Mary Surratt is known for her contentious role in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865. Prior to Lincoln’s murder, Surratt would have been regarded as an ordinary woman living a typical middle-class existence. However, her implication in John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy to attack several members of the Union government – as well as Abraham Lincoln – led to Surratt becoming the first woman to be executed by the federal government in the United States.


Now, with the release of Apple TV+ historical drama Manhunt, a seven-part series focussing on the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination at the effective end of the American Civil War and the pursuit of the conspirators by officials including Edwin Stanton, we explore the true story of Mary Surratt’s role in the conspiracy, including the ambiguity as to her guilt.

The true story of Mary Surratt’s involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln

Mary Surratt, born in the early 1820s, was a widow who owned a boarding house in Washington DC. She had moved there in 1864, after encountering substantial financial difficulties following the death of her husband in 1862. Her boarding house was used by John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators to plot the abduction and assassination of President Lincoln, and by Confederate agents more broadly.

However, it wasn’t the conspirators’ use of Surratt’s boarding house as a place to organise themselves that condemned Surratt. Rather, it was her close personal connections to the conspirators, quotes attributed to her, along with her suspicious activity, that established her involvement in the plot.

Mary Surratt’s son, John Surrat Jr, was a confidant of John Wilkes Booth, and he introduced Booth to his mother. She saw Booth regularly coming in and out of her boarding house, which became a hive of Confederate activity.

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Additional evidence against Mary Surratt, in the trial that led to her conviction and eventual death, further cemented her as a figure who was involved with the conspiracy.

Professor Rosalind Crone writes that, “In March 1865, on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration as president for a second term, Mary made a fateful comment that one of her boarders remembered: ‘Something is going to happen to Old Abe, which will prevent him from taking his seat.’”

Adding to the evidence against Surratt, a government clerk named Louis J Weichmann, who had been staying at her boarding house, explained that Surratt tried to enlist him in a mission to transport a package to Booth on the day of the assassination, fuelling suspicions against her. Also, during the trial, fellow tavern manager John Lloyd testified that Surratt had asked him to hide prepared firearms on his property shortly before the event.

In light of this evidence, the 1865 military tribunal ruled that Mary Surratt wasn’t only tangentially aware of some secretive plot being planned, but was actively involved in aiding the conspirators while being entirely cognisant of their plans.

Historians have since agreed. As American historian Kate Clifford Larson argued in a 2009 lecture, “there is no question that Mary Surratt was guilty of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth… that cannot be denied and the evidence is so strong against her it’s remarkable.”

After being found guilty, Mary Surratt was hanged on 7 July 1865 along with three other conspirators. Her final words are recorded as being: “Please don’t let me fall.”

Portraits of eight convicted Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, including Mary Surratt
Portraits of convicted Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, including Mary Surratt. (Photo by Getty Images)

How guilty was Mary Surratt, and was she really a conspirator?

While Mary Surratt was convicted and hanged for her association with the conspirators and her proximity to their plot, some modern historians have questioned the true nature of her role in the conspiracy, suggesting that Surratt may not have either been entirely innocent or entirely guilty – but somewhere in between.

Ambiguity about her guilt and position as a conspirator primarily stems from the lack of direct evidence linking her to the crime, and the circumstantial nature of the evidence presented at trial.

Some historians have it that the quotes attributed to Surratt are vague and open to interpretation, and the contents of the mysterious parcel that she involved Weichmann in transporting are still unknown and could have been entirely unrelated to the plot. Equally, asking Lloyd to be prepared for violence by having firearms hidden could have multiple explanations, such as the fact that she lived in an unstable and chaotic environment.

Additionally, historians have pointed to a lack of motive for Surratt to become involved in such a high-stakes crime. While she was a Confederate sympathiser, the same was true of a significant portion of the country, and her views may have been a reflection of the context in which she lived, rather than a deeply held conviction.

Ultimately though, the idea that Surratt had at least some knowledge of the plans, however vague or detailed, formed the basis of the claims against her.


As many have noted, regardless of how involved Surratt was, the feverish political and public desire to bring those who were culpable to justice was a substantial factor behind the severity of her sentence. And, with all considered, it seems likely that Mary Surratt occupied a place somewhere between guilt and innocence, meaning that speculation about her role continues to thrive.

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James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview