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Was Mary Surratt innocent or guilty?

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CLINTON, Md. - Although Mary Surratt was tried, convicted and executed for her participation in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, some historians still question just how involved in the scheme the Catholic widow really was.

Was Surratt guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln? Did she know that the original kidnapping plot changed to a more deadly plan of action? Those questions remain some 146 years after President Lincoln's death April 14, 1865, and 150 years after the start of the Civil War April 12, 1861.

"We have no official opinion" of her guilt or innocence, said Julia Cowdery, a docent at the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, a Washington suburb. "We just present the story and the evidence and let visitors make up their own minds." She added that some people who visit the house are convinced of Surratt's guilt while others are equally adamant in their belief of her innocence.

"The Conspirator," a film directed by Robert Redford that examines Surratt's role in the Lincoln drama, opened in theaters April 15 and has fueled even greater public interest in the extent of her involvement in the Lincoln assassination.

Born Mary Jenkins, Surratt was raised an Episcopalian but attended a Catholic girls school operated by the Sisters of Charity in Alexandria, Va., and became a Catholic at age 12. She married John Surratt in 1840 at St. Patrick's Church in Washington.

"While some historians may view her conversion as youthful rebellion, Mary's commitment to the Catholic Church lasted her lifetime, tested repeatedly by antebellum society's intolerance for Catholics," wrote Kate Clifford Larson, an historian and author of "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln."

Cowdery also said her Catholic faith played an important part in Surratt's life.

"She rode by horseback to collect money to build St. Ignatius Church in Oxon Hill, and she converted her mother, several relatives and several friends" to the Catholic faith, the docent said in an interview with the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese.

Surratt's bedroom in the museum house attests to her Catholic faith. A crucifix hangs over the bed, and a lithograph of Pope Pius IX graces another wall.

The Surratts owned two pieces of property that figured prominently in the Lincoln assassination story.

The Surratt home in Clinton served not only as the family residence, but as a tavern, inn, polling place and post office. Today, the home is located within the parish boundaries of St. John the Evangelist Parish. But since that parish was not established until 1875, Cowdery said Surratt most likely attended Mass at St. Mary Church, also in Clinton.

It was at that tavern that Booth stopped in the early morning of April 15, 1865, just hours after shooting Lincoln. He and his accomplice, David Herold (a graduate of Gonzaga College High School), sought to retrieve field glasses and carbine rifles stashed there.

"This is the first and only place that Booth openly boasts that he killed Lincoln," Cowdery said. From the Surratt tavern, Booth and Herold traveled to the Waldorf home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was also Catholic.

After her husband died, Surratt rented the tavern to a former policeman named John Lloyd. She moved to the city, and operated a boarding house in downtown Washington. The building still stands, located in what is now Chinatown. The boarding house is now a Chinese restaurant.

Boarders or regular visitors to Surratt's establishment included Booth, Herold, John Surratt Jr., George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell. All were implicated in the assassination.

"Mary Surratt may or may not have been a major player in the assassination plot and the earlier kidnapping plot, but she's a Confederate sympathizer," Cowdery said. "She had to know some of what was going on. She had a formal education. She learned Latin, French, geometry. This was not just some silly Victorian woman. She was a smart lady."

A military tribunal found Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold guilty and sentenced them to death. Surratt protested her innocence until her last breath on the gallows. "I am a Southerner, a Catholic, a devoted mother, but no assassin," she is reported to have said. She was hanged July 7, 1865, along with her co-conspirators, marking the first time the U.S. government had executed a woman.

The Surratt House Museum displays the Catholic prayer book Surratt had with her in prison. The rosary she kept with her in prison has since disappeared, said Laurie Verge, museum director.

"Her rosary was allegedly given to Gonzaga College High School although we're not exactly sure what happened to it," Verge said. She added that "the best we can determine is that it (the rosary) ended up in the hands of a priest (at Gonzaga) who in the last days of his life went back to his native Italy to be cared for. We have a suspicion that a nice little Italian grandmother somewhere has that rosary."

Father Jacob Walter, who at the time served as pastor of St. Patrick Church, visited Surratt in prison as she awaited execution. As recounted by author Morris H. MacGregor in his book, "A Parish for the Federal City: St. Patrick's in Washington, 1794-1994," the priest was certain of her innocence.

MacGregor recounts that Father Walter "was unable to accept the proposition that a 'Catholic woman would go to Communion on Holy Thursday and be guilty of murder on Good Friday,'" the day Lincoln was assassinated.

Cowdery is not sure what she believes. "There is still a mystery for me - what did she or didn't she know - and I work with this every day," she said.

Verge wonders "did the lady deserve to die? That is one of history's mysteries." She said she hopes people are intrigued enough by the mystery so that "they get interested in their own American history." The new movie and a visit to the Surratt House Museum, she said, "should, I hope, pique people's interest enough for them to go out and read more."

Find out more

More information about the Surratt House Museum and links to other resources can be found on the museum's website, www.surratt.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011