Mrs. Mary Surratt house at 604 H St. N.W. Washington, D.C., between 1890 and 1910.
I shouldn’t be surprised at this point at what I find in the Library of Congress archives, but I was very surprised and interested to find this photograph of Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse.
The volume of information that is available about the people who were actors, directly or indirectly, in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is amazing to me. Many of the people involved wrote statements or testified, many people made records of their observations of particular people. The picture which can be seen from combing all the projections of different points of view is much finer than anything I have come across in any of the other little research projects I have undertaken since I started here last November. It’s a glimpse into real life in 1865 America.
I only have time and capacity to give you bits of the picture here, but you can always do what I did and read all the sites linked to herein. If you want to see any of the photographs larger, right click with your mouse, choose “view image.” It’s worth your while.
There are discrepancies in the addresses given for Mary Surratt’s Washington, DC boardinghouse. The building, which still stands, is in fact located at 604 H Street and not 541 High Street as is cited in some of the materials I came across. Apparently the street was renumbered at some point after 1891.
Unknown location. Embalming surgeon at work on soldier's body. Forms part of Selected Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 (Library of Congress)
Mary Surratt was one of eight people tried by military tribunal for conspiracy to murder President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Her son John, described as a Confederate secret agent, a messenger during the Civil War, played a significant role in the conspiracy. He was a friend to many of the key figures in the conspiracy, including John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen and Lewis Powell.
The Civil War was up close and personal for anyone living in the United States. Especially so for those living in the states below the Mason-Dixon Line. Many were sympathetic to the Confederate cause because they needed a scapegoat for their poor financial situation. More than 600,000 people died in combat or from disease during the war. The men involved in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln had worked together at various times in support of the Confederate war effort. Atzerodt met John Surratt in January 1865 when Atzerodt was helping Confederate friends get back and forth across the Potomac River.
Richmond, Virginia. Ruined buildings in the burned district. Photograph of the main eastern theater of war, fallen Richmond, April-June 1865. (Library of Congress)
Cities and towns were destroyed, including Richmond, Virginia, which was burned by the Confederate Army as it fled on April 3, 1864. Confederates and their sympathizers believed that no action was too heinous in support of their cause.
Stacked and scattered ammunition near the State Arsena, Richmond, Virginia, 1865.
In 1864, two years after her husband died, leaving her even more economically straitened than the family had been when he was alive, Mary Surratt leased the family farm and tavern in Surrattsville and moved to a house at 604 H Street inherited from her husband’s relatives which she turned into a boardinghouse to support herself. John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators were regular visitors there in the months leading up to Lincoln’s assassination. The tavern in Surrattsville (12 miles from Washington, DC) is believed to have been used as a safehouse in the Confederate underground network. Evidence was presented at trial that the tavern was used to store weapons and cash for Confederate agents and as a dropoff and pickup location for the conspirators.
John H. Surratt in the uniform of a Papal Zouave, photographed while hiding out in Rome.
The conspirators originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln as he was returning from a visit to wounded soldiers at Campbell General Hospital on March 17, 1865, smuggle him to Richmond, Virginia and hold him there until the federal government agreed to release thousands of Confederate prisoners.
At the last minute President Lincoln changed his plans and the disappointed gang returned home to regroup. John Surratt said later that he thought the plot was over, but Booth went back to the drawing board and a month later came up with the plan to assassinate Lincoln. April 12, 1865 the gang got together in a private room at Gautier’s restaurant in Washington to talk about what they should do.
Washington Navy Yard, D.C. George A. Atzerodt, a conspirator. April 1865. Alexander Gardner, photographer.
By April 14, 1865 Booth’s new plan had come together. He would shoot the President at Ford’s Theater, George Atzerodt would shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson and Lewis Powell would shoot Secretary of State William Seward.
Yes, this is the same William Seward who, in March 1867, negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire which was mocked by the public as “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox” and Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”
Only having recently become vice president and there being no official residence for the vice president, Andrew Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood hotel until he could find appropriate accommodation for himself and his family.
