The Ghost Story of Mary Surratt

Today we bring you a ghost story.  A little odd for mid July, but timely in its own context.  A good story to tell amongst your regulars.

Now, when it comes to regulars, there are many you love, and some you cannot stand.  They’re the folks who love the culture, the climate, the location of your bar.  They bring you business, they give you stories.  Some good, some bad.  But no one has had worse luck in their regulars than Mary Surratt.

Now, your regulars may know Mary Surratt’s place.  They may have eaten there.  They may have passed by in the wee hours.  It’s a little house on H street, right in the thick of Chinatown.  They may have felt, as they passed, a chill run down their spines.  They may have seen a woman upstairs, in antebellum attire.  They may have heard the sound of chains.

Whatever the case, you can tell them, this was the boarding house of Mary Surratt, one of the most controversial victims of the Civil War.  Hanged as a conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln, her death reads like a moment out of Julius Caesar.

In the play, a poet is torn limb from limb by the mob, torn for the mob’s fury at the death of their ruler. The poet is slain for his performance, his bad verses.

In real life, the woman, a tavern keep and landlady, was tried and executed for being an auditor, a hostess.  Mary Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865.  And you may say she was innocent, that she was convicted on the consistency of her regulars.

In many ways, Mary Surratt was an everyman. Life happened to her. A Catholic who married young, Mary found herself paired with a complex man.  Her husband, John, made money selling land and building property.  He lost it to drink, to debts, and for his frustrations, became violent. What was more, John was a southern sympathizer.  The tavern he built in Maryland became a safehouse for confederate soldiers.  Dangerous regulars in a union state.

John’s life would be a swing of ups and downs, building his debts, then squashing them, and building a small town by the name of Surrattsville.  Eventually, he used his means to purchase a townhouse on H street in Washington, DC. John’s luck ran out at the end of August, 1862, when he died of a stroke.

Mary moved to the townhouse on H street, tired of managing all of her husband’s properties, and moved in with her daughter and son.  It was 1864, and the civil war had ended. But for Mary, the real trouble was about to begin.  Mary’s son had taken up with Conspirators, among them John Adzerot, Lewis Powell, and David Herold, and one John Wilkes Booth.   These became Mary’s regulars.

After the Lincoln assassination, authorities local and federal would visit Mary’s boarding house.  Due to the items they found there, likely stored by the conspirators, Mary was arrested.

Among the eight persons tried simultaneously, Mary’s case was found to be the most controversial.  On one hand, she must have heard the conspirator’s stories, she must have known their plot.  On the other hand, the main witnesses in the case against her were a drunkard and a liar, and all evidence against her was circumstantial.  Nevertheless, she was convicted of abetting, aiding, concealing, counseling, and harboring the seven men in court beside her.

Even as she was about to be hanged, one her regulars pleaded her innocence.  Nevertheless, her feet floated as high as his.  It was July 7, 1865.

In the weeks after her appearance, there were sightings of her ghost at the boarding house and at her tavern.  People said they heard the sound of chains.  Who is to say if Mary felt vengeful, or if, perhaps, everyone just felt a bit guilty?

Whatever the case, as you chit chat with your regulars, or about them, count your blessings.  Well behaved, poorly behaved, humorous or hectic, they never brought you half so much trouble as the regulars of Mary Surratt.

-K

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