Mary Surratt and Julia Wilbur

Mary Surratt and Julia Wilbur never met, and certainly would not have gotten along if they had. Surratt leaned Confederate, Wilbur just the opposite. But both had to figure out how to survive in what could be an unfriendly world for a woman on their own. Oddly enough, Mary was younger than Julia by about 8 years, born in 1823 while Julia was born in 1815. They did leave very different lives.


The immediate connection between the two is that I spoke about Julia at the Surratt House this past Saturday. Before the talk, Susan Proctor, the education coordinator, gave my husband and me a great tour of the house, which now stands near a busy intersection in Clinton, Maryland (once known as Surrattsville because of their family.)

She and her husband ran a busy tavern and inn, and raised three children (including John Jr.). When the husband died suddenly in 1862, she was left with debts to pay and a living to make. Because of the mores of the time, she could not run the tavern herself. Thus she rented it out to a man named John Lloyd and operated a boarding house in Washington. In Susan's view, this move to Washington, away from the rural life and the connections she had developed, helped lead her to her fate.

The fate, of course, of being convicted as part of the assassination plot that killed Lincoln and her hanging. The museum leaves it up to the visitor to decide about her guilt--whether for the original kidnapping plot or the murder. I don't think I will enter that debate.

Julia Wilbur could not abide the "secesh," or Confederate-leaning locals, she met in Alexandria and Washington. She probably would have seen Mary Surratt through this lens had they met, say, in 1864 or early 1865. She attended the trial, realizing that it was part of history that she needed to see. She even made a few sketches of who sat where in the courtroom, among the very few drawings in 50 years of diary entries.

A posting at the blog "Boothie Barn: Discovering the Conspiracy" quotes from Wilbur's diaries about the trial (as well as the later one of Mary's son John), so I will suggest you go there.

As for the Surratt House, as my talk confirms, there are programs on a range of Civil War related topics (including John Wilkes Booth and company). Next up, April 8 to 10, is a symposium on the assassination; other events include Civil War music, the 54th Massachusetts (the famed U.S. Colored Troops regiment) and women of Civil War Richmond.

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