Dear Cousin: John Surratt’s Letters to Bell Seaman

On at least five occasions, John Surratt, the youngest son of Mary Surratt, put pen to paper to write to his second cousin, Isabel (“Bell”) Seaman, who lived with her family in Washington, Pennsylvania.

The first three letters (the second has no year) were written by John from his family’s tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland, where he lived with his mother and his older sister, Anna. (The oldest of Mary Surratt’s three children, Isaac, was fighting for the South in Texas.) Following the death of Mary’s husband in 1862, John took over his father’s position as the local postmaster, but lost it in November 1863 due to disloyalty to the Union. Despite his confidence in his first letter that he would gain his position back, he never did, as the government was quite right to have its suspicions about young John, who would soon be carrying illicit mail for the Confederacy. Indeed, the tavern itself was a “safe house” for those running the blockade between the Union and the Confederacy.

In the fall of 1864, Mary Surratt made the momentous (and utterly disastrous) decision to lease the tavern and to move to Washington, D.C., where her husband had purchased a house at 541 H Street some years before. Mary took in boarders at the house, two of whom, Nora Fitzpatrick and Mary Appolonia Dean, are mentioned in John’s fourth letter.  (For those of you who remember the cat-naming contest on this blog last year, this letter is the source for Nora’s cat.) The most notable aspect of John’s fourth letter, however, is its breezy mention of “J. W. Booth,” who in the past few weeks had become a frequent caller at the boardinghouse.  His visits were no secret, but his purpose was: he and John Surratt were plotting to kidnap President Lincoln, which they would attempt a little over a month after John wrote to his cousin. Their scheme failed, however, when the President changed his plans.

On April 3,  1865, the day that Richmond fell, John Surratt, traveling from Richmond to Montreal with messages from the dying Confederacy, stopped at his mother’s boardinghouse in Washington. Believing that federal authorities were looking for him, he spent just a couple of hours at the boardinghouse before checking into a hotel. The next day, he left Washington on his way to Canada. He never saw his mother again.

Four days after John Surratt wrote his fifth letter to Bell Seaman from Montreal (omitting his surname), President Lincoln was shot, and John Surratt was suspected of having a hand in his murder. Among those who would be visited by federal authorities over the next few days was young Bell Seaman, whose letters from John were seized. Bell herself wrote a letter to Anna Surratt on April 20, telling her that John’s April 10 letter had been seized and that she believed that the letter’s Montreal address cleared John of the President’s murder. Bell’s letter was seized from the post office before it reached Anna, who by this time was being held in prison with her mother.

John’s claim in his fourth letter that he was going to Europe, though it proved untrue at the time, was prescient, for after his mother was hanged in July 1865, John fled Canada and went overseas, where he remained until he was finally captured and tried in 1867. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, and after an attempt to try him on another charge failed due to a technicality, John went free. Did he resume his correspondence with his cousin Bell? If he ever did, it was probably not with the flirtatious banter of before, as Bell married an Alexander Murray Henry in 1870, while John himself married Mary Victorine Hunter in May 1872. John lived until 1916, but Bell did not survive the 19th century; she died in May 1886, a month before her husband, who was working on the Panama Canal, died in Colombia.


Letter 1

Surrattsville, Maryland, December I6, 1863.

Miss Bell Seaman: —

Dear Cousin — “To live, is to learn,” which has been fully verified by the contents of your rather surprising letter. I must confess, my dear Cousin, that your letter was short, sweet, and to the point. Unkindness is something, Cousin Bell, I have never yet been willfully guilty of, yet no doubt you construed my letter to that effect. “Judge ye not, and ye shall not be judged,” is a wise maxim, and one to which I always well look. “Look before you leap.”

“Satisfied in my conclusions,” is the sentence in which you find so much fault. Well, ma chère Cousin, to explain those four words, it is necessary to retrace our steps to a certain letter you wrote me, which contained something about “having more principle than to hold an office under a Government you pretend to despise.” In fact, you concluded that I was a hot-headed rebel, one belonging to the horned tribe, for they tell me they have horns, and that I ought not to hold an office under this poor busted up Union, consequently my being superseded, “satisfied you in your conclusion.” Is it not so, my dear Cousin ? Do tell me, won’t you ? I sincerely hope now, Cousin, that you are really satisfied in your conclusions about my meaning.

