According to every source that I found so far, the only reason Mary Surratt was convicted of taking part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was that the murder conspiracy was plotted in her boarding house.

What other reasons were given for the conviction and execution of Mary Surratt—the first woman ever executed by the United States? It would seem that owning the boardinghouse in which John Wilkes Booth lived was not enough reason to convict Mrs. Surratt to death (see images), especially since she insisted on her to innocence to the end.

Surrat's execution

Surrat's executionn aftermath

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    It is not a trivia or a basic fact. It is NOT about the fact of punishment, but about the reason of it.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 12, 2017 at 16:27
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    However, the standard narrative is exactly as described. She was found guilty and hung. Professed her innocence. "It would seem ... was not enough to convict" and yet it was. It's on you to prove why the narrative is wrong. Until then, what is known is fairly well detailed in Wikipedia, as well as "every source you've read"... Why are those sources all wrong?
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 12, 2017 at 23:04
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    @Gangnus Mary Surratt was not the first woman legally put to death in America, she was just the first woman put to death by the Federal government. Most murders would have fallen under the jurisdiction of a State, Territory, or Colony.
    – bof
    Jan 13, 2017 at 11:42
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    @bof ...or tribe.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 13, 2017 at 14:37
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    This question would be improved if you got the name of the assassin right: John Wilkes Booth. Dec 5, 2017 at 15:04

2 Answers 2


This is a legal issue that is perhaps better for Law SE than History SE (I'm on both sites).

Mary Surratt was found guilty of "conspiracy" to kill Lincoln. Under that legal theory, being part of a conspiracy to commit a crime is tantamount to actually committing the crime if one person actually does, or tries to do so.

Surratt was convicted largely on circumstantial evidence. That is, she harbored known Confederate sympathizers in her boarding house, which had become a "go to" place for such individuals, had long conversations with them, and ran errands on their behalf, whether innocently or otherwise. There were also (unproven) allegations of espionage on behalf of the Confederacy, a capital offense, along with treason.

She was the subject of postwar hysteria (think of the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s after the end of World War II, beginning of the "Cold" War). It is at such times when people will be accused and convicted of various crimes when their real offense is "disloyalty."

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    I think there is a historical angle here, in that being involved in any way with a person who successfully carried out political violence against the ruling state is typically very bad for you, no matter what the laws may say.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 13, 2017 at 14:39

Question: Under what legal theory was Mary Surratt hanged as an assassin of President Lincoln in 1865?

Short Answer:
Mary Surratt was convicted as a conspirator who helped plan, provision, and had fore knowledge of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Detailed Answer:
Prior to Lincoln's assassination John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, had stashed two Spencer rifles with ammunition along with other provisions at a Tavern run by John M. Lloyd, 15 miles outside of Washington DC in Surrattesvile. These riffles were considered contraband and would be seized by Union forces if discovered. Lloyd who was hiding them for Booth and Harold at one point was told to bury them so Union forces who randomly searched his tavern would not discover them. On the day of the assassination Mary Surratt rented a carriage and rode 15 miles outside of DC to deliver an additional package from Booth to John M. Lloyd. The package was innocuous, binoculars. But in court John M. Lloyd testified that Mary Surratt told him to have the "shooting irons" (hidden riffles) ready. After Booth assassinated Lincoln latter that same day, he and David Harold visited Lloyd's tavern and picked up the binoculars and riffles as they tried to flee Union pursuit into southern Virginia.

This testimony along with the strong circumstantial evidence was enough to convict Mary Surratt who was hanged as a conspirator. The other evidence was: .

  • She was a known southern sympathizer
  • She had close ties with many of the conspirators including Booth, Mudd.
  • She lived with 4 conspiracy members.
  • George Atzerodt,
  • Lewis Powell
  • Louis J. Weichmann
  • John Surratt (son)
  • She attended meetings among the conspiracy members individually and collectively.
  • Her son was not only a conspirator he also was tied to espionage for the confederacy and a previous plot to kidnap Lincoln by Booth.

The final straws were that Mary assisted the conspirators by helping stage (binoculars) and make ready provisions(riffles) the day of the assassination. And by telling Lloyd to get the "shooting iron" riffles ready, she demonstrated fore knowledge of the assassination. She knew Booth and Harold would be fleeing through Surrattsville later that evening.

After Lloyd's testimony that was enough to convict her.

The Conspirators were:

  • John Wilkes Booth - Shot president Lincoln at Ford's Theater April 15, 1865, killed at Garrett Farm 11 days latter.
  • David Herold - accompanied Booth in his escape from DC. Stayed with Booth for 11 days as he evaded Union Pursuit. Was captured at Garrett farm, April 26, 1865 where Booth was killed.
  • George Azterodt - Recruited by Booth into the conspiracy, he was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve and stayed in a hotel bar, drinking, instead. Azterodt was executed by hanging in July 1865
  • Lewis Powell - Booth assigned Powell to kill Secretary of State William Seward. He entered the Seward home and severely injured Seward, Seward’s son, and a bodyguard. Powell was tried and convicted, and was executed by hanging in July 1865.
  • Mary Surratt
  • Michael O'Laughlen - Booth’s childhood friend was an ex-Confederate soldier. After he turned himself in to the authorities, he was tried as a conspirator, though his role remained unclear. O’Laughlen was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Fort Jefferson, off of Key West, Florida, where he died of yellow fever in 1867.
  • Samuel Arnold - Another long-time friend of Booth, Arnold was not in Washington at the time of the assassination. However, investigators tied Arnold to Booth’s original kidnapping plot. Sentenced to life in prison, Arnold was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, and survived until 1906, when he died of tuberculosis.
  • Samuel Mudd - Prosecutors succeeded in showing that Mudd, a doctor who set Booth’s broken leg during the night of April 14, was well acquainted with Booth before the night of the assassination. He escaped hanging by one vote of the military commission that had been convened to try the conspirators. Like Arnold, Mudd was sentenced to life in prison but pardoned in 1869. He died of pneumonia in 1883.
  • Edmund Spangler - Worked at Ford's theater, knew Booth well and assisted him on April 14 at the theater. He was not connected to the assasination plan beyond that. He was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. Pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869, Spangler moved to Maryland, where he remained until his death in 1875.
  • John Surratt (not convicted) - A spy for the Confederacy and Mary Surratt's son. Surratt introduced Booth to Herold and Azterodt, and conspired with the others to kidnap the president months prior to the Ford's theater assassination. John Surratt was not in Washington when the assassination was carried out. Surratt fled the U.S. when he heard news of the crime, and lived in Europe as a fugitive for several years until he was apprehended in Egypt in 1866. Tried by a civilian court in 1867-1868, Surratt was not convicted. He would survive until 1916.
  • John M. Lloyd (not tried, nor convicted) - A former DC Policeman who leased a Tavern from Marry Surratt. A Southern sympathizer who held possessions and supplies for John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, including two Spencer rifles and ammunition; which they picked up as they fled Washington after Lincoln's assassination. His testimony at trial was among the most damaging presented against Mary Surratt.
  • 1
    Good answer, but it's rifles - don't you use a spell-checker? Nov 18, 2023 at 9:13

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