Marc Hoover: Ghost of Mary Surratt still roams

Ask anyone about capital punishment and you will receive many opinions. Regardless, some people find life imprisonment is better than an execution because it excludes taking a human life. My main objection to capital punishment arrives in the form of a question. What if the person was innocent? I am not an eternal optimist so I cannot believe that every criminal executed was guilty. If you execute one innocent person that’s one too many.

Those who support capital punishment believe in the old biblical passage about an eye for an eye. Even if you don’t believe in execution, some crimes just beg for an execution. For instance, a presidential assassination should put you right at the top of the execution list.

On April 14, 1865, an actor named John Wilkes Booth executed President Abraham Lincoln as he sat in a theater with his wife. Booth met swift justice by a bullet fired from a Union soldier. The investigation into Lincoln’s assassination resembled an octopus and its tentacles because the assassination involved many others.

One tentacle attached itself to a woman named Mary Surratt. She owned the boardinghouse where Booth devised his plan to assassinate President Lincoln. Her association with Booth would lead to her arrest and execution.

On April 17, 1865, government officials arrested Surratt and charged her as an accomplice in Lincoln’s assassination. On July 7, 1865, authorities hanged Surratt as she proclaimed her innocence until the end. Although she sympathized with the south and knew Booth, it didn’t prove she helped him kill Lincoln.

Booth despised Lincoln for defeating the south and abolishing slavery. Although demented, he had a personal vendetta against Lincoln. But did Mary Surratt really share Booth’s hatred? Had he involved Surratt in his plans? If so, perhaps she took his anger as simply the words of a drunken fool.

Today, some historians think Surratt was innocent. I wonder if a court today would convict her on such little evidence. Allegedly, she spoke to John Wilkes Booth before he killed Lincoln. Her son, John Surratt Jr., may have been the guilty party involved in the assassination. He escaped to Canada. Authorities eventually captured him and tried him for charges like his mother’s.

He was acquitted.

Supposedly, her ghost has returned to the site of her former home and the location where she was imprisoned. She spent her final days at Fort McNair, a military base in Washington D.C. It has been reported that Surratt trembled and was terrified as guards led to the gallows. She knew death was within minutes away at the end of a rope.

Her place in history remains as being the first woman executed by the U.S. government.

According to the Army Times, people have reported feeling uneasy near the location where Surratt was imprisoned. In 1989, an Army Captain reported hearing a woman crying for help. The cries then became loud screams. The officer then checked on the distraught woman. He found nothing. Had he heard the final wailing of an innocent woman being hanged?

For many years, people have claimed to have seen Mary Surratt’s ghost. She’s been seen wearing a black dress with a hood covering her face. Surratt also wore heavy dark boots. Some witnesses have reported hearing the sounds of her boots trudging across her former Clinton home. Based on the pandemonium after Lincoln’s death, authorities wanted to work quickly to capture the killers. In their haste to capture Lincoln’s killers, it’s possible the government overreacted and punished an innocent woman.

Is it possible her spirit remains where she died because she cannot rest until she receives a full pardon? If the government were to clear her name, then her spirit might move on. Mary Surratt’s former home is now a museum located in Clinton, Maryland. A visit could be worthwhile if you want to visit the former home of the woman who allegedly helped assassinate an American president.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on