Wednesday, December 28, 2011

There's Just Something About Mary

The Surratt House and Museum in Clinton, MD, formerly Surrattsville, MD.
There's Just Something About Mary
by Stephanie Green

Mary Surratt. The name probably sounds vaguely familiar to you. "Isn't she a famous American painter?" you may be thinking. Uh, no. That's Mary Cassatt. "Oh yeah, she's the lady that Robin Wright played in that Robert Redford movie this year." Bingo.

As we see commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and more films like Redford's The Conspirator and Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Lincoln fall out of Hollywood, Mary Surratt will likely rise from the margins of history and take her place center stage.

After all, her story has it all: love, death, war, drama, conspiracy, and her biggest claim to fame is that she was the first woman executed by the United States government.
Mary Surratt's portrait. Many believe she was an innocent victim of an overly zealous government looking to quickly avenge the president's murder. Bust of Lincoln in Surratt House.
Victim. Heroine. Patriot. Traitor. Historians are still trying to figure her out, but for us Washingtonians, a key to unraveling her mystique is just a stone's throw away from us.

When a friend suggested a road trip to The Surratt House and Museum in Clinton, formerly Surrattsville, Maryland, I jumped at the chance to get a better understanding of this fascinating woman.

Here's what I learned:

A reward for a runaway slave hangs in the front parlor.
Mary was born Mary Jenkins in Maryland around 1820. As a young girl, Mary converted to Roman Catholicism, and remained devoted to her faith for the rest of her life. She would need her faith as her life became mired in tragedy.

She married John Surratt in 1840, and the couple and their three children lived on a 300-acre plantation in Surrattsville ( the town's name was changed years later for obvious reasons), named after Mr. Surratt, the tiny town's first postmaster.

Their house also served as a tavern, public dining room, hotel, post office, and polling place throughout the 1850s.

Rumor has it Mr. Surratt was a hopeless alcoholic, and the family was constantly selling land and slaves to keep up with his creditors.

By 1862, Mary found herself a young widow with property to oversee, slaves to manage, children to mother, and mounting financial troubles to confront.

Oh, and the Civil War, she was on the wrong side of it.

Although Maryland was considered a border state, Mary and her family were staunch Confederates.

To make extra money, she rented the Surratt House in Maryland, and moved into a place in Washington, DC on H Street, still standing and now a restaurant, which she operated as a boardinghouse.
Information in House tells Mary's rendevous with history.
This is where Mary met her destiny.

A young actor named John Wilkes Booth was one of Mary's frequent boarders, and he used the house as a headquarters of sorts for his murderous plot against President Lincoln. Using Mary's house as a secret meet up spot, Booth recruited Mary's son and other embittered Confederates to help him murder the President and overthrow the government.

He arranged to use the Surrattsville house to store weapons and supplies.
Mary's House was also a tavern and post office.
On the night of Lincoln's murder, Booth stopped off at the Surratt House to pick up his storage and fled to rural Virginia where he was shot and killed.

Mary's son, John, escaped the authorities, but Mary and the other "conspirators" were tried and hanged in 1865.

How much Mary knew and the extent to which she was involved in Booth's plan is still feverishly debated.
John Wilkes Booth stored supplies here and stopped by the house after the assasination of President Lincoln.
Many believe she was a concerned mother who was covering for her son.

Others think she was the victim of an unfair justice system which tried her in a military tribunal when she should have been tried as a civilian.

Some think she knew exactly what she was doing and got precisely what she deserved, or as President Andrew Johnson said before signing her death warrant "she kept the nest that hatched the egg."

Joe, our docent, stands at the bar in the front parlor. He is dressed in period costume.
I, for one, am still deciding, but enjoyed learning about the way she lived during this tumultuous time as I went through the tour of the house led by Joe, our very well-versed docent, who like most staff at the museum dons traditional 19th-century period attire.

We started out in the front room which held the bar and mail slots.

A cozy fireplace and chairs greeted locals who were stopping by for a drink or to pick up their mail.

A notice on the wall offers a reward for the return of a runaway slave.

Unfortunately, very few of the furniture pieces are original, but Joe did point out Mary Surratt's desk in the parlor across the hall, which is in remarkably good condition.

The main entrance to the house leading back to the dining room features a portrait of Mary.

The dining areas are decorated in the festive accoutrement customary for the period.
One bedroom was for boarders and the other bedroom was for Mary with her beloved crucifix above her bed, a testament to her devout faith.
The front parlor, where guests would get a drink and pick up their mail prior to Civil War.
This was Mary's bedroom where a crucifix hangs above her bed. She was a devout Catholic. Mary's desk, an original piece.
Mary used the house to board Southern gentlemen. This was her boarder's room.
Slave's bed in the attic area of the house. A doll sits in the corner of the slave quarters.
The Surratt dining room. Mary employed a number of slaves to help run her household. Traditional Christmas dinner is on display here.
Joe showed us the slave bedroom, a cold and drafty space in the attic, and the other rooms used for preparing food, cleaning, and mending clothes.

The Surratt House has a section of the house as a sort of make-shift museum with interesting information on the walls, depicting Mary's life and times, and a bust of Abraham Lincoln, the man whose death plucked Mary Surratt from the obscurity of small town Maryland to the pages of history.
The House's gift shops offers a wide range of books for civil war followers. House visitor June Miller tries on Confederate cap in gift shop.
Words of resolution from Robert E. Lee.
Photographs by Stephanie Green.