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Chinatown, Mary Surratt

Chinatown, Mary Surratt

The building at 604 H Street is intimately connected to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, just five blocks from here.

During the Civil War this modest brick house was occupied by Mary Surratt [Mary Elizabeth Jenkins], a Maryland-born widow who took in boarders. Like many in this Southern city that found itself the capital of the Union, she was quietly sympathetic to the Confederacy. She had a son in the Confederate Army. Another son, John Surratt, had become friends with the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth.

Booth, it turned out, had been plotting to capture President Lincoln.On April 14, 1865, the plot changed to murder. Booth, one of a famous theatrical family, was the matinee idol of his day. His dashing appearance caused women to swoon, and both men and women were taken with the handsome young man. He attracted co-conspirators, several of whom, including John Surratt, lived in this house. Booth himself visited several times. Although most likely there was never a formal meeting here, President Andrew Johnson reflected a popular belief in calling it “the nest in which the egg was hatched.”

Three days after the assassination, police came to see Mrs. Surratt. By unlucky chance, Lewis Powell, already identified as part of the plot, showed up at the same time. The coincidence was enough for the authorities to implicate Mrs. Surratt. She was arrested, tried and hanged with three others at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington on July 5, 1865. Booth escaped to a Virginia tobacco shed, where pursuers found him and shot him to death. John Surratt escaped to Canada and went free. More than a century later, Mary Surratt’s guilt continues to be a subject of debate.

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Mary Elizabeth Jenkins

Posted By: Ray Gurganus

Updated: 6-24-2020
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