Anna started for Steubenville, Ohio, last Monday week, and has arrived safely, but I believe lost her trunk. I arrived from Washington a few hours ago, and found your letter awaiting me. I have proved my loyalty, so that it cannot be doubted, and will regain my office as P. M. Joy is mine! Cousin Bell, I expect you think I am a hard case. Without doubt I am the crossest, most ill-contrived being that ever was. Just ask Anna, when you see her, for a description of your Cousin.

Pardon my conclusion, but I am getting really sleepy. It is now ten o’clock, an hour after my bed-time, for I go by the old saying, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Ma sends her love to you and family. Write soon, as nothing gives me greater pleasure than to receive a letter from you.

Your Cousin,

J. Harrison Surratt

Letter 2

Surratt’s Villa Md.


Cousin Bell,

It seem as if our correspondence is destined to be stopped, yet I will make another attempt in the hope that I may succeed in eliciting a few lines from you. Anna told me that you had gone to Steubenville to school. No doubt you are already beginning to count the days to  your vacation; even hours–minutes. That was I used to do when I was at school.

“Tell John Surratt I’m mad with him” was the very hard message I received upon meeting my deus letters sent to me by my very dear cousin Bell. I’m in hopes you will not be put in the insane asylum, where all mad people are generally placed. Cos you will please excuse this scrawl, as my pen will scarcely write at all, and I have the shakes so badly, by seeing a certain young lady pass by, in company with my ___ Charlie. We are all very well, with the exception of your humble servant, who has at present a severe attack of the spring fever. Half past nine and Anna not out of bed yet. What do you think of that? That is her usual hour. I’m afraid you are the same way inclined. Cousin Bell write to me if you please. Ma  & Anna send their love to you and family.

Your cousin

Jno. Harrison Surratt

Letter 3

Surratt’s Villa, Maryland, August 1, 1864.

My Dear Cousin Bell — You ask me if we have warm weather in Maryland, My Maryland. If you have it to such a degree as you represent it, up North, what must it be in our hot-headed South? Yes, Coz, if we had you down here we would soon convert yon into “sugar,” and then use you to sweeten our dispositions. You know ’tis the extremely hot weather that makes us “Rebs” so savage, cruel, and disagreeable. Yes, Cousin Bell, it is so warm that we can neither eat, sleep, sit down, stand up, walk about, and in fact, to sum the whole in a nutshell, it is too warm to do any thing.

So you think I have a great deal of assurance. I am sorry to say you are the first one that ever told me so. On the contrary, I am a very bashful, and perfectly unsophisticated youth. As every thing pleases you, I am overjoyed to know that you are pleased with me, as very few young ladies take a fancy to me. I am really delighted. You have told me more than ever woman dared to tell. Coz. Bell, you ask me why I do not get married? Simply because I can find no one who will have me. Often have they vowed, yes. But —

“This record will forever stand — Woman, thy vows are traced in sand.” — Bryon.

If you know of any lovely angel, in human form, desirous of a “matrimonial correspondence,” just tell her to indite a few lines to your humble Cousin, and I can assure her she will not be sorry for it.

August 10th. — Well, Coz., I have just been on a visit of a week’s duration. It always takes me about two weeks to write a letter. Ma and Anna are sitting in the hall enjoying the evening breeze, whilst I am sitting over my desk, almost cracking my brain in order to find something to fill up these pages, for, Cousin Bell, you must have perceived, long before this, that I am a poor letter writer. I had almost forgotten to tell you that I called on your friend. Mr. Wm. Underwood, at the Carver Hospital. He has nearly recovered from his wound, though it has not yet quite healed. He intended going home in a week or two, and perhaps he may be there now, as it has been over a week since I saw him.

Have you heard from your Uncle James lately ? There has been some very hard fighting out West recently, and you know, Cousin Bell, that the foe has very little regard where he directs his bullets. May God preserve him, and grant that he may see the end of this unholy war without harm. At what time does your vacation arrive ? Doubtless you look forward to that time with a great deal of impatience.

I am very sorry to think that it is your intention to become an old maid. The horrible creatures! curses upon society! a perfect plague! always meddling with affairs that do not concern them ! This is my opinion of old maids. I express it to you, because you have not yet arrived at that state of misery and despair. They are looked upon down our way as unnatural beings — something forsaken by God, man, and devil. So beware! Coz., I met a gentleman from Washington County, Pennsylvania, by the name of Stevenson, who is very well acquainted with the name of Surratt — so he says. Do you know any thing of him ? He is a very nice man, and a perfect gentleman. Have you heard any thing of the Rebel Captain, I have not heard from him for some time?

