The four Lincoln conspirators sentenced to death were executed one hundred and fifty years ago. By far the most controversial execution was that of Mary Surratt, the only woman ever to be executed by the Federal government. Although I have no doubt that she was involved in the conspiracy, her involvement was peripheral in nature and she should not have been executed. Three days before his death, Andrew Johnson, in an account that should be read with a grain of salt, purportedly gave his opinion of the execution of Mrs. Surratt (The spelling errors are in the original account):
“While Mr. McElwee, explained that he was not attempting to quote the exact words of Mr. Johnson, he gives the substance of the political conversation.
‘The execution of Mrs. Surrat [sic] was a crime of passion without justice or reason. She knew no more about the intentions of Booth and his associates than any other preson [sic] who chanced to know Booth or Asterot. They had simply boarded as others had done, at her boarding house. She was entitled to trial in open court and the record of that trial preserved, but her executioners knew the records would condemn them if they kept till passion had subsided and they were estroyed’ [sic].
‘Is there no record of the condemnation and execution of Mrs. Surratt?’
‘No Sir, the records were immediately destroyed. They were not even kept until John was arrested and tried.’
‘If she was not guilty, why did you not interpose executive clemency?’
‘If I had interfered with the execution it would have meant my death and a riot that would have probably ended in war.’
‘Was there any appeal made to you for mitigating the sentence as reported after the execution.’
‘No appeal reached me. Her daughter forwarded one, but it was suppressed by Secretary Stanton. I heard of it afterward but never saw it. It was murder founded on perjury and executed to gratif pyassion [sic]. The chief witness afterwards confessed to his perjury.'”
Johnson may have said this, but his account is mendacious or his recollection faulty. He received the petition for clemency for Mary Surratt, indeed five of the nine members of the tribunal condemning her recommended clemency, and rejected it.