspirator who had been executed nearly 150 years ago. She said that Mary’s grave continued to be vandalized, even to this day, and that the family had specifically asked that information about the location of her grave not be given out.

However, because I was already there anyway, I decided to look around a little before I left.  I knew from researching it that she was buried in Section 31 of the cemetery.  A map at the entrance showed the different sections of the cemetery, but there was no Section 31 listed. So as I was riding around aimlessly looking at the very decorative gravestones of what must have been very wealthy and prominent people of that time period, it occurred to me that Mary Surratt would have been out of place among them. Having been a working class woman who was executed for her role in the assassination of the President, they would not have wanted her to be buried among them in that area of the cemetery. So I rode over to the other side of the cemetery – as far away as I could get from the most ornate gravestones in the cemetery. There I saw a small, very plain-looking gravestone that looked almost out of place for the cemetery. When I went up to it I saw that it read, simply, “Mrs. Surratt.”

MarySurratt04     MarySurratt05     MarySurratt01     MarySurratt02
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Note:  Historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Comments
  1. Good detective work, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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