Mary Surratt’s Loyal Daughter: Anna Surratt

The second of John and Mary Surratt’s three children, Elizabeth Susanna Surratt was born on New Year’s Day, 1843, and was christened on December 10 of that year at St. Peter’s Church in Washington, D.C. For most of her life, she would be known simply as “Anna.”
Portrait

Though married to a non-Catholic, Mary Surratt had been sent to a Catholic boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, as a girl, and was determined that her children should receive similar educations, a resolve strengthened by the domestic discord caused by her husband’s alcoholism. In an undated letter, she wrote to her former priest, Father Joseph Finotti, to ask if he could help her get her “dear little daughter in school on as cheap a scale as possible without the child feeling any inconvenience from it, as you know dear father it will all have to come through and by my own management.” On January 15, 1855, she was able to report that Anna had been at school for three months at Saint Mary’s Female Institution in Bryantown, Maryland, headed by Miss Winifred Martin, and that the girl was “delighted with her Teachers and improves very fast.” Indeed, Anna made her first appearance in the Washington press in 1855 when a Daily National Intelligencer article detailing the end-of-year awards ceremony mentioned her as the recipient of several medals. Anna remained at school, continuing to win awards, until July 1861, when she returned home at the end of the school year. (Ironically, given the fact that she was later described as a “furious secessionist,” one of the award ceremonies featured her performing “The Star Spangled Banner,” vocally and on piano.)

John Surratt, Sr., died in August 1862. While his death may have been a relief to Mary Surratt, Anna, writing on September 16, 1862, to a school friend named Louise Rule, showed only sadness: “I will not attempt to depict here the anguish the deep grief that almost burst my heavy heart’s Strings when I looked upon my father after death and knew that he could not hear or see me. The suddenness of his death has almost caused me to frown upon the will of a Just God.” Anna asked for a picture of her friend, adding, “I know you do not want mine in such a dismal color as Black.”

Two years later, Mary Surratt decided to lease her tavern in Maryland to a tenant and to move to 541 H Street in Washington, where her husband had acquired a house years before. Anna accompanied her mother, who opened her home to boarders. Mary’s decision was probably motivated chiefly by economics, as she was in debt and Maryland had recently approved a constitution freeing its slaves, but she may have also had Anna’s prospects in mind as well. Though a twenty-one-year-old woman who had not yet married was far from being considered an “old maid,” to use the parlance of the day, it was certainly time to be thinking of marriage, and moving to the city would give Anna the opportunity to meet a variety of eligible men. There was also a dearth of male protectors at the tavern, as Mary’s older son, Isaac, had enlisted in the Confederate army and her younger son, John, was often off on clandestine missions for the South. With coaches bearing strangers stopping at the tavern, Anna would have been vulnerable to sexual predators who might be passing through.

But Mary Surratt’s move to the city proved fatal when John Surratt brought home a visitor, the actor John Wilkes Booth. Anna and a slightly younger boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, were thrilled by their new acquaintance. Writing to his cousin, Belle Seaman, on February 6, 1865, John indicated that he and Anna were looking forward to attending a party. He added, “I have just taken a peep in the parlor. Would you like to know what I saw there? . . . Anna sitting in corner, dreaming, I expect, of J. W. Booth. Well, who is J. W. Booth? She can answer the question. . . . But hark ! the door-bell rings, and Mr. J. W. Booth is announced. And listen to the scamperings of the —. Such brushing and fixing.”

Louis Weichmann, a school friend of John Surratt’s who had become one of Mary’s boarders, may have had a romantic interest in Anna, although he was preparing for the priesthood, somewhat reluctantly, to fulfill the wishes of his mother. In a letter to Weichmann on February 15, 1865, someone signing herself as “Clara” (probably Clara Pix Ritter), wrote, “I hope you will bring dear Miss S. with you to call on me. I could love her for yr sake & her brother’s . . . I know & feel Miss S_ is worthy of you.” Weichmann’s feelings, assuming that Clara was writing in good faith, were apparently not reciprocated: Weichmann later claimed that Anna had hit him over the head with a brush because he had gone downstairs wearing blue pants. He also told a coworker, Gilbert Raynor, that a young lady at the boardinghouse “had slapped him in the face on account of having a political quarrel with her.”

Anna was sleeping in an attic room with her visiting cousin, Olivia Jenkins, when police arrived in the predawn hours of April 15, 1865, to search the house for suspects in the assassination of President Lincoln. Finding neither Booth nor John Surratt, who was also a suspect, in the house, they departed. At breakfast that morning, Weichmann would later claim, Anna declared that “the death of Lincoln was ‘no worse than that of the meanest n—– in the army. I told her that I thought she would find out differently.”

Assuming that Anna did make this remark, Weichmann would soon be proven right. On the evening of April 17, another group of men arrived at the boardinghouse, this time to take Anna, her mother, Olivia, and Nora into custody. The women were taken to the Carroll Annex of the Old Capital Prison, where Anna would be incarcerated until May 31, 1865. On April 30, she was separated from her mother when Mary was moved to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where she would spend the remaining weeks of her life.

