Sunday, April 26, 2015

Richmond Man Watched Lincoln Conspirators Hang

By Steve Martin, April 12, 2015

A man who lived out his life in Richmond witnessed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the burial of John Wilkes Booth. He also guarded the conspirators before their executions.

One of them was the first woman ever to be executed by the United States government. She was Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt, a co-conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln. Surratt was a Southern sympathizer whose family relied on slave labor. She and the other subversives were pro-slavery white supremacists.

Richmond’s Harry Hoover guarded her. He later became a Palladium printer, who would retire in Richmond after the war. He wrote that he got to know Surratt well:

“I was in one of the detail of soldiers who guarded the Lincoln assassination conspirators, Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, and Lewis (Payne) Powell… Some people have asked me why they executed Mrs. Surratt. She kept a rooming house on H Street, a place where the blinds and shades were always closed. No one ever came out of the house or went in. It was discovered in an alley back of her house… [that there] was a trapdoor which led into the house by passage underground. Here is where Booth, Herold, (Payne) Powell and Atzerodt planned the assassination of Mr. Lincoln and Secretary Seward and that is why she was executed, which in my opinion, was just… I remember her as a large boned, large bodied woman who could have easily passed herself upon a stranger as a man. Her forehead was broad, high and strong… Her nose was large, her mouth large and firm, her chin prominent and aggressive. Her manners were ladylike and she was wonderfully self-possessed.”

“Lincoln’s successor, President Johnson, approved the military commission’s report on July 5, 1865 that sentenced, in two days, Mary Surratt and the others ‘to be hanged by the neck until they were dead.’ Many people, including the hangman himself, expected Johnson to commute Surratt’s sentence to life imprisonment.

“The conspirators were to be executed at 1:30 p.m., on July 7.

“At noon on July 6, Mary Surratt was informed she would be hanged the next day. She wept profusely and was then joined shortly by a Roman Catholic priest, her daughter Anna, and a few friends. She was allowed to wear looser handcuffs and leg irons during this period, but was kept hooded.

“She spent the night praying and refused breakfast. Her friends were ordered to leave her at 10:00 on the morning of July 7, and her heavy manacles were replaced. She spent the final hours of her life with her priest.

“On July 7, 1865, around 1:15 p.m., a procession, headed by the nearly fainting Mary Surratt and consisting of the four condemned prisoners and many guards, walked through the courtyard past the condemned's newly dug graves, set up in plain sight of the gallows. They were led up the thirteen steps to the gallows where the four were to be hanged. Their hands were manacled and legs chained with heavy irons and 75-pound balls. Surratt had to be supported by two soldiers.

“The actual gallows was on a ten-foot-high platform. The hangman had made Surratt's noose with five turns instead of the required seven because he had thought that the government should never hang a woman.

“The condemned were seated in chairs while their chains and shoes were removed and their wrists were tied together behind them, their arms were bound to their sides, and their ankles and thighs tied together.

“Instead of rope, white cloth was used.

“Surratt wore a long black dress and black veil. The doomed party was attended by several members of the clergy. In addition to the military personnel and various officials, one hundred civilian spectators with tickets were present to watch them die.

“From the scaffold, Powell pleaded, ‘Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us!’

“The condemned were then moved up to the platform break, nooses were placed around their necks, and thin white cotton hoods were placed over their heads.

“Mary Surratt's last words, spoken to a guard as he put the noose around her neck, were purported to be, ‘please don't let me fall. Please don’t let me fall.’

“General Winfield Scott Hancock read out the death sentences in alphabetical order.

“Four members of Company F of the Fourteenth Veteran Reserves knocked out the supporting post, releasing the platform.

“The scaffolding of Mary Surratt’s life was dropped out from under her. She and the conspirators dropped about five or six feet, which killed Herold and Atzerodt instantly, but failed to kill Powell and John Surratt, who both slowly strangled to death in over five minutes of an agonizing expiration by slow strangulation. Mary Surratt was reported to have gagged out loud as she strained against her bonds, dangling in the noose. The official report states that she died the easiest.

“The body of Mary Surratt and those of the convicted conspirators were allowed to hang for 25 minutes, then unhooded so that their faces could be seen, and allowed to hang a further ten minutes before they were examined and pronounced dead.

“All of the bodies were placed on coffins, which were actually gun boxes, beside the gallows. They were again declared dead by doctors, and unceremoniously buried with their hoods back on and a glass vial containing their names to help identify the bodies for posterity.

“Several pieces of the rope that had ended Surratt's life and locks of her hair were sold as souvenirs to moneygrubbers.”

Four years later, Mary’s daughter Anna, pleaded with the federal government successfully for the return of her mother's remains. Today, Mary Surratt's body is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Image 1:  Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surrat

Image 2: Mary Surratt on the Gallows



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