The life and trial of the first woman to be executed by the federal government.
President Andrew Johnson refused to commute the death sentence of widow and mother Mary Surratt for her role in the Lincoln conspiracy, consigning her to the gallows as the one who “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” Already brutalized by four years of civil war and wild with rage at Lincoln’s murder, the country had little sympathy for the boardinghouse keeper—that is, until her hanging. Her grisly execution shocked the nation’s conscience, disturbing settled notions about feminine decorum. Was her trial a sham? Was her conviction a result of anti-Catholic bias? Was she wrongly turned in by witnesses looking to diminish their own intimacy with her co-conspirators? Larson (History/Simmons Coll.; Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero, 2003) clearly establishes that “Mary Surratt was not only guilty, but was far more involved in the plot than many historians have given her credit for.” Born in Maryland, Mary Jenkins converted early to Catholicism and at 16 married 26-year-old John Surratt, an abusive alcoholic who died in 1862, leaving her a townhouse on H Street in Washington, D.C. Through her son John Jr., a Confederate courier, she met the charismatic John Wilkes Booth. Young Surratt recruited a number of accomplices for Booth’s dramatic plan, originally to kidnap, then to kill the president. At every step, it appears Surratt was deeply complicit. She ran innumerable errands for Booth, ferried weapons, hosted him and other plotters at the H Street house, covered for them at every opportunity, uttered ominous warnings to intimates about what was to happen and lied about it to investigators afterwards. Haughty and arrogant upon arrest, she remained a cool prisoner under harsh conditions. Tried before a military tribunal rather than a civil court—a controversial decision Larson appears to endorse—where rules prevented her from testifying on her own behalf and where she was ineptly represented, Surratt finally broke down under the stress. Although the author never quite brings Surratt to life, Larson settles all doubt as to the justness of the verdict against this most unlikely criminal.
An unusual look at the conspiracy to kill Lincoln from the perspective of the only woman plotter.