Andrew Johnson taking the oath of office in the small parlor of the Kirkwood House (Hotel), Washington, April 15, 1865. Illus. in: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 21, 1866 Jan. 6
On April 14, 1865 George Atzerodt checked in as well. He spent the day drinking and then, a little after ten o’clock that night, sauntered into the hotel bar. Instead of going up to Johnson’s room and murdering him, Atzerodt ordered another whiskey, drank it quickly and left. As he rode away on his horse, he saw people running toward Ford’s Theater and became afraid that Booth would find him and kill him for being such a failure. Fearful of returning to his hotel, he tried and failed to talk a friend into letting him spend the night. He wandered aimlessly until two a.m. when, exhaustion finally more persuasive than fear of Booth, Atzerodt returned to the hotel and went to bed.
Unidentified man, arrested on suspicion of being a conspirator, probably Hartman Richter, Atzerodt's cousin, arrested with him but later released.
Waking at six the next morning, Atzerdot decided it was time to get out of Dodge. He started walking to Georgetown, where he had relatives he could hole up with. Successfully navigating the roadblocks by means of his sunny personality and a willingness to buy “a friend” a drink gave him confidence. Feeling himself out of danger and knowing he was almost to his cousin’s house, Atzerdot accepted an invitation to dinner with Hezekiah Metz, his family and other guests. Of course the big topic of conversation was the assassination of the President by Booth and the attempt on Seward by an unknown assailant. One of the guests at that dinner reported Atzerdot to the authorities as a suspicious person. He was tracked down and arrested with his unfortunate cousin on April 19, 1865.
Atzerdot’s reputation for cowardice was central to his defense at trial. The confession which he gave to Baltimore Provost Marshall James McPhail on May 1, 1865, while imprisoned at the Washington Arsenal and awaiting trial, makes no mention of his assignment to murder Vice President Johnson.
Washington Navy Yard, D.C. David E. Herold, a conspirator. April 1865. Alexander Gardner, photographer.
After his execution, George Atzerodt was buried in an unmarked grave in Glenwood Cemetery north of the Capitol in Washington. His remains were later moved to St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, buried under the name of Gottlieb Taubert.
It might be fun to talk about murdering someone, but actually going and doing it is another thing altogether, as Powell would learn on April 15, 1865.
Seward was at home in bed that day as the result of a carriage accident. Powell gained entry to the house by claiming the doctor sent him to deliver some medicine to Seward personally. Once inside he had a little trouble gaining access to Seward’s room in the form of Seward’s adult son. They got into a struggle on the stairs where Powell, his gun misfiring, beat the younger Seward about the head with the gun until he collapsed.
Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne (Powell), the conspirator who attacked Secretary Seward, standing in overcoat and hat. April 1865. Alexander Gardner, photographer.
Once Powell got into the bedroom, his gun no longer functioning, he stabbed Seward multiple times with a knife, but the neck brace Seward was wearing prevented any fatal injury. Powell injured five people in the Seward home that night. Powell escaped, riding off on a one-eyed horse left nearby by fellow conspirator David Herold, shouting, “I’m mad! I’m mad!”
After throwing away his blood-covered jacket and the knife, and losing his horse, Powell spent three days hiding in the woods. Finally screwing up his courage, on the night of April 17, 1865, he went over to Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse carrying a pickaxe to disguise himself as a laborer. Unfortunately, officers already there to arrest Surratt picked him up as well.
There are two photographs of Powell in the Library of Congress archives. The first was taken shortly after his arrest.
Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne (Powell), in sweater, seated and manacled.
The second was taken while he was being held awaiting trial. It is reported that Powell “was relaxed during the trial and slept well at night” and that “he was a stoic prisoner who handled his precarious situation with manliness.” I find that hard to imagine given that it is also reported that “he didn’t have a bowel movement for 35 straight days, from April 29 to June 2.”
In 1992 Lewis Powell’s skull was discovered among a collection of Native American skulls in the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Institution. It had been stolen by an undertaker in 1869 when the body was moved from one cemetery to another and became a specimen in the Army Medical Museum housed at Ford’s Theater until 1898 when it was given to the Smithsonian. A label attached to the skull read “cranium of Payne hung (sic) in Washington, D.C. in 1865 for the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward.” It was returned to a Powell relative who buried it in a cemetery in Geneva, Florida.