The search of Mary’s boardinghouse turned up several suspicious items relating to Anna, including a collection of photographs of Confederate officials and generals, which Anna claimed had been given to her by her father, a framed popular print called “Morning, Noon, and Night” behind which Anna secreted a photograph of John Wilkes Booth, a card bearing the Virginia motto Sic semper tyrannus, and some scribblings on a letter to Anna of her name and Booth’s. Anna claimed that she had hidden the photograph of Booth because her brother was upset that she had it, that she also owned photographs of Union generals, and that the card had been given to her by a lady.

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At the conspiracy trial on May 30, Anna testified for her mother’s defense. As the questioning progressed, Anna, who had not seen her mother for a month, became increasingly agitated, looking about and asking, “Where’s Ma?” The government, realizing that nothing would be gained from cross-examining the distraught young woman, allowed her mother’s attorney to lead her off the stand to an adjoining room, where she collapsed. Following her release from prison the next day, she was allowed to sit in the courtroom near her mother, to the evident benefit of both, and to visit with her. On June 20, General John Hartranft, who was in charge of Mary and her fellow defendants, gave Anna permission to stay with Mary, who had fallen ill. Anna would be her mother’s almost constant companion until Mary was hanged on July 7.

Not until July 6 did the condemned prisoners learn they were to die the next day. Anna spent the next twenty-four hours trying to save her mother’s life, visiting the White House twice in an effort to get President Johnson to halt the execution. Her pleas failed, and Anna had to hasten back to the Old Arsenal prison in time to bid her mother farewell. William Doster, who represented Lewis Powell, later claimed that Anna watched her mother’s hanging up until the point the noose was put around Mary’s neck, at which time she fainted; on the other hand, John Brophy, a family friend who had helped Anna in her endeavors to save Mary, said that he had been told not to allow Anna to witness the awful event. From that day on, Anna’s mission would be to give her mother a Christian burial–a goal she would not attain until 1869. Meanwhile, Mary and the three men who were hanged with her were buried at the Arsenal, near the body of the man who had brought them to ruin–John Wilkes Booth.

Orphaned, Anna returned to the house on H Street, which was soon lost to creditors. Her brother John, a suspect in the assassination, had escaped abroad but was finally brought back to face trial in 1867. Many believed he had abandoned his mother to her fate, but Anna remained loyal to John, visiting him in prison and reportedly confiding to a friend, Anna Ward, that “if John were hung, she knew she would die, for then, the last tie that bound her shattered heart to earth, would be broken.” Fortunately for Anna, the jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and John ultimately went free.

On February 3, 1869, Anna wrote to President Johnson, whose White House term was ending, and asked permission to rebury her mother in consecrated ground. President Johnson granted this request (as he did a similar one by John Wilkes Booth’s family). At last, on February 9, 1869, Anna accompanied her mother’s remains to Washington’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, where Mary Surratt was given a proper Catholic burial. Among those at the service were Anna’s older brother, Isaac; John Surratt had gone to South America after his trial and had not yet returned to the country.

The Evening Star reported in February 1867 that before her brother’s trial, Anna had been working as a governess in the home of Captain Gwynn of Prince George’s County. Shortly after the reburial, the Baltimore Sun reported that Anna had moved to that city and taken an examination to work as a teacher in the city’s public schools. Anna’s teaching career was a brief one, however, for on June 16, 1869, Anna married William Tonry, a chemist employed by the government. The two had been keeping company for some time, and William had assisted in the arrangements for Mary Surratt’s reburial.

Both of Anna’s brothers attended the wedding, held in Washington’s St. Patrick’s Church. Father Jacob Walter, who had attended Mary Surratt on the scaffold and presided over her reburial, officiated at this happier occasion. After the wedding, William and Anna, the latter clad in a “light drab traveling dress,” left for a bridal tour in New York.

The honeymoon was short-lived. Soon after the wedding, William Tonry was dismissed from his job, in what many believed was an act of petty retaliation by the government for his marriage to Mary Surratt’s daughter. He rebounded, however, and by 1870 was running his own laboratory in Baltimore, where the couple would spend the rest of their lives. His career prospered, and he testified as an expert witness at a number of trials. A graduate of Georgetown College, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from it. He and Anna had five children, four of whom lived to adulthood and survived their parents.

After her marriage, Anna stayed well out of the public eye, letting her husband speak for her about her mother’s death on the rare occasion when it was necessary. In 1880, a reporter for the Evening Star described Anna as follows: “She is rather tall, and her thin, small pleasant face is plainly marked with lines of severe suffering. She Is easy In her manners, and has a clear, yet subdued voice. Her hair, which was once an auburn color, is slightly streaked with grey.”

By the time Anna died on October 24, 1904, public opinion largely regarded Mary Surratt as the innocent victim of prosecutorial zeal, and Anna was remembered, in the words of the Baltimore American, for her “utmost devotion and self-sacrifice in the closing hours of Mrs. Surratt’s life.” After a funeral at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Baltimore, she was buried next to her mother at Mount Olivet. A little less than a year later, William Tonry died and was also laid to rest with his wife and mother-in-law at Mount Olivet.

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4 Responses to Mary Surratt’s Loyal Daughter: Anna Surratt

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! What a strange world….I am sorry for Anna…I’ll bet she did lose her heart to JWB…he looks so handsome in his picture..though a little wild-looking. Hope you are well!

  2. Judith says:

    a very sad miscarriage of justice! As the French say the more things change the more they stay the same.

  3. boswellbaxter says:

    Very true!