Monday, December 19, 2011

John Surratt: The Lincoln Conspirator Who Got Away

John Surratt in 1868
John Surratt was the son of convicted Lincoln conspirator, Mary Surratt. Unlike his mother and the eight other conspirators hanged for Abraham Lincoln's assassination, John escaped punishment for his role in the murder after his trial resulted in a mistrial.

John Surratt was working as a Confederate courier and spy during the Civil War when he was introduced to John Wilkes Booth by Dr. Samuel Mudd in December of 1864. Booth and Surratt met several times before Booth asked Surratt to help kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. Surratt considered the idea for several days and finally agreed.

On March 17th of 1865, the conspirators planned to ambush Lincoln's carriage en route to visit wounded soldiers at Campbell General hospital. The ambush was thwarted when Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute and did not visit the hospital. After the abduction plan fell through, Booth allegedly convinced the group that assassinating the president was the only option.

During his trial, John Surratt denied he had any knowledge of the plan and claimed he was delivering Confederate dispatches in Elmira, New York on the day the assassination took place.

Surratt stated that upon hearing Booth had assassinated Lincoln, he feared he would be implicated in the plot and fled for Canada where a Catholic priest gave him sanctuary. While Surratt was in Canada, his mother Mary Surratt was arrested, tried and hanged for her role in the conspiracy.

John Wilkes Booth
In September of 1865, Surratt took a steamship to Liverpool, England. He served under the alias John Watson in Ninth company of the Pontifical Zouaves in the Papal states before an old friend recognized him and alerted authorities. Surratt was arrested and sent to Velletri prison but escaped and traveled to the Kingdom of Italy, posing as a Canadian citizen, before setting off to Alexandria, Egypt where he was arrested by U.S. Officials in November of 1866 and sent back to the U.S.

When Surratt was finally tried, the statute of limitations had run out on all the charges except murder. Surratt's attorney admitted to Surratt's role in the kidnapping plot but denied any involvement in the murder. The prosecution had little evidence against Surratt and the case eventually ended in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a verdict.

After the trial, in 1870, Surratt began a public lecture tour, during which he explained why he agreed to kidnap Lincoln: “I hope you will not blame me for going thus far. I honestly thought an exchange of prisoners could be brought about could we have once obtained possession of Mr. Lincoln's person. And now reverse the case. Where is there a young man in the North with one spark of patriotism in his heart with would not have with enthusiastic ardor joined in any undertaking for the capture of Jefferson Davis and brought him to Washington? There is not one who would not have done so. And so I was led on by a sincere desire to assist the South in gaining her independence.”

His lecture in Rockville, Maryland was well received but, due to public outrage, his lecture in Washington D.C. was canceled.

Surratt later took a job as a teacher and married a relative of Francis Scott Key. The couple lived in Baltimore and had seven children. Surratt died at the age of 72 from pneumonia and was buried in the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore.


The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory”; Harold Holzer, Craig L. Symonds, Frank J. Williams, Lincoln Forum; 2010

The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt's Flight from the Gallows”; Andrew C. A. Jampoler; 2008

The Death of Lincoln: the Story of Booth's Plot, His Deed and the Penalty”; Clara Elizabeth Laughlin; 1909

Eastern Illinois University: John Surratt

New York Times; Lecture of the Confederate of John Wilkes Booth in Maryland; December 1870

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