Mary Jenkins was married to John Harrison Surratt, a fellow Roman Catholic and a farmer of French and Spanish ancestry, in 1839, when she was sixteen and he, twenty-seven; his family had settled in Maryland in the 18th century and the community in which they lived, Surrattsville, was named for Mary's husband's family. The couple had three children, Isaac (born in 1841), Elizabeth Susanna ("Anna", 1843), and John, Jr. (1844).
The Surratts engaged in many livelihoods, both consecutively and simultaneously, over the next two decades. They farmed tobacco on a tract purchased in 1852 and supplemented their income by operating a general store, a gristmill, a tavern, and a post office. They were nevertheless continually plagued by financial worries, a problem exacerbated by John Surratt's alcoholism. Biographer Elizabeth Steger Trindal, in her Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy, credibly states that John Surratt was physically and emotionally abusive to his wife and (less credibly, based more upon century-old speculation by Mary's acquaintances than upon solid evidence) that he may even have pressed her to prostitute herself to guests in their tavern.
Though the border state of Maryland was officially Union, the Surratts, like many other slave-owning farmers, were Confederate sympathizers following the outbreak of the Civil War. Their tavern regularly hosted fellow sympathizers, including actor and fellow Marylander John Wilkes Booth, and their post office did double duty as a United States and Confederate post office. The full extent of the family's involvement in clandestine Confederate activities may never be known, but it is certain (and was introduced into evidence at Mary Surratt's trial) that weapons and cash for Confederate agents were stored at their tavern.
John Surratt died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, at the family homestead and tavern in August 1862. Though the marriage had not been happy, his death left his widow far from relieved as she was in desperate circumstances financially and even in danger of eviction. The family's slaves had either run away or been repossessed (it is unknown exactly what became of them), the sale of a substantial amount of property which had given hope of resolving the financial difficulties failed because of the buyers' default, and John's many creditors still pressed to collect. Mary leased the family farm and tavern to a former Washington, D.C., policeman named John Lloyd and moved with her three children to the small but well-located townhouse (at 541 H Street, NW, in the District of Columbia) inherited from John Surratt's relatives and transformed its upper floor into a boardinghouse, employing her only remaining asset in one of the few ways considered respectable for an indigent young widow; with the home's location convenient to government buildings, she was able to eke out a very modest living for herself and her family.
Surratt's older brother, Zadoc Jenkins, was arrested by Union forces for trying to prevent an occupying Federal soldier from voting in the Maryland elections that gave Lincoln a second term. Her son later admitted that he was actively involved in an earlier plot to kidnap the president, but claimed he was not involved in the assassination. He testified at his own trial that he had been in Elmira, New York, enroute to Montreal, Canada, when Lincoln was shot. He also denied that his mother had been involved in the plot in any way.
On the day of the assassination, Mary rode out to her tavern with one of her boarders, Louis J. Weichmann, a young War Department clerk, who was a friend of her son, John Surratt, Jr. Although Mary Surratt claimed to have made the journey to collect back rent owed by her tenant, John Lloyd, Lloyd later testified against her, saying she gave him a package containing field glasses and told him to "make ready the shooting irons." This referred to two repeating carbines and seven revolvers that she had bought and stored for the conspirators on her property. After assassinating President Lincoln at Ford's Theater, John Wilkes Booth did in fact first stop at the Surrattsville tavern with his accomplice David Herold. John Lloyd, the innkeeper, gave Booth and Herold whisky, pistols, and one of two Spencer carbines as well as the field glasses. Lloyd claimed Surratt had told him to do this when she arrived earlier that day. Booth and Herold then continued travelling southward, helped by many of the same Southern sympathizers who had aided John Surratt in his activities as a courier for the Confederacy.
Held in military custody under sweltering conditions, Mary Surratt had her head enclosed in a padded canvas bag to prevent a suicide attempt. She was also kept manacled. She was constantly guarded by four soldiers. For two weeks after her arrest and before her trial, she was held on board a warship that was being used as a prison for the conspirators. Her cell only had a straw pallet and a bucket as furniture. During their trial, Surratt and the other alleged conspirators were taken to the old arsenal where the Military Tribunal took place.
During the trial, a newspaper described Mary Surratt as a rather attractive, five-foot, six-inch, buxom, forty-year-old widow. She was the oldest conspirator on trial and the only woman. She and Lewis Powell received the most attention from the press. It was popularly believed that Mary was on trial as a means of forcing her son out of hiding. That did not happen, and she was found guilty by the military court and sentenced on June 30, 1865, to be "hanged by the neck 'til she be dead" for treason, conspiracy, and plotting murder. Military tribunals had less strict rules of evidence than civilian trials and it was highly irregular for a civilian to be tried by one. Moreover, the government suppressed Booth's diary during the trial, which would have been essential to Surratt's defense since it contained evidence that Booth had planned kidnapping, not murder, but changed his mind on the last day (Surratt may not have known of this and so might not have been guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, one of the crimes of which she was found guilty).
