John Surratt

John Surratt

John Surratt was born in Congress Heights, Washington, on 13th April, 1844. His father John Harrison Surratt ran a tavern and boarding house in Surrattsville. This was taken over by his mother, Mary Surratt, after the death of her husband.

Surratt wanted to be a priest and while studying at St. Charles College, Maryland, met Louis Weichmann. On the outbreak of the American Civil War he returned home and worked as the postmaster of Surrattsville. He also acted as a Confederate agent. This including carrying messages along the Potomac River to the Confederate Army.

In December, 1864, Dr. Samuel Mudd, another Confederate agent, introduced Surratt to John Wilkes Booth. Soon afterwards Surratt agreed to join Booth's scheme to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln to Richmond and hold him until he could be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war. Others involved included George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine, Michael O'Laughlin, David Herold and Samuel Arnold.

John Wilkes Booth decided to carry out the deed on 17th March, 1865 when Lincoln was planning to attend a play at the Seventh Street Hospital that was situated on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnap attempt was abandoned when Lincoln decided at the last moment to cancel his visit.

Surratt later claimed that after the failed kidnap attempt, he broke contact with John Wilkes Booth. He travelled to Elmira, New York on a spying mission for General Edwin Lee. Surratt's task was to provide information about the Federal prison in Elmira. He was still in Elmira when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14th April, 1865. Fearing that he would be implicated in the plot, he fled to Canada.

His mother Mary Surratt, and three of those that had been involved in the original kidnap plot, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Herold, were arrested, tried and hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865.

In September, 1865, Surratt moved to England and later lived in Italy and Egypt. He was arrested in Alexandria on 27th November, 1866. Unlike his fellow conspirators, Surratt obtained a civil rather than a military trial. After hearing 170 witnesses between 10th June, and 11th August, 1867, the jury voted 8-4 that he was not guilty of the charge of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

After his release from prison Surratt worked as a teacher in St. Joseph Catholic School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. It was during this period he gave public lectures on his role in the conspiracy to kidnap Abraham Lincoln.

In 1872 Surratt joined the Baltimore Steam Packet Company and eventually became its treasurer. He married Mary Hunter and the couple had seven children. John Surratt died in his Baltimore home on 21st April, 1916.

Primary Sources

(1) John Surratt, lecture on the Abraham Lincoln conspiracy at Rockville, Maryland (6th December, 1870)

Ladies and gentlemen: - Upon entering that door a few moments ago the impression on my mind was so strong as to vividly recall scenes of three years ago. I am not unacquainted with court room audiences. I have stood before them before; true, not in the character of a lecturer, but as a prisoner at the bar, arraigned for the high crime of murder. In contrasting the two positions I must confess I felt more ease as the prisoner at the bar than I do as a lecturer. Then I felt confident of success; now I do not. Then I had gentlemen of known ability to do all my talking for me; now, unfortunately, I have to do it for myself, and I feel fully capable of performing the task; still I hope you will all judge me kindly. I am not here to surprise you by any oratorical effort - not at all - but only to tell a simple tale. I feel that some explanation, perhaps, indeed an apology is due you for my appearance here this evening. In presenting this lecture before the public I do it in no spirit of self-justification. In a trial of sixty-one days I made my defense to the world, and I have no need or desire to rehearse it; nor do I appear for self-glorification. On the contrary, I dislike notoriety, and leave my solitude and obscurity unwillingly. Neither is it an itching for notoriety or fame. My object is merely to present a simple narrative of events as they occurred.

At the breaking out of the war I was a student at St. Charles College, in Maryland, but did not remain long there after that important event. I left in July, 1861, and returning home commenced to take an active part in the stirring events of that period. I was not more than eighteen years of age, and was mostly engaged in sending information regarding the movements of the United States army stationed in Washington and elsewhere, and carrying dispatches to the Confederate boats on the Potomac. We had a regular established line from Washington to the Potomac, and I being the only unmarried man on the route, I had most of the hard riding to do. I devised various ways to carry the dispatches - sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy. I confess that never in my life did I come across a more stupid set of detectives than those generally employed by the U.S. government. They seemed to have no idea whatever on how to search men. In 1864 my family left Maryland and moved to Washington, where I took a still more active part in the stirring events of that period. It was a fascinating life to me. It seemed as if I could not do too much or run too great a risk.

