Lincoln Assassination Lead to the First Woman Executed by the U.S. Federal Government

We all know the story of John Wilkes Booth sneaking into President Abraham Lincoln’s box in the theater and fatally shooting the 16th U.S. President, but did you know that his assassination lead to the first execution of a woman being by the U.S. government?

Mary Surratt – First woman executed by the U.S. government

Many people—including myself—think that the execution of Mary Surratt was a miscarriage of justice.

John Wilkes Booth and Conspirators

Mary was born in 1820 in Waterloo, Maryland. She operated a boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators are believed to have plotted Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Booth and his conspirators Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold set out to complete their plan on April 14, 1865.

Booth, of course, was to shoot Lincoln.

Powell attacked Secretary of State William Seward with a knife, but Seward survived, though severly wounded.

Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson, but Johnson escaped harm when Atzerodt lost his nerve to carry out his part of the plan.

Herold acted as Booth’s “getaway guy.”

Mary Surratt’s boarding house

Conspirator’s Fates

Booth was shot and killed—either a soldier or himself—on April 26, 1865 in a barn he was hiding in at a farm in Virginia.

Powell, Atzerodt, Herold, and Mary Surratt had a quick trial, beginning on May 9, and ended on July 5 when they were sentenced to death by President Johnson.

Mary’s daughter, Anna, tried in vain to meet with the president to appeal his decision to put her mother to death. Many other people tried to help Anna save her mother, but there was no changing President Johnson’s mind on the matter.

Photograph of the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators

Mary was hanged for having knowledge of the assassination and not reporting it to the authorities.

Read Hanging Mary

I believe that Mary Surratt should not have been put to death. It cannot be proved that she knew of the assassination plot against President Lincoln. I believe the only reason she was executed was to send a message to the nation.

You can read more about Mary Surratt and the Lincoln assassination in the novel Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham.

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