HistoryThis simple country home was built in 1852, at a crossroads later known as Surrattsville. By the spring of 1865, it would be linked to the greatest crime of the 19th century: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
John Surratt and Mary Jenkins married in 1840. The first years of their marriage were spent on inherited properties near Washington. After a disastrous fire in 1852, the couple and their three children moved to present-day Clinton in Prince George's County.
Surratt quickly saw a business opportunity in his location at a crossroads. He opened two rooms of his home as a tavern and public dining room and offered sleeping space upstairs for 25-cents a night. A livery stable and blacksmith shop across the road provided extra services to travelers and neighbors. By 1854, the tavern had become a community gathering place. A post office was opened there, and the town became known as "Surrattsville," with John Surratt serving as the first postmaster. New election districts were created; in the Ninth (Surratts) District the "Surratt Hotel" was designated as the polling place.
As the 1850s drew to a close, Surratt Tavern was a hub of secessionist activity. Like most of their neighbors, the Surratts were slaveholders. In the presidential election that year, Abraham Lincoln garnered only one vote in Prince George's County. When the Civil War began, Surratt was a vocal secessionist and his home soon became a safe house in the Confederate espionage system which flourished in the area.
Surratt died suddenly in the summer of 1862, leaving behind many debts. His younger son, John Harrison Surratt, Jr., left college and returned home to take over the responsibilities of the farm and post office. He became a Confederate courier. The postmastership was taken away from him when his allegiance became suspect, leaving him more time for his espionage activities. Earlier, the Surratts' older son, Isaac, had headed west to join a Texas cavalry unit and serve the Confederacy.
With her husband dead and her sons away, Mary Surratt and her young daughter struggled to sustain the farm and tavern. When slavery was abolished in nearby Washington, D.C. in 1862, several of their slaves escaped to freedom.
In a complicated land swap in 1853, John Surratt had become the owner of a second home at 541 H Street in Washington. This property provided the family with a modest rental income. Mary Surratt decided to rent out the more isolated farm home and move into the city home, where she opened a boardinghouse. It would prove to be a fateful (and fatal) move.
A scheme was brewing among Confederate sympathizers to kidnap President Lincoln and use him as a bargaining chip in the war. Because of his expertise in evading Union troops as he carried secret Confederate dispatches, John Harrison Surratt was recruited by Dr. Samuel A. Mudd into a plot being hatched by the dashing and talented actor, John Wilkes Booth. Booth soon became a frequent visitor at the Surratt boardinghouse, as did other members of his gang. This plot would ultimately fail, but as part of the scheme, rifles, ammunition, and other supplies were hidden at the Surratts' country home.
The plot to kidnap the President turned to assassination. On the night of April 14, 1865, Booth shot President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. Breaking his leg in a leap from the presidential box onto the stage, Booth fled the city. Meeting up with a cohort, Booth rode straight to the Surrattsville home to retrieve the items that had been left there earlier. The pair then fled south to the Potomac River and the northern neck of Virginia. On April 26, 1865, federal troops surrounded a barn in Caroline County, Virginia, and demanded that Booth surrender. When he refused, the barn was set afire. A soldier took aim through cracks in the barn and fired a fatal shot into the back of the assassin's neck. He was dragged onto the porch of a nearby farm house, where he died within a few hours.
When the Surratts' role in the plot became apparent, the authorities searched for John Surratt. He had been in New York on Confederate business at the time of the assassination and quickly fled into Canada.
Mary Surratt, however, was arrested, tried, and convicted of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth. She was sentenced to death by the military court. Her Surrattsville tenant, John Lloyd, testified that she had come to the tavern on the afternoon of the assassination, bringing with her field glasses to be hidden there for Booth and instructions to have "the shooting irons ready" for parties who would call that night. The military court viewed this testimony as proof of her having prior knowledge of the assassination.
On the afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mrs. Surratt climbed the steps to the scaffold at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. Her wrists, arms, and legs were bound and a white hanging hood was placed over her head. She stood beside three men convicted of aiding Booth. The signal was given, the scaffold fell, and Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt became the first woman executed by the United States government.
Today, her restored country home tells the story of this epic period in American history through guided tours, special exhibits and events, bus tours over the Booth escape route, and an on-site research center. Costumed guides relate the story that still fascinates scholars as the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt continues to be debated.