In the fall of 1864 I was introduced to John Wilkes Booth, who, I was given to understand, wished to know something about the main avenues leading from Washington to the Potomac. We met several times, but as he seemed to be very reticent with regard to his purposes, and very anxious to get all the information out of me he could, I refused to tell him anything at all. At last I said to him, "It is useless for you, Mr. Booth, to seek any information from me at all; I know who you are and what are your intentions." He hesitated some time, but finally said he would make known his views to me provided I would promise secrecy. I replied, "I will do nothing of the kind. You know well I am a Southern man. If you cannot trust me we will separate." He then said, "I will confide my plans to you; but before doing so I will make known to you the motives that actuate me. In the Northern prisons are many thousands of our men whom the United States Government refuses to exchange. You know as well as I the efforts that have been made to bring about that much desired exchange. Aside from the great suffering they are compelled to undergo, we are sadly in want of them as soldiers. We cannot spare one man, whereas the United States Government is willing to let their own soldiers remain in our prisons because she has no need of the men. I have a proposition to submit to you, which I think if we can carry out will bring about the desired exchange."

There was a long and ominous silence which I at last was compelled to break by asking, "Well, Sir, what is your proposition?" He sat quiet for an instant, and then, before answering me, arose and looked under the bed, into the wardrobe, in the doorway and the passage, and then said, "We will have to be careful; walls have ears." He then drew his chair close to me and in a whisper said, "It is to kidnap President Lincoln, and carry him off to Richmond!" "Kidnap President Lincoln!" I said. I confess that I stood aghast at the proposition, and looked upon it as a foolhardy undertaking. To think of successfully seizing Mr. Lincoln in the capital of the United States surrounded by thousands of his soldiers, and carrying him off to Richmond, looked to me like a foolish idea. I told him as much. He went on to tell with what facility he could be seized in various places in and about Washington. As for example in his various rides to and from the Soldiers' Home, his summer residence. He entered into the minute details of the proposed capture, and even the various parts to be performed by the actors in the performance.

I was amazed - thunderstruck - and in fact, I might also say, frightened at the unparalleled audacity of this scheme. After two days' reflection I told him I was willing to try it. I believed it practicable at that time, though I now regard it as a foolhardy undertaking. 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. I had no hesitation in taking part in anything honorable that might tend toward the accomplishment of that object. Such a thing as the assassination of Mr. Lincoln I never heard spoken of by any of the party. Never!

Days, weeks and months passed by without an opportunity presenting itself for us to attempt the capture. We seldom saw one another owing to the many rumors afloat that a conspiracy of some kind was being concocted in Washington. We had all the arrangements perfected from Washington for the purpose. Boats were in readiness to carry us across the river. On day we received information that the President would visit the Seventh Street Hospital for the purpose of being present at an entertainment to be given for the benefit of the wounded soldiers. The report only reached us about three quarters of an hour before the time appointed, but so perfect was our communication that we were instantly in our saddles on the way to the hospital. This was between one and two o'clock in the afternoon. It was our intention to seize the carriage , which was drawn by a splendid pair of horses, and to have one of our men mount the box and drive direct for southern Maryland via Benning's bridge. We felt confident that all the cavalry in the city could never overhaul us. We were all mounted on swift horses, besides having a thorough knowledge of the country, it was determined to abandon the carriage after passing the city limits. Upon the suddenness of the blow and the celerity of our movements we depended for success. By the time the alarm could have been given and horses saddled, we would have been on our way through southern Maryland towards the Potomac river. To our great disappointment, however, the President was not there but one of the government officials - Mr. Salmon P. Chase, if I mistake not. We did not disturb him, as we wanted a bigger chase than he could have afforded us. It was certainly a bitter disappointment, but yet I think a most fortunate one for us. It was our last attempt. We soon after this became convinced that we could not remain much longer undiscovered, and that we must abandon our enterprise.

I proclaim it here and before the world that Louis J. Weichmann was a party to the plan to abduct President Lincoln. He had been told all about it, and was constantly importuning me to let him become an active member. I refused, for the simple reason that I told him that he could neither ride a horse nor shoot a pistol, which was a fact.

I have very little to say of Louis J. Weichmann. But I do pronounce him a base-born perjurer; a murderer of the meanest hue! Give me a man who can strike his victim dead, but save me from a man who, through perjury, will cause the death of an innocent person. Double murderer!!!! Hell possesses no worse fiend than a character of that kind. Away with such a character. I leave him in the pit of infamy, which he has dug for himself, a prey to the lights of his guilty conscience.