Monday, May 16, 2011

What Was Mary Surratt Like?

Did Mary Surratt have the personality of a criminal?  Could she be a party to murder?  What can we decide from the little we know about her growing up years and the person she came to be as an adult?  What do we learn about her from the trial proceedings?

Mary was born and grew up in Waterloo, Maryland.  Her family had a plantation, although not wealthy, they were financially secure.  At the age of 12 she was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia.  The school closed when she was sixteen, so she returned home.  Soon after her return she met John H. Surratt who was 11 years older than her.  They married when she was seventeen and lived in D.C. in a home Surratt had inherited from his foster parents.  They had three children, Isaac, Anna and John Jr., in that order. 

In 1851 their home was destroyed by fire.  John Sr. decided not to rebuild and went to work in Virginia.  He saved enough money and in 1852 bought a farm (247 acres) near Mary's childhood home in Waterloo.  There they grew tobacco and raised pigs.  Their home also became a tavern & inn and eventually a U.S. post office which was run out of the tavern.  In those days the town or village was named after the appointed postmaster thus their land and the surrounding land became known as Surrattsville.  December 6, 1853, John Sr. also purchased the 4-story townhouse in Washington D.C. which eventually became the boarding house where the conspiracy to murder Lincoln was allegedly hatched.

John Surratt Sr. had a drinking and gambling problem and was known to physically abuse Mary.  He died of a heart attack or stroke during the summer of 1862.  He left Mary with an overwhelming amount of debt as a result of his gambling problem.  In order to make ends meet, Mary moved to their Washington home with Anna and turned it into a respectable boarding house.  For a while John Jr. remained in Surrattsville and ran the post office, but was found to be running a courier service for the Confederate army and therefore lost his position.  The tavern was leased to John Lloyd an ex-police officer and alcoholic.

John Jr. joined Mary and Anna at their residence in Washington.  Through his work with the Confederate army, John Jr. came to know John Wilkes Booth who became a frequent visitor at the boarding house once John Jr. moved there, along with the other men later identified as co-conspirators.  Did Mary know of their activity?  She always claimed she was innocent and did not know what they were doing. 

On April 14, 1865 Booth shot Lincoln at the Ford theatre, where Booth was an actor.  Lincoln died the following morning.  The detectives decided  "One bullet killed the president, but not one man."  So, they arrested those who associated with Booth.  Since Mary owned the boarding house that he often visited, she was arrested on the night on April 17, 1865.  The arresting officers were men of the Union, those being arrested were sympathizers of the South.  The defense attorney for Mary was also a Union war hero.  At first Frederick Aiken did not want to defend her, so set out to prove she was guilty.

He was unable to prove her guilt and eventually came to actually defend her and believe in her.  Mary was a gracious woman and a well educated woman for the time.  She spoke clearly to Aiken and quite often challenged him in matters of truth.  At one point Aiken was to find out where John Surratt Jr. had gone.  Mary would not give him that information (if she even had it).  It appeared that Aiken could arrange a trade, he offered Mary her freedom for the whereabouts of her son.  It is a question we are left with...did she give up her own life for her son's?  Or did she really not know?

One thing for sure, she always had her rosary beads with her and she met often with the priest.  She appeared to be a devout Catholic, who very much loved her children, doing everything she could to support them.  She did not take on a martyr role but argued hard regarding her innocence.

I remember so clearly the point in the movie when one of the witnesses was telling an untruth on the witness stand.  Mary stood up at the defense table and screamed "that is a lie!"  Of course, she had to get herself under control or would have been removed from the proceedings for contempt of court.  I had the same thing happen in my own trial...the same gut reaction when the Detective started lieing on the stand.  All eyes came to me and the Judge, waiting to see if I would be thrown out and charged with contempt.  I was right with Mary when I saw her reaction during her was as if I was reliving my own trial.

While I know I am seeing this from my own perspective, it is just too powerful and similar for me too walk away from it.  Her reactions and demeanor in court.  Her discussions with Aiken about truth while imprisoned in a filthy cell.  The way she was always pleasant to her visitors.  Her draw to God.  The way she held on to her rosary as if the truth would save her.   Her happiness when she was able to finally visit with her daughter.  Her happiness when they thought she would not be hung because of the habeas her attorney had submitted to a Judge and was approved by the Judge at the last minute.  Then, President Andrew Johnson had the habeas suspended and moments later she was marched out to execution.  The disappointment and sadness was tangible, but even then she did not cower, she was so brave.

