In 1865, a widowed Washington, D.C., boardinghouse keeper named Mary found herself at the center of a conspiracy: to kidnap President Lincoln. When the conspiracy plot turned into an assassination plot, Mary Surratt paid with her life, being hanged on July 7, 1865.
Nearly six years earlier, however, another widowed boardinghouse keeper named Mary was embroiled in a conspiracy that would rock the nation. Her name was Mary Ritner, and the conspirators were John Brown and his men.
Described by a former boarder, Franklin Keagy, as “one of the most intellectual and worthy women of her age,” Mary Ritner shared Brown’s views on slavery, if not his methods. Mary Ritner’s father-in-law, Joseph Ritner, who had been the governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1839, had spoken out against slavery, and her husband, Abraham Ritner, a railroad conductor, was said to have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad as well. Abraham had purchased a house on King Street in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1849, and died just two years later, leaving Mary Ritner with a young family to support. She enlarged the house and, like many a widow before and after her, opened it to paying guests for whom she provided food and lodging.
Just about 60 miles from Harpers Ferry, Chambersburg’s accessibility by rail made it an ideal location for John Brown, who throughout the summer and fall of 1859 used Chambersburg to receive arms and supporters, which he then transported to his base at the Kennedy Farm near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Much of the groundwork was done by John Kagi, who lodged on Mrs. Ritner’s first floor under the name of John Henri. Trained as a lawyer, Kagi had worked as a journalist and had first encountered Brown in Kansas.
While Kagi was a long-term lodger, staying in the Ritner house from the summer of 1859 until just before the Harpers Ferry raid in October 1859, John Brown (using the name of “Isaac Smith”), his sons, and his other men were frequent short-term guests. Brown and the others made regular trips by wagon between the Kennedy Farm and Chambersburg; on the trips south, the wagon would be laden with weapons, supplies, and recruits to the cause. It was during one of his visits to Chambersburg that Brown tried, in vain, to enlist an old friend, Frederick Douglass, in the plot.
By all accounts, Brown and his men (who claimed to be prospecting for ore) were model lodgers. Abstaining from both alcohol and tobacco, Kagi read aloud to his busy landlady and taught songs and penmanship to her children. When a neighbor’s dog came to ravage Mrs. Ritner’s garden, Kagi summarily shot the unfortunate canine (it didn’t help that the neighbor was a notorious “slave-catcher,” who would hunt down fleeing enslaved people and collect the reward). The Ritner children were particularly fond of Brown, who when leaving town would allow them to ride in his wagon a mile or so before dropping them off and continuing on his way.
Whether Mrs. Ritner had her suspicions about her boarders is unknown, although a rumor that the group was engaged in counterfeiting reached the ears of one of the Ritner girls and a friend, who peeked through a keyhole only to find the men examining a map. It’s hard to believe that the landlady didn’t wonder about her lodgers, especially in the last few weeks of their stay, when Francis J. Meriam, a blue-blooded, physically frail, and emotionally unstable Bostonian who hardly fit the description of a mineral prospector, began lodging with Kagi, or when John Brown suddenly turned up in his wagon seeking lodgings for a female boarder–Virginia Kennedy Cook, whose husband, John Cook, had ensconced himself in Harpers Ferry to gather intelligence for Brown.
In any case, when John Brown and his men at last struck on October 16, 1859, the news of the raid, and its disastrous end, traveled fast to Chambersburg. Soon, those raiders who had managed to escape began making their way to the place besides the Kennedy Farm they knew best–Mrs. Ritner’s. The Chambersburg Valley Spirit reported that Albert Hazlett actually made it into the boardinghouse, where he conversed with Virginia Cook before fleeing, having first discarded a pistol in the yard. (He was later captured, extradited to Virginia, and hanged.) Presently, another party of fugitives, consisting of John Cook, Owen Brown, Francis Meriam, Charles Tidd, and Barclay Coppoc, turned up at Mrs. Ritner’s. As Owen Brown later wrote:
As we drew nearer and nearer Chambersburg, I told the boys, as I had told them before, that it was not fair to expose Mrs. Ritner. She had probably disavowed any knowledge of us, and it would be very easy to get her into trouble, without benefiting ourselves; but they would go. In the outskirts of Chambersburg, finally, we stopped by a house on the corner of the street which led to Mrs. Ritner’s. Merriam, who had over-exerted himself, dropped down in the middle of this street, and lay with his luggage for a pillow. It was just before the break of day. As Tidd and Coppoc left us, I charged them, with all the earnestness I had, to come right back if they got no answer, and especially to make no alarm. They knocked at the door, but received no reply. Then Tidd went down into the garden and got a bean-pole and thumped on the second-story window. Mrs. Ritner put her arm out of the window and motioned him away. At which he said, “Mrs. Ritner, don’t you know me? I am Tidd.”
“Leave, leave!” came back in a frightened whisper.
“But we are hungry,” insisted Tidd.
“I couldn’t help you if you were starving,” she whispered back again. “Leave; the house is guarded by armed men!”
Tidd dropped his bean-pole, and the two came back to where we were lying in the street.
(Cook later left the group in search of provisions, and met the same fate as Hazlett. The other members of the group managed to avoid capture.)
Mrs. Ritner’s prudence paid off. Whatever she knew or might have guessed, she did not suffer any consequences. Instead, she continued to run the boardinghouse. At the time of the 1860 census, she had three boarders living with her. That same year, she hosted a penmanship class. (Kagi, killed at Harpers Ferry, would no doubt have approved.)
The landlady’s luck held out during the Civil War. In July 1864, the Rebels burned much of Chambersburg after its citizens failed to come up with $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in cash. Yet the Ritner house, just outside of the commercial area, was untouched by the flames. Instead, Mary Ritner’s daughter recalled, Mrs. Ritner offered shelter to a neighbor who had not been so fortunate.
By 1865, however, Mrs. Ritner was ready for a change. She sold her house in August and moved to New England, where she spent the rest of her life, dying on May 2, 1894 in Weston, Massachusetts. Years later, one of her daughters recalled, “I remember how loyal Mother was to [John Brown]. She did not like to have people call him a fanatic.”
Franklin Keagy, “Biographical Sketch of John Henry Keagy.”
Ralph Keeler, “Owen Brown’s Escape from Harpers Ferry,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1874).
Virginia Ott Stake, John Brown in Chambersburg.
John W. Wayland, John Kagi and John Brown.