Very few people know the name Mary Surratt today, but in 1865, she was one of the most hated women in the United States—unless you were a staunch Confederate. Surratt ran the boarding house where the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth and her own son, met to plan the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
In The Assassin's Accomplice, historian Kate Clifford Larson paints a vivid picture of Civil War Washington, D.C., and Maryland with its Confederate spies and sympathizers. Through an extensive search of records, court transcripts and memoirs, she also shows conclusively that Mary Surratt was indeed one of the conspirators, not simply the mother of one of them. Still, it is hard to read the accounts of the trial without having sympathy for Surratt. Had her son, John, returned to the States from a Confederate spying mission in Canada to testify on her behalf, it is likely she would have been found innocent or pardoned. Her lawyer disappeared following his opening remarks, leaving her in the hands of two much less experienced attorneys.
Then there were the newspapers. As Larson writes, "Vilified and caricatured in the mostly Northern newspapers that carried reports from the courtroom, Mary endured almost continual aspersions against her femininity, religion, age, physical appearance, and demeanor." Ironically, popular opinion moved in Surratt's favor after her execution and she became the poster child for the innocent Southern martyr at the hands of a "vengeful and vindictive Northern political machine." But for Larson, there is only one conclusion: Mary Surratt "decided to assist [Booth] in whatever way she could. In providing a warm home, private encouragement, and material support to Abraham Lincoln's murderer, she offered more than most of Booth's other supporters. For that, Mary Surratt lost her life and must forever be remembered as the assassin's accomplice."