Mary Surratt was found guilty along with Atzerodt, Herold and Powell, and they were hung together on July 7, 1865.
The Surratt jury. J. Orville Johnson, photographer. c. 1867
John Surratt was not captured immediately. He fled first to Canada, where he hid in the rectory of a local Catholic priest, then to England, then Italy, where he joined the Papal Zouaves, the army of the Papal State.
Pope Pius IX was a sympathetic correspondent with the traitor Jefferson Davis. John Surratt had been a seminarian at St. Charles College but was forced to withdrawn when his father died in 1862. Some have argued over the years that Lincoln’s assassination was a Catholic plot, but the evidence seems more coincidental than confirmatory.
Washington, D.C. The four condemned conspirators (Mrs. Surratt, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt), with officers and others on the scaffold; guards on the wall. 1865 July 7. Alexander Gardner, photographer.
Fingered by an American acquaintance who happened also to be in Rome, John Surratt was ultimately arrested in Egypt by American officials on November 23, 1866, then extradited to the United States. He was brought to trial on June 10, 1867, in a civilian court, not a military tribunal like his mother. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the conspiracy charge as the prosecutor was not able to disprove Surratt’s claim of having been in Elmira, New York on the date in question.
Because it was proven that he had been a Confederate agent, he was subsequently charged in two indictments under the treason statute. The first charge was dismissed when Judge George P. Fisher ruled that the statute of limitations had run. The second charge was officially “ignored” based on the ruling of the first.
After the indictments were dropped and he was released from prison, Surratt found employment as a teacher for at least two different schools, one being St. Joseph Catholic School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In 1870 he began giving public lectures on his knowledge of the plot against President Lincoln. Not surprisingly, he painted himself as an honorable man who, though ready and willing to participate in the kidnapping plot, would never have agreed to murder.
Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Edman Spangler, a "conspirator," in hat and manacled. April 1865
John Surratt, the last of the known conspirators, died of pneumonia in 1916.
Ned Spangler, a carpenter employed at Ford’s Theater as a scene shifter, was tried along with Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell and Herold, but the case against him was very thin (it was alleged that he held Booth’s horse for him and impeded his capture as Booth fled the theater) and he was sentenced to six years which he spent, along with Dr. Samuel Mudd and Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, in Fort Jefferson in the Dry uugas, off Key West, Florida.
On September 25, 1865, Mudd, Spangler, Arnold, O’Laughlen and another prisoner, George St. Leger Grenfell, were discovered in an attempt to escape by stowing away on the transport ship Thomas A. Scott and were confined to the fort’s guardhouse. The reason they gave attempting to escape was their fear of what would happen to them after control of Fort Jefferson was transferred from the 161st New York Volunteers to the 82nd United States Colored Infantry.
President Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater, 1865
One would imagine that being confined to “what passed for the U.S. version of Devil’s Island” would have been motivation enough. Grenfell made a second escape attempt on March 7, 1868 in an open boat with three other prisoners. It is believed that they perished in a storm that came up shortly after the put out to sea. Their bodies were never recovered.
O’Laughlen died of Yellow Fever at Fort Jefferson on September 23, 1867. He, Booth and Arnold are all buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Pardoned, with Mudd and Arnold, by President Andrew Johnson in 1869, Spangler moved back to in Baltimore, Maryland, working again as a stage scene shifter. In 1873 Dr. Samuel Mudd and his wife gave him a place to live. Soon after Spangler died in 1875, Dr. Mudd found a statement he had written describing his relationship with Booth and the events of that fateful day.
President's rail car at the Alexandria station. Photograph probably taken in Jan. The car was later used as Lincoln's funeral car. Russell J. Andrew, photographer.
It appears that unlike Mary Surratt and her house guests, Spangler was entirely innocent of participating in the conspiracy.
In 1903 a man named David E. George committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma after claiming that someone else had been killed at Garrett’s farm and that he was John Wilkes Booth. A 1995 petition to have the remains in Booth’s grave exhumed to try to determine who was buried there was denied by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Maryland.
President Lincoln’s body was laid to rest in in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois on May 4, 1865. That adventure is one I will leave to another day.
See also Robert Lincoln.
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