Really, I must bring my tiresome letter to a close. Every thing looks like starvation. Very encouraging, is it not? I hope you will answer soon, as nothing gives me greater pleasure than to receive a letter from yon. Cousin Bell, I am not prone to flatter, so you must believe what I say. Ma and Anna send their love to you. I wish you knew Ma, I know you would like her. Neither of us is like her. My brother resembles her very much. He is the best looking of the family. That is saying a good deal for myself. Excuse this miserable scrawl, as I have to dip my pen in the stand at every word. Anna has just commenced playing the “Hindoo Mother.” I would advise you to get it. It is really beautiful. Good-by. I hope to see you before many months.

Your Cousin,

J. Harrison Surratt.

“To whom shall we Grant the Meade of praise?” Hal ha!

Letter 4

Washington, D. C, February 6, 1865.

Miss Bell Seaman : —

Dear Cousin — I received your letter, and not being quite so selfish as you are, I will answer it, in what I call a reasonable time. I am happy to say we are all well, and in fine spirits.

We have been looking for you to come on with a great deal of impatience. Do come, won’t you ? Just to think, I have never yet seen one of my cousins. But never fear, I will probably see you all sooner than you expect. Next week I leave for Europe. Yes, I am going to leave this detested country, and I think, perhaps, I may give you all a call as I go to New York. Do not be surprised, Cousin Bell, when you see your hopeful Cousin. Truly you may be surprised.

I have an invitation to a party, to come off next Tuesday night. Anna and myself intend going, and expect to enjoy ourselves very much. I have been to a great many this winter, so that they are beginning to get common; but as this is something extra, I looked forward with a great deal of impatience. I wish you were, in order that I might have the pleasure of introducing you to regular country hoe-down. I know you would enjoy it.

There is no news of importance, save the burning of the Smithsonian Institute, which, of course, you have heard of. His Excellency Jefferson Davis and Old Abe Lincoln couldn’t agree, as sensible persons knew beforehand; and now I hope people are satisfied, and hope they will make up their minds to fight it out to the bitter end.

“Show no quarter.” That’s ” my motto.”

Cousin Bell, try and answer me in a few days at least, as I would like very much to hear from you before I leave home for good. I do not know what to think of our mutual Miss Kate Brady. Byron justly remarks —

” This record will forever stand —

“Woman, thy tows are traced in sand.”

I have just taken a peep in the parlor. Would you like to know what I saw there ? Well, Ma was sitting on the sofa, nodding first to one chair, then to another, next the piano. Anna sitting in corner, dreaming, I expect, of J. W. Booth. Well, who is J. W. Booth? She can answer the question. Miss Fitzpatrick playing with her favorite cat — a good sign of an old maid — the detested old creatures. Miss Dean fixing her hair, which is filled with rats and mice.

But hark ! the door-bell rings, and Mr. J. W. Booth is announced. And listen to the scamperings of the —. Such brushing and fixing.

Cousin Bell, I am afraid to read this nonsense over, so, consequently, you must excuse all misdemeanors. We all send love to you and family. Tell Cousin Sam. I think he might write me at least a few lines.

Your Cousin,

J. Harrison Surratt,

541 H Street, between 6 and 7 Streets.

Letter 5

Montreal, CE April 10th 1865

My dear Cousin

You may be surprised to receive a letter from me dated Montreal, yet it is so. I have been here for a week or so. I hope you are well. It has been so long since I heard from you that you seem almost a stranger.

Canada is a fine country for ice, snow and cold weather, which I yet experience to a great extent. Montreal is really a beautiful city and what pleases me more there are a great many pretty girls here. It is more than probable that I shall lose my heart with some of them and then I ask myself have I one to give away? The answer comes back fully satisfactory. It is more than probable I shall give you a call as I return from Canada, but is very doubtful, as I am always in a hurry. I supposed you have not yet moved.

I am enjoying myself to my heart’s content. Nothing in the wide world to do but visit the  ladies and go to church. How are you Grant and Lee? I always knew the old Confederacy would to up the spout, and the flag that Washington left us would wave again o’er North and South.

For special reasons you can direct your letters as below. Write soon as I would like to hear from you all very much.

Your cousin

John Harrison

St. Lawrence Hall

Montreal, CE


“Away from Home: Alexander Henry Dies and Leaves His Children a Fortune,” Wheeling Register, August 28, 1886, p. 4.

General L.C. Baker, History of the United States Secret Service, 1867 (letters 1, 3, and 4)

William C. Edwards and Edward Steers, Jr., The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence (letters 2 and 5).

William Seaman, “Bell’s Letters,” The Surratt Courier, March 1978.

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