Despite these evidentiary problems and the desperate pleas of her daughter, her priest, and her lawyer, President Andrew Johnson signed her death warrant, saying that she had "kept the nest that hatched the egg" and was second only to Booth in the designing of the plot. There is some dispute whether he ever saw the military judges' recommendation that her sentence be commuted to a life of permanent solitary confinement in a penitentiary.
Because Mary Surratt and several other of the conspirators were Roman Catholics, still a small minority in the United States, there was speculation that the assassination was somehow connected to a papist plot. Anti-Catholic sentiment was common in the country at that time.
At noon on July 6, Surratt was informed she would be hanged the next day. She wept profusely. She was joined shortly by a Roman Catholic priest, her daughter Anna, and a few friends. She was allowed to wear looser handcuffs and leg irons during this period, but was kept hooded. She spent the night praying and refused breakfast. Her friends were ordered to leave her at 10:00 on the morning of July 7th, and her heavy manacles were replaced. She spent the final hours of her life with her priest.
On July 7, 1865, around 1:15 P.M., a procession, headed by the nearly fainting Mary Surratt and consisting of the four condemned prisoners (their hands manacled and legs chained with heavy irons and 75-pound iron balls) and many guards, was led through the courtyard, past the condemned's newly dug graves, and up the thirteen steps to the gallows where the four were to be hanged. Mrs. Surratt had to be supported by two soldiers. The actual gallows was on a ten-foot-high platform. The hangman had made Surratt's noose with five turns instead of the required seven because he had thought that the government would never hang a woman.
The condemned were seated in chairs while their chains and shoes were removed and their wrists were tied together behind them, their arms were bound to their sides, and their ankles and thighs were tied together. Instead of rope, white cloth was used. Mrs. Surratt wore a long black dress and black veil. The doomed men and woman were attended by several members of the clergy. Over one thousand men, women, and children came to watch them die. The condemned men and woman were then moved up to the break, the nooses were placed around their necks, and thin white cotton hoods were placed over their heads. General Winfield Scott Hancock read out the death sentences in alphabetical order. He then clapped his hands three times, and four members of Company F of the Fourteenth Veteran Reserves knocked out the supporting post, releasing the platform. The conspirators dropped about five or six feet, which proved insufficient to break their necks. Mrs. Surratt bounced up as the rope went taut and then writhed and gagged for a few seconds, trying to free her hands. She quickly became still except for a twitching of her hands and intermittent gasping that continued for several minutes.
The body of Mary Surratt and those of the convicted conspirators were allowed to hang for 25 minutes. She was 42 years old. Her last words, spoken to a guard as he put the noose around her neck, were "please don't let me fall." She was executed along with Powell (also known as Payne), Herold (who stayed with Booth until his death in a Virginia tobacco barn), and George Atzerodt (a German immigrant who lived in Port Tobacco, Maryland, he had been assigned but failed to kill Vice President Johnson).
All of the bodies were placed on the coffins (which were actually gun boxes) by the gallows, declared dead by doctors, and unceremoniously buried with the hoods still on and a glass vial containing their names to help identify the bodies. Several pieces of the rope that had ended Surratt's life and locks of her hair were sold as souvenirs.
Four years later, Anna Surratt pled with the federal government successfully for the return of her mother's remains. Today, Mary Surratt's body is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., 1300 Bladensburg Road, NE. Her headstone reads simply, "Mrs. Surratt". The bodies of Anna Surratt and Isaac Surratt were buried on each side of their mother's. John Surratt's body was buried in Baltimore. The body of John Lloyd, whose testimony may have sealed Mary's fate, is buried less than south of her grave, in the same cemetery (his simple tombstone is marked, "John M. Lloyd").
Mary's son John was ultimately captured after a year and a half as a fugitive hiding in various Roman Catholic religious establishments, including the Vatican. In September, 1865, he traveled from St. Liboire to Montreal, to Quebec, and thence to Liverpool. He served for a brief time in the Papal Zouaves under the name John Watson. Arrested in 1866, he escaped and travelled to the Kingdom of Italy, posing as a Canadian. He booked passage to Alexandria, Egypt, and was arrested there by American officials on November 23, 1866, then extradited to the United States. He was sent home on a U.S. naval warship and put on trial. He was ultimately released after a mistrial and the statutes of limitations had run out on lesser charges. The federal government attempted to retry him but was unsuccessful. He died in 1916.
Mary Surratt's boarding house still stands, in what is now the Chinatown area of Washington, D.C., housing a Chinese restaurant, Wok and Roll The Surrattsville tavern and house are historical sites run today by the Surratt Society located in Clinton, Maryland.