22 Feb 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: The Arrival of John Surratt

JHS tnThe Washington Navy Yard was used not just for the building, repair, and outfitting of ships, as well as the manufacturing of ordnance, it also was an important entryway to Washington, especially back in the day when the water was the best way to approach the capital. Curiosity drove many people to the Navy Yard to meet the arrivals, even if the reason for the arrival was less than happy.

John Surratt was the last of the Lincoln conspirators to be captured. While the others were all arrested – and dealt with – quite rapidly after the assassination, Surratt managed to flee to Europe and as far as Egypt before being captured. His return to the United States, aboard the USS Swatara, was followed keenly by people all across the country – not because they were hoping that he would have the same fate as the other conspirators, but because there were still so many unanswered questions about the conspiracy that remained. Surratt, it was felt, could finally bring some closure to the death of the President.

Thus, on February 19, 1867, a good-sized group of men, led by the United States Marshal for the District of Columbia David S. Gooding, and his deputy, District Attorney Edward C. Carrington, were on the quay when a small boat was rowed from the Swatara to the dock. Among the men was a reporter and artist from Harper’s Weekly, as well as a number of Sioux, who were in Washington as part of a delegation.

On board the boat were a dozen sailors and the prisoner, who was still dressed in a uniform, which was “light-gray, trimmed with red red scarlet fez, with blue tassel, scarlet sash around his waist, and white leggings.” During his year in Europe, Surratt had joined the Papal Guards in Rome as a Zouave, and this was their standard uniform. The name he had used in joining was John Watson; whether there is any connection to the name used much later by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is unclear.

Detail of engraving from March 16, 1867, Harper's Weekly, showing the arrival of John Surratt at the Navy Yard. (Archive.org)

Detail of engraving from the March 16, 1867, Harper’s Weekly, showing the arrival of John Surratt at the Navy Yard. Two of the Sioux delegation can be seen to the right of the three men in top hats just to the right of the fez-clad Surratt. (Archive.org)

According to Harper’s, Surratt had denied who he was during the voyage, but once arrived on the dock, “the following colloquy occurred:

“Marshal: ‘Is your name John H. Surratt?’

“Prisoner: ‘It is, Sir.’

“Marshal: ‘Then, Sir, I arrest you by virtue of a bench warrant issued to me by the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia.’ ”

Surratt was taken by carriage to the local jail, and “placed in a cell on the second floor of the east wing, which is very secure and prepared especially for his lodging.”

The trial was, in contrast to that of the other conspirators, a civilian affair, and was thus followed closely by people all across the country. When it came to the deliberation, the jury was unable to agree on a verdict. Even worse, it was clear that Surratt truly had had very little to do with the planning of the assassination – he had been out of town on the fateful day itself – and thus was in no position to answer the many questions that people had about Lincoln’s death.

Surratt lived out his life quietly in Baltimore and died in 1916, having never admitted to more than having been part of the original plan to kidnap Lincoln, not his murder.

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