The Surratt Boarding House in Washington, D.C. is one of two locations owned by the Surratts connected to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The Surratts were active supporters of the Confederacy. It is through them that John Wilkes Booth met several of the conspirators and worked out their plans. This boarding house is where the early plan of kidnapping the president was put together.
A Confederate House in a Union City
The Surratt Boarding House in Washington DC
was the second home-business established by the Surratt family. The first was the Surratt Tavern in Maryland built by John Surratt, Sr. after a fire
destroyed their previous home (see CLIO entry for “Surratt House Museum (Surratt Tavern), Maryland). After John Sr. died in 1862, Mary E. Surratt
rented the tavern out to another man and moved to the Boarding House with her
daughter in 1864. Mary’s son, John Jr.
began working as a Confederate agent (some say spy) during the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth, Confederate actor and
assassin of Abraham Lincoln, became a friend to John Jr. in early 1865 and a
frequent guest at the boarding house.
Other co-conspirators also began visiting the boarding house. It is here, just a few blocks away from
Ford’s Theatre, that much of Booth’s plotting against Lincoln was formulated.
A Base for Treason
John Wilkes Booth began his plot in late 1864. One of his earliest recruits was the
Confederate agent, John Surratt, Jr., whose mother owned two buildings that
could be used in Booth’s plans. The
buildings were used to supply weapons, horses, and other materials. Booth’s original plan was to kidnap President
Lincoln, transport him to Richmond,
and force the release of Confederate prisoners.
He assembled six co-conspirators:
Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis
Powell (aka Paine, Payne), and John Surratt.
Their first attempt was on March 17, 1865. They would seize Lincoln during a play at
a hospital. Lincoln never showed and that plot failed as
did others. The surrender of Confederate
General Robert E. Lee on April 9 and Lincoln’s
subsequent speech suggesting rights for blacks was enough for Booth to change
his plans from kidnapping to murder.
Three days later, on April 14, as part of a larger plot to replace the
entire head of the US
government, Booth killed Lincoln
at Ford’s Theatre.
Booth escaped the capital on horse, riding hard despite his
broken left leg. His first stop was the
Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville,
Maryland, where he changed
horses, ate dinner, and received fresh weapons and other supplies. The Tavern was part of a well-known route
into the deeper south where Confederates could find aid and comfort. Booth expected to be greeted as a hero, but
he never got there. Slowed down by
injury, Booth was surrounded and killed at Garrett’s Farm on April 26.
Fall of the House of Surratt
Immediately after the shooting at Ford’s Theatre, soldiers
began an investigation and manhunt for Booth.
John Surratt was a known friend of Booth’s, so soldiers searched in vain
for them at the Surratt Boarding House.
John Surratt lost interest in the conspiracy group and had left town
days before; he was not part of the assassination plot. A return visit by soldiers on April 17 did
turn up a man who matched the description of the man who attempted to kill
Secretary of State Seward, Lewis Powell.
Suspicious behavior by Powell and Mary Surratt led to further searches
and evidence of their connection to the plot.
Everyone in the house was arrested.
As a result of the Lincoln
assassination trials, Powell was one of several conspirators convicted and
hanged. Mary Surratt was also convicted
of conspiracy, despite concerns over the depth of her knowledge and degree of
participation in the assassination, and became the first woman ever executed by
the federal government. She too was
hanged. President Johnson supported Mary
Surratt’s sentence, referring to the Boarding House as “the nest that hatched
the egg.” John Surratt, Jr. was caught
in Egypt and tried in 1867
for conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln,
but he was found not guilty and released.
The Surratt Boarding House structure still exists
today. It is part of the capital’s “Chinatown” district and serves as one of the area’s Asian-food
restaurants, called the “Wok and Roll Restaurant.”