Clinton, Maryland The stately farmhouse sits on lush fields of grass, its red exterior a stark contrast against the blue sky. From the outside visitors see a woman dressed in clothes from the time period in which the home was built, beckoning them to come inside. It is, after all, a museum. The inside walls are adorned with photos from years gone by, many showing the house as it was when the name ?Surratt’s Tavern? hung over the door. Standing in front of the pictures, one can almost hear the tinkling of glasses and hushed conversations of the time. The tourist moves on, but the voices don’t stop, the glasses still clink, and the woman who bade him enter is nowhere to be seen. Still, he cannot shake the feeling that eyes are on him, judging him, as a freezing wind blows sorrow into his bones.
History is littered with great men and women who helped shape the nation. For many of these icons childhood homes become shrines or museums dedicated to their lives and the acts that made them famous. There are others, however, whose inhabitants hold quite a different distinction. While the former owners did indeed gain widespread fame, they leap into the realm of infamy. Examples include the former home of Lizzy Borden, the Romanian home of Vald the Impaler, and a curiously charming home in Clinton, Maryland, whose former owner is remembered for her part in a national tragedy.
Mary Surratt is a name that few outside of history buffs would know offhand. She and her husband, John Harrison Surratt, came to Maryland from the District of Columbia in 1852. John purchases 287 acres of farmland at the intersection of the Marlboro-Biscataway and New Cut roads and built a large two-story building to be their home. The surrounding crossroads community became known as Surrattsville. The home was used as a tavern, a polling place, and a post office in addition to being their primary living quarters.
Life was prosperous as John Surratt’s tavern began doing great business. He and Mary served meals and provided lodging for travelers and locals alike. By 1854, only two years after its construction, Surratt’s Tavern was the hub of local information and social activities. Those that came to the tavern did so to talk about political issues, especially with the looming threat of the Civil War. The Surratts were Confederate sympathizers, going so far as to make their tavern into a safe house in the Confederate underground network.
Mary’s life of prosperity and wealth came to an agonizing end with the death of her husband in 1862. John’s passing was unexpected and left Mary to try to pick up the pieces and run all of her family’s businesses by herself. As her debt began to pile up, Mary became desperate. She rented to the farm out to an ex-policeman and moved to a townhouse that her family owned in Washington City. There, she met an actor who came to live as a boarder in the house, a gentleman by the name of John Wilkes Booth.
Mary Surratt and Booth became fast friends, discovering they shared similar ideologies and theories of how to deal with the impending problem of slavery abolition. She agreed to help John Wilkes Booth in his plot to assassinate President Lincoln, informing Booth of the Tavern’s role as a Southern safe house and instructing the man who rented the tavern to have field glasses and carbines ready for Booth and his accomplice, David Herold.
Mary Surratt was arrested on April 17, 1865, at her boarding house for her role in the assassination conspiracy. At her trial the presiding judge handed down the death penalty to her and several other co-conspirators. On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman executed by hanging by the federal government. She fought the judgment to her dying day, claiming that her guilt was only by association with the conspirators and through circumstantial evidence.
Mary has been reported in several places, one of which being the grounds of the old Arsenal Penitentiary, where she was hung and her body buried. It is her home in Clinton, Maryland, however, where most sightings of her occur.
The house lay empty for a while, until the 1940’s, when a widow owned the Surratt House and rented out half of it to boarders. During her years of ownership there were numerous reports of seeing Mary Surratt on the stairs between the first and second floors. She roams the halls, either out of guilt or perhaps protesting her innocence to this day.
Another unsettling phenomenon in the house are the phantom voices of men in the back room. Reputed to be the conspirators themselves, the voices have been heard by visitors as well as those working in the house. They are often accompanied by heavy footsteps across the floor and landings. Also reported in the main room of the former tavern is the sound of clinking glasses as if someone were raising a toast to the empty room.
No map today shows the location of Surrattsville. After Mary was executed, the town no longer wanted to be associated with her family name, so it became what is now called Clinton. The house was claimed by the State in 1965 and turned into an historical landmark, which today operates as a museum. Throughout the years there have been countless reports of paranormal activity. Employees often claim to see Mary, as well as hear her footsteps upstairs, when the lodge is empty.
Surratt House has been renovated several times; yet, the ghost sightings have not ended. If anything, they seem to be increasing. It continues to operate as a museum and historical curiosity. There are special events planned throughout the year including tours of Booth’s escape route, exhibitions dedicated to Mary and her role in the assassination, and even an annual ghost story performer.
There seems to be always something to do at the Surratt House Museum at any time of year. It is open to the public from January to mid-December for a modest admission price. However, if it is Mary one wishes to see, it stands to reason that the best time to visit would be the month of July, when she was hanged.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson