Mary Jenkins was born in in Waterloo, Maryland, in May, 1823. Educated at a Catholic female seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, she married John Harrison Surratt when she was seventeen. The couple went to live on land that he had inherited just outside of Washington at Oxon Hill. In 1851 a fire destroyed their home the couple decided to rebuild a combined home and tavern.
In 1853 Surratt purchased 287 acres of farmland in Prince George's County. He built a tavern and post office and the community eventually became known as Surrattsville. Surratt worked as the local postmaster until his death on 25th August, 1862.
In October, 1864, Mrs. Surratt decided to rent the Surrattsville property for $500 a year to an ex-policeman, John M. Lloyd, and moved to a house she owned at 541 High Street, Washington. To make some extra money she rented out some of her rooms.
During the American Civil War, her eldest son, John Harrison Surratt, joined the Confederate Army. Her other son, John Surratt, worked as an agent for the Confederacy. He met others working as secret agents including John Wilkes Booth who stayed at the Surratt's boardinghouse when he was in the area. It is not known if Mrs. Surratt knew if these men were working for the Confederacy.
On the 17th April, police officers arrived at Mrs. Surratt's boardinghouse. Lewis Powell was also at the house and the two of them were arrested and charged with conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. When the police searched the house they found a hidden photograph of John Wilkes Booth, the man who had assassinated Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on 14th April.
Louis Weichmann, one of Mrs. Surratt's borders, and John M. Lloyd, the man who rented the tavern at Surrattsville, were also arrested and threatened with being charged with the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Kept in solitary confinement both men eventually agreed to give evidence against Mrs. Surratt in return for their freedom.
On 1st May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators. It was argued by Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, that the men should be tried by a military court as Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the army. Several members of the cabinet, including Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Edward Bates (Attorney General), Orville H. Browning (Secretary of the Interior), and Henry McCulloch (Secretary of the Treasury), disapproved, preferring a civil trial. However, James Speed, the Attorney General, agreed with Stanton and therefore the defendants did not enjoy the advantages of a jury trial.
The trial began on 10th May, 1865. The military commission included leading generals such as David Hunter, Lewis Wallace, Thomas Harris and Alvin Howe and Joseph Holt was the government's chief prosecutor. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln. During the trial Holt attempted to persuade the military commission that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had been involved in conspiracy.
Joseph Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots: the first to kidnap and the second to assassinate. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of John Wilkes Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from 14th April. The defence surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.
At the trial John M. Lloyd told the court that on the Tuesday before the assassination Mrs. Surratt and Louis Weichmann visited him. Lloyd claimed that Mrs. Surratt "told me to have those shooting-irons ready that night, there would be some parties who would call for them. She gave me something wrapped in a piece of paper, which I took up stairs, and found to be a field-glass. She told me to get two bottles of whisky ready, and that these things were to be called for that night."
When Louis Weichmann testified he told the court that he had seen John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold in Mrs. Surratt's house together. This supported the prosecution's claim that the boarding house was where the assassination plot had been planned.
Weichmann also testified that as far as he knew Mrs. Surratt was not disloyal to the Union cause. A large number of friends and neighbours also appeared in court and stressed that they had never head her express support for the Confederacy.
On 29th June, 1865, Mrs. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold were all sentenced to be hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865.
Five out of the nine members of the Military Commission, recommended that Mrs. Surratt be shown mercy "due to her sex and age". President Andrew Johnson was later to say he was never told this and he gave the order to hang the woman who he pointed out "kept the nest that hatched the egg".
On 7th July, 1865, Mary Surratt, still pleading her innocence, became the first woman in American history to be executed by the federal government.