THE HANGING OF MARY SURRATT
Part 4 of 4
For The Tribune Papers
On July 7, 1865, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Sarratt were hanged for conspiring in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Samuel Arnold, Samuel Mudd, and Michael O’Laughlin were given life sentences of hard labor at Dry Tortugas Prison, off the Florida coast. Edward Spangler was given a lesser sentence. Years after the trial, Brigadier General William E. Doster, the attorney for George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, said that “the trial had been a contest on which a few lawyers were on one side and the whole United States on the other—a case in which the verdict was known beforehand.”
The rules of the Military Commission required six out of nine votes for conviction and sentencing. When they convened to consider their verdict and sentencing for Mrs. Surratt, they first proposed by a vote of five to four either to acquit her or at least to spare her life. Judge Holt and Secretary Stanton were expecting the death penalty. Outraged and alarmed, Holt immediately hastened to Stanton’s office for consultation. Thirty minutes later Holt returned to the Commission with a compromise solution and intimidated the five dissenting officers—none of whom had any legal training—into accepting it. “For the sake of legal consistency,” if the Commission would vote unanimously for the death penalty for Mrs. Surratt, they could draw up a petition asking the President for mercy in her case. Secretary Stanton would see to it that President Johnson received it favorably. With this compromise the Commission could “save face” and yet spare the life of Mary Surratt. None of the defense counsels were invited or privy to this “compromise.”
Major General Hunter, the President of the Military Commission, later said that “this was done in violation of all principles of law and equity.”
But Stanton had no intention of keeping his part of their mutual understanding.
Having convinced the Commission, against their better judgment, to cast a unanimous
vote to hang Mrs. Surratt, he would convince the President that it was absolutely necessary for her to hang. If an outraged public blamed Johnson for executing Mrs. Surratt, so much the better for Stanton’s Presidential ambitions. This would be just one of the many double crosses that the highly manipulative Stanton got away with in his legal and political careers.
The existence of the clemency plea for Mrs. Surratt was not known except to several Cabinet members and a close circle in the War Department until the civil court trial of John Surratt, Jr. in 1867. Upon demand, General Holt delivered it to the court but quickly retrieved it, before it could be examined. Its existence was not publicly known until 1872. Below is the entire text, which was undersigned by Generals Hunter, Kautz, Foster, and Ekin, and Col. Tompkins
“The undersigned members of the Military Commission detailed to try Mary E. Surratt and others for the conspiracy and the murder of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States., do respectively pray the President in consideration of the sex and age of the said Mary E. Sarratt, if he can upon all the facts in the case, find it consistent with his sense of duty to the country to commute the sentence of death to imprisonment in the penitentiary for life.”
This petition was certainly not designed to be a convincing argument for commuting Mrs. Surratt’s death sentence. Since Mrs. Surratt was 42 years-old, it would seem that making age a consideration in the petition weakened it considerably. Since none of the reasons are given that caused the undersigned officers to think that Mrs. Surratt’s guilt was either questionable or insufficient to warrant the death penalty, the credibility and gravity of the petition was substantially debilitated. Considering that this “compromise” was concocted by Holt and Stanton and the heavy-handed manner in which it was recommended to the undersigned officers, it is logical to conclude that it was written by Stanton or Holt. It also seems rather obvious that it was designed to be of little consequence thereby contributing to the government murder of Mary Surratt.
In 1872 when the existence of the clemency petition became public knowledge, President Johnson claimed he had never seen it. Neither Johnson nor anyone on his staff officially acknowledged its receipt or made a formal response advising the Commission of its disposition. General Holt, however, firmly insisted that it was properly delivered with the other verdicts and sentences, and that Johnson did see it. There is evidence that President Johnson received many written requests and personal pleas to commute Mrs. Sarratt’s sentence, and that it was discussed in at least one Cabinet meeting, perhaps of limited attendance.