We cannot know why God allows things to happen.  But look at this, 150 years later we are still examining what happened to Mary Surratt.  She did not act as a guilty person.  She did not have the profile of a criminal.  There are lessons to be learned in this history.  Malicious prosecution.  Constitutional Rights.  Truth.  There is a lot for us to soul search.  How does all of this relate to our current times?  Such a timely movie and so well done.  "The Conspirator"  Was she really?


  1. Audrey, you are truly my hero!
    “That's what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong, that decency will somehow triumph in the end.” ~Lise Hand

  2. Well, I finally read this post. Wow.

    Sam and I must see this movie.
    ... especially in light of your case.


  3. When reading transcripts from the trials and going back over the timelines there is something else that stands out and that is the similarities to our own recent past of Kennedy's assassination.

    I'm sure this has been said somewhere before. But with Booth being shot to death 12 days after Lincoln's assassination and never questioned, its much like the Lee Harvey Oswald case...the question remains was it just Booth or was it someone much bigger than him running this show? Even someone on the Union side who wanted Lincoln Andrew Johnson or Stanton....the people so set on pointing the finger and making sure everybody died who MIGHT have information.

    And then later when Andrew Johnson was impeached they used the diary of John Wilkes Booth in the impeachment trial. Now there are some 80+ pages missing from that diary. It makes you wonder if the diary could have changed the course of history (at least in how its been recorded and taught).

    Curious for sure. Thank you for your comments both Christi and Nancy. Your support in my on-going case is tremendous!!! What would I do without you ladies!

  4. That is very interesting - about Andrew Johnson's diary. ... And, of course, about Lee Harvey Oswald.

    You're really making me think!!!

  5. Audrey, you are SO right about the similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy!
    Check out this link. It will blow you away!

  6. Oh my, I just read it all, and read the link it had to even more. When I made the statement above I had no idea. The similarities are so glaring its hard not to run into some of them, but it is chilling how many there are. How very interesting.

  7. Today we received an email from a longtime PNG follower (Retired.CLA) nominating Mrs. Audrey White for the PNG Public Hero Award. We agreed & voted unanimously that the requirements have been met and she truly deserves recognition for her endeavors to assist in the criminal justice system reform movement. This Blog Post seemed like the perfect place to release the good news.

    As a (VOTS) victim of the system, she chose to fight the big fight, which is mandatory in clearing one's name while most choose to hide and avoid. Instead of seeking vengeance due to the justice denied and resulting hardships before her, she places her faith in God to guide the court to do the right thing. Most of all, she wants to help 'others' now vs. later. We have no doubt in our minds that she will prevail in her habeas corpus ruling.

    Audrey was already a Hero in the hearts and minds of those lives she touched year after year prior to the life's lesson thrown upon her and her family. So it's only fitting for her to be publicly recognized for her role in the criminal justice system reform movement in Texas. It takes courage to take a stand. It takes a strong heart, guts of steel & thick skin to stand for others. Please join us in congratulating Audrey for doing something positive that truly benefits the public at large and for reminding us “all things work together for good”. Thanks.

    *No need to thank us for it’s not about us; today it’s about you ‘Mrs. Audrey White’ (and of course those that stood with you from day one)

  8. Thank you, I hope I can live up to your kind words. The people who have stood beside me through all of this, believing in me and my innocence have made all the difference. Likewise, I have recently come to know Project: Not Guilty ("PNG") and am so impressed with the courage and willingness of its originator(s) and supporters to take this position in a system that quite often is known for retaliation. Like it's said in the site of PNG, it takes a village and I am committed to growing that community - growing awareness of what is happening to those who are innocent and convicted anyway in our current "justice" system. However I can be helpful for others living this experience I want to be. Thanks again PNG. Being surrounded by the village is awesome!! AND a responsibility I take seriously.

  9. What an honor! Can't think of a better person to receive this recognition than you, Audrey! Congratulations! I know that your perseverance, honesty, courage, and determination will prevail at the end of this journey.