Sunday, October 30, 2011

Does Mary Surratt's Ghost Haunt Fort McNair in Southwest Washington?

Robert Redford's recent movie The Conspirator brought renewed attention to the 146 year-old debate over  Mary Surratt's conviction and death sentence by a military court for her role in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.   In the hours after President Lincoln's assassination, a tip led detectives to Surratt's Washington boardinghouse, which had been frequented by John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators.   The 42-year old widow was eventually placed under arrest and transferred-- after an initial stay at the Old Capitol Prison-- to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary on the grounds of what is today Fort McNair.

The military trial of Surratt and the other charged conspirators began on May 9, 1865 at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.  The tribunal found Surratt guilty and sentenced her to death along with three of Booth's conspirators whose guilt is unquestioned.  On the sunny afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hung along with three of Booth's conspirators in the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary's prison yard. Her body was then buried nearby on the prison grounds before being re interred at Washington's Mt. Olivet cemetery in 1869  .But, is that the end of Mary Surratt's story?  Does this controversial figure-- linked just or unjustly, to one of our nation's most infamous crimes-- still linger somehow on the grounds of the former Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, now part of Fort McNair, where she was imprisoned, tried, and executed.

The July 8, 1865 edition of the Washington National Republican lauded the previous afternoon's hanging of four individual, including Mary Surratt, at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary for their role in the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln and other senior government officials:

"The solemn spectacle witnessed yesterday in the prison yard of the penitentiary of this District will never be effaced from the memories of those who painful duty it was to be present, nor will the whole world forget the lesson taught to traitors and conspirators by the execution of the just sentence passed by the tribunal of the Government on that occasion. "    

                   Mary Surratt in 1850. 
                                                                                                     Many thought that as a woman, Mary Surratt would be spared from the gallows.  Her execution would be unprecedented as the federal government had never executed a female.  However, President Andrew Johnson was unwilling to commute the death sentence of the woman who "kept the nest that hatched the egg," as he put it.  Defending Johnson's decision, the Washington National Republican observed that  "while a woman's murder sentence might under some circumstances be commuted, properly enough there was good reason for refusing it in her case.  She was a representative woman of a class of females who, during the rebellion, have shown more cruelty and heartlessness, if possible, against the Union soldiers and the Union cause, and have done more to fire the rebel heart than male   traitors."                                                                                                   

A 1991 Washington Post story recounted the story of a young honor guard officer based at Fort McNair who had seen a 300-yard path down to bare grass suddenly appear one day on the snow covered grounds;  the path reputedly coincided precisely with the final trek that Mary Surratt had made from the jail to the gallows.  Another Army officer, who lived in Building 20, claimed that on Lincoln's birthday in 1989 he heard the whimpering voice of a female crying "Help me, help me, Oh no, help," but that there is no one outside the building when he raced outside in search of the crying woman.  Others have claimed seeing a woman clad in black roaming the grounds of Fort McNair.

For those in Prince George's County who wish to look for ghosts this Halloween, Mary Surratt's spirit is also said to haunt the Clinton, Maryland tavern that she once owned and lived in.  If you happen to be by the Verizon Center and in need of a quick Chinese food fix, Mary Surratt's former boardinghouse at (originally 541 H, but now numbered 604 H) is now the Wok N Roll restaurant.  Former occupants of the building have also reported stranger encounters including Mrs. Surratt's ghost walking around in her execution robes.


Farquhar, Michael, "The Haunting Tale of Mary Surratt; They Hanged Her in 1865.  Did Her Ghost Escape the Gallows?," Washington Post, October 31, 1991.


  1. I saw her ghost at ft mcnair in 1981

  2. I lived on ft mcnair from 83-86. she is there.

  3. I worked on a house in Ft. McNair in the late 80's. Lady of the house claimed Mary Surrat haunted it.

  4. I babysat for a family (1978-ish) who lived in the apartment that was once the prisoner quarters of Mary Surratt....I heard and felt her presence many months before I learned the history of the apartment

  5. My great grandmother worked at Fort McNair 1940's-1972 ish...she never believed the ghost stories about Surratt...until she heard crying in a bathroom of which she was the only occupant...she also smelled some type of floral scent at the same time. Only happened once in 30 years, but it happened.