James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior in 1865, in a letter dated May 23, 1875, remembered a Cabinet meeting just after the conspiracy trial at which clemency for Mrs. Surratt was discussed. He recorded the words of Stanton to Andrew Johnson:
“Surely not, Mr. President, for if the death penalty should be commuted in so grave a case as the assassination of the head of a great nation, on account of the sex of the criminal, it would amount to an invitation to assassins hereafter to employ women as their instruments, under the belief that if arrested and condemned, they would be punished less severely than men. An act of executive clemency on such a plea would be disapproved by the Government of every civilized nation on earth.”
Thus the agreement for Mary Surratt’s clemency that the petitioning officers thought they had with Stanton through Judge Advocate General Holt was betrayed.
In the two days that transpired between President Johnson’s signing Mary Surratt’s execution warrant and her actual execution on July 7, numerous people petitioned the President for mercy. It is not clear that any of them were able to speak directly to him during this time. When John Brophy and Anna Surratt tried to see him, he was protected by armed guards and Republican Senators James Lane of Kansas and Preston King of New York. Only his private secretary, Brigadier General R. D. Mussey, delivered messages and petitions to him or spoke directly to him.
President Johnson was evidently not in a receptive mood for mercy. According to Reverend George Butler, who acted as chaplain for George Atzerodt and who made a social call on Johnson a few hours after the executions:
“Concerning Mrs. Surratt…very strong appeals had been made for the exercise of executive clemency…but he could not be moved, for in his own significant language, Mrs. Surratt ‘kept the nest that hatched the eggs.’ The President further stated that no plea had been urged in her behalf, save the fact that she was a woman, and his interposition upon that ground would license female crime.”
This clearly indicates that either the President was lying or that he did not receive the petitions that presented evidence of confessed perjuries and witness intimidation by the government or the statements of Lewis Powell and John T. Ford. In a much later interview, he blamed his failure to commute Mary Surratt’s execution on General Mussey, who had blocked communications to him. General Mussey was only assigned as Johnson’s private secretary for a few months and may have been an appointment suggested by Stanton.
Col. William P. Wood, superintendent of the Old Capitol Prison while Mrs. Surratt was there, had become convinced of her innocence. Just before the execution, he rushed to the White House hoping to see President Johnson and make an appeal for mercy on her behalf. He was met there and blocked from entering by Col. Lafayette Baker, Stanton’s chief detective, who held a signed order from Stanton specifically prohibiting Wood’s admission to the premises. In an undated article that appeared in the Washington Gazette shortly after the death of Stanton in 1869, Wood revealed and interesting conversation with President Johnson.
“Some time after the execution of Mrs. Surratt, President Johnson sent for me and requested me to give my version of Mrs. Surratt’s connection with the assassination of President Lincoln. I did so, and I believe he was thoroughly convinced that of the innocence of Mrs. Surratt. He assured me he sincerely regretted that he had not given Mrs. Surratt the benefit of Executive Clemency, and strongly expressed his detestation of what he termed ‘the infamous conduct of Stanton’ in keeping these facts from him. I assured him of my unchangeable friendship for Mr. Stanton…while I regretted the course adopted by the Secretary of War towards Mrs. Surratt…”
In 1867, John Surratt, Jr. was brought back to the United States for trial as a Lincoln assassination conspirator. Stanton failed in his attempt to subject him to trial by a military commission. The rules of evidence, the introduction of previously suppressed evidence (such as Booth’s diary), and the due process required by a civil court made it impossible to convict Surratt, and he was released. In 1866, the Supreme Court of the United States had decisively confirmed the Constitutional principle that military courts have no jurisdiction over civilian cases, if the civil courts are open. Had Mary Surratt been tried by a civil court, she would never have been convicted. Nor is it likely that George Atzerodt or David Herold would have received the death penalty. Nor would Dr. Mudd have been convicted of anything. The civil trial of John Surratt exposed many injustices that a free people must never again tolerate.
Before leaving office in 1869, President Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd, Sam Arnold, and Edward Spangler. Michael O’Laughlin died of yellow fever in 1867 while imprisoned at Dry Tortugas.
There is a bronze plaque near the grave of Mary Surratt at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington. It seems an appropriate epitaph for a woman who suffered enormous injustice, and whose public memory is still scarred by malicious and ignorant false witness:
“The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and the torment of malice shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, but they are at peace.”
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