07 Nov 2011

Lost Capitol Hill: Surrat Trial Juror George A. Bohrer

Spending the week on a jury made me wonder about some famous DC trials, and the jurors who sat on them. This reminded me of George A. Bohrer, a long-time Capitol Hill resident, DC Councilmember, Alderman, Justice of the Peace, and city assessor – and member of the jury before whom John H. Surratt was tried, the only civilian trial of any of the Lincoln conspirators

Bohrer was born in 1816 in Georgetown, and moved to Capitol Hill a few years before the Civil War broke out. Although he began his career as a grocer, he soon gave up this occupation for the brighter lights of public service, being elected a member of the DC council in 1858, and an Alderman in 1860.

In 1865, he was a member of the DC grand jury, and as such was tasked with writing a resolution in praise of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination.

Along with the rest of the country, Bohrer followed the trials that sentenced the Lincoln conspirators to death or long imprisonments – without, unfortunately, determining what had actually happened on that fateful evening.

John H. Surratt in the Zouave uniform he wore while on the run. He joined this company, which helped to guard the Pope at the time, under the name "John Watson" (LOC)

The hope that more information was to be forthcoming came when John H. Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, was finally tracked down in Alexandria, Egypt, and brought back to the US for his trial. The Boston Daily Intelligencer spoke for most Americans when it wrote that he was likely to have the answers to “the most difficult as well as most interesting mystery of our time.”

George Bohrer was one of 100 DC residents selected to be a member of the jury that was to hear Surratt’s case, which began on June 10, 1867. It took another week before Bohrer had an opportunity to speak with the judge, and he stated that he had “formed and expressed opinions in regard to the trial of the others, the conspirators. He did not think that those opinions would bias him. […] He would like to say that he could not have convicted Mr. Surratt on the evidence before the conspiracy trial.”

In spite of this, Bohrer was immediately sworn in. Given the numbers of potential jurors that had been dismissed for various reasons, finding a someone who was upfront about any biases was acceptable.

The trial went on for 62 days and over 200 witnesses. Sadly for all concerned, no great revelations were made about the conspiracy, and, in fact, John Surratt – while admitting that he had been part of a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln – claimed he had no part in the assassination plot, and no witness was able to provide definite evidence to the contrary.

In the end, Surratt was able to convince eight of the jurors of his innocence, while four were convinced he was guilty. With the jury hung, Judge Fisher was forced to dismiss the jury and declare the trial over. Further attempts to charge Surratt failed, due to the expiry of the statute of limitations, and he was released on a $25,000 bail.

Bohrer, whose opinion of Surratt’s guilt or innocence was never published, lived for another 20 years, during which time he continued to hold various offices within in the District. He died in 1886, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.

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