by James Rada, Jr.
How A Lincoln Conspirator Came to Call Emmitsburg Home
John Surratt Jr. hated life in Emmitsburg, but then he hated life in America. Maybe that was why he tried to kidnap the President of the United States.
Surratt was born April 13, 1844, in Washington, D.C., the youngest of John and Mary Surratt’s five children. When the Civil War broke out, Surratt was attending St. Charles College near Baltimore. His father died in 1862 while Surratt was home, and he did not return to complete his schooling. Instead, he was appointed U.S. Postmaster of Surrattsville, Maryland, but he also became a postmaster of sorts for the Confederacy. He carried letters and troop information to Confederate boats on the Potomac River.
“We had a regular established line from Washington to the Potomac, and I being the only unmarried man on the route, I had most of the hard riding to do. I devised various ways to carry the dispatches – sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy,” Surratt said in an 1870 speech.
Samuel Mudd introduced Surratt to John Wilkes Booth on December 23, 1864, in Washington. Surratt willingly joined in Booth’s conspiracy to abduct President Abraham Lincoln by stopping his carriage while it was en route to a destination.
“To our great disappointment, however, the President was not there but one of the government officials – Mr. [Salmon P.] Chase, if I mistake not. We did not disturb him, as we wanted a bigger chase than he could have afforded us. It was certainly a bitter disappointment, but yet I think a most fortunate one for us. It was our last attempt,” Surratt said.
On the night Booth and some of Surratt’s other co-conspirators attempted a triple assassination of Lincoln, the vice president and the secretary of state, Surratt said he was in Elmira, N.Y., spying for the Confederacy. However, it was believed initially that Surratt attempted to assassinate the secretary of state. Surratt found himself a wanted man with a $25,000 bounty on his head.
Surratt fled to Canada. “A parish priest, Father Charles Boucher, gave sanctuary to the former Catholic seminarian, and Surratt remained there in hiding from mid-April through the trial, conviction, sentencing, and hanging of his mother. He followed the trial by reading the papers, and through secret correspondence with friends in Washington. In all that time, from the end of April to the first week of July, Surratt made no effort to save his mother from the gallows. Later, he blamed his friends for failing to inform him about the true peril that Mary Surratt faced,” James Swanson wrote in Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
Mary Surratt was arrested tried and hanged with three other conspirators – George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine, and David Herold.
From Canada, Surratt fled to England in September 1865 and then onto Rome, where he joined the Papal Zouaves, the army of the Papal States. On a trip to Egypt in 1866, Surratt was identified as a Lincoln conspirator and arrested.
He was returned to the United States where he stood trial in a civilian court that began on June 10, 1867. After testimony from 170 witnesses, the trial ended two months later with a hung jury. The government eventually dropped the charges and Surratt was freed in the summer of 1868.
“John Surratt was a free man. His mother was dead, he had been exposed as a leader in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln, and he had earned the reputation of a coward who had abandoned his mother to die. But at least he was alive. If he had been captured in 1865 and tried by military tribunal, he certainly would have been convicted, and would likely have been executed,” Swanson wrote.
Surratt sought to turn his experiences into a career on the lecture circuit. He readily admitted a part in the kidnapping but denied involvement in the assassination. When his speaking tour was canceled because of public outrage, Surratt took up teaching. Following a stint as a teacher at a school in Rockville, Md., he used his Catholic connections to secure a position in Emmitsburg.
One source puts Surratt in Emmitsburg as early as 1870, teaching at St. Joseph’s School, which was identified as being held in the old fire hall opposite St. Joseph’s Church.
“He rattled his classes and resorted to physical punishment to maintain discipline. On older boys, some of them twenty or twenty-one, he used his fists. The younger boys John would beat with a paddle after he had stretched them over a special punishment desk which he had designed,” according to a 1938 letter by Frederick Welty.
Sandra Walia with the Surratt House Museum’s James O. Hall Research Center doubts this could have been Surratt because his students nicknamed the man in Welty’s letter “Old Bear” and Surratt would have only been about 27 years old at the time, barely older than the oldest boys he taught.
Another account, which comes directly from Surratt, said he left his teaching position in Rockville in 1873 and took a job as principal at St. Vincent’s Academy in Emmitsburg with 60 students. This was probably St. Vincent’s Hall, which was built in 1857 as a combination school and literary and social center next to St. Joseph’s Church. The Daughters of Charity took over the teaching there in 1878, so the 1873 date for Surratt’s tenure would have been right.
During his time there, Surratt wrote to Father Jolivet who had sheltered him in England when he had fled Canada after Lincoln’s assassination. “My greatest desire, Father Jolivet is to leave this abominable country and go to Europe there to spend the balance of my days in peace and quiet,” Surratt wrote.
At the time Surratt wrote the letter, he had been married 11 months to Mary Victorine Hunter, a second cousin of Francis Scott Key. He was also the father of a newborn son. Shortly after that, the Surratts moved to Baltimore where Surratt took a job at the Baltimore Steam Packet Company.
When he died of pneumonia on April 21, 1916, at age 72, he was the last surviving member of the Lincoln conspiracy and the only one known to have called Emmitsburg home.
John Surratt in his uniform as a Papal Zouave in Rome.