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John Surratt

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 remains one of the most baffling incidents in American history, filled with mysteries, strange coincidences, and enigmatic figures.

One aspect of the case, the flight and capture of John Harrison Surratt, accounts for at least its fair share of unanswered questions. When the war broke out, eighteen-year-old John Surratt abandoned his studies for the Catholic priesthood at St. Charles College in Maryland and entered the Confederate service as a courier and sometime spy. During the next four years he smuggled information out of Washington and traveled often between Richmond and Montreal, where the rebel secret service operated under the tolerant eye of the British government.

In the course of his clandestine activities, Surratt met John Wilkes Booth and introduced the famous actor into his mother's boarding house in Washington, where the handsome star soon became a frequent and welcome visitor to the pro-Southern Mrs. Surratt, her family and boarders.

After his capture in 1866, Surratt freely and proudly admitted that he played an active role in Booth's plan to capture President Lincoln and exchange him for thousands of Confederate prisoners-of-war, but he adamantly denied any prior knowledge of the murder plot. The government believed otherwise, publishing bulletins, reward posters, and indictments that consistently linked his name with Booth's as those of the principals in the crime.

Whether Surratt was in Washington on April 14, the day of the assassination as witnesses testified or in Elmira, New York, as other witnesses swore, there is no doubt that he registered as John Harrison at the St. Lawrence Hall hotel in Montreal early in the afternoon of April 18. He did not stay long enough to sample the accommodations; a Canadian banker and Confederate agent named Porterfield picked him up that same afternoon and sheltered him in his home. Four days later, Porterfield arranged with a man named Joseph Du Tilly to transport Surratt, alias Charles Armstrong, in his cart to the village of St. Liboire, about 40 miles from Montreal. In St. Liboire Du Tilly turned his passenger over to Father Charles Boucher, the local Roman Catholic priest. Sojourning with Boucher ostensibly for his health, Surratt mostly stayed in his room, but sometimes went hunting, alone or with others. After twelve days, Boucher later testified, Surratt revealed his true identity to him.

Surratt stayed with Father Boucher in St. Liboire for nearly three months, until too many parishioners began gossiping about the père's mysterious, possibly female, guest. Boucher then turned the fugitive over to the care of his friend and colleague, Father La Pierre, who secreted the fugitive in his father's house in Montreal for the next two months. It was during his stay with old M. La Pierre that Surratt learned of his mother's arrest on a charge of conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln. He later claimed that his contacts in Washington kept assuring him there was nothing to worry about, right up to July 7, when Mrs. Surratt was hanged in Washington's old arsenal grounds. Not then and not for the rest of his life did Surratt ever assert his mother's innocence.

In September the two clergymen, Boucher and La Pierre, escorted Surratt aboard the steamer Montreal and delivered him to the SS Peruvian at the Quebec docks and commended him to the care of the ship's surgeon, Dr. Lewis McMillan. On September 15 the Peruvian steamed down the St. Lawrence bound for Liverpool, carrying a passenger known as McCarty - Surratt with colored eyeglasses and dyed hair.

Surratt and his protectors were not as clever at concealment as they may have thought they were. No sooner had the Peruvian sailed from Quebec than John F. Potter, the United States Consul-General in Canada, informed Secretary of State William H. Seward that Surratt had left Canada for Liverpool with the intention of proceeding to Rome.

While crossing the Atlantic, Surratt spent many hours regaling Dr. McMillan with lurid tales of his wartime adventures, showing the doctor his revolver and vowing he would know what to do if captured. Eventually he couldn't resist telling McMillan his real name

The Peruvian docked in Liverpool on the 25th, and passenger McCarty made his way into the city, where he was soon lodged in the oratory of the Church of the Holy Cross, an accommodation frequently used by American Catholics visiting Liverpool. Two days later U.S. Vice-Consul A. Wilding cabled the State Department from Liverpool that Surratt was either in that British port or was expected soon.

Fathers Boucher and La Pierre may have trusted Dr. McMillan to look after their protégé, but after Surratt's revelations during the voyage, the physician thought it wise to tell the authorities what he knew. He provided an affidavit to Mr. Wilding, who then reported to Washington that it was almost certain that Surratt was staying at the Church of the Holy Cross, and he needed instructions and authority to do something about it. In reply Wilding received the following wire from W. Hunter, acting secretary of state: "I have to inform you, that, upon a consultation with the Secretary of War and the Judge-Advocate General, it is thought advisable that no action be taken in regard to the arrest of the supposed John Surratt at present."

Surratt stayed in Liverpool long enough to collect some money sent to him from Canada, then departed via London and Paris for Rome. In Rome he took up residence in the English College, a Catholic institution, under the protection of its head, Father Neane. In April 1866, Surratt enlisted in the Papal Zouaves, part of the army of Pope Pius IX. The fugitive was now known as John Watson.

His concealment was short-lived. Another soldier in the Zouaves, a French-Canadian named Henri Beaumont de Ste. Marie, who had met Surratt in Maryland in 1863 recognized his old acquaintance at the town of Sezze. Surratt acknowledged his identity to his fellow Zouave, asked him to keep the secret, and told him, "We have killed Lincoln, the nigger's friend."

On April 21, Ste. Marie reported Surratt's whereabouts to Rufus King, the United States minister to the Papacy. King relayed the news to Washington. Unlike the similar situation a few months earlier in Liverpool, this time the State Department instructed its representative to seek custody of the fugitive Surratt. There was no treaty of extradition between the United States and the Papal States, so early in November Minister King presented the issue to the Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli, in the form of a request. It was contrary to Vatican policy, the cardinal replied, to turn over suspected criminals when there was a possibility of the death penalty. In view of the unique nature and gravity of this case, however, the Pope had agreed to give up Surratt.

Cardinal Antonelli thereupon ordered Surratt's arrest and promised to deliver the prisoner to Mr. King in Rome. Lieutenant-Colonel Allet, commanding the Zouave Brigade at Velletri, received orders to arrest John Watson "and have him conducted, under secure escort, to the military prison at Rome." On November 7, Captain De Lambilly arrested Surratt without incident while he was on leave at Veroli and lodged him in the local guardhouse before moving him to Rome the next morning. At 4:00 a.m. on November 8, six Zouaves led Surratt from the prison. As the party neared a hundred-foot deep ravine just outside the prison's entry gate, Surratt made a sudden break and leapt over the stone wall at the edge of the precipice. He fell some thirty-five feet and landed on a rocky outcropping, where his fall was broken to some extent by the refuse that had accumulated there. The Zouaves immediately fired their rifles over the edge and hastened in pursuit their fleeing prisoner. They were soon joined by 50 reinforcements. None of them ever saw John Watson again.

Later that day, Surratt, still in his Zouave uniform, showed up in Naples. Questioned by the police, he told then he was an impoverished Englishman who has escaped from a Roman regiment where he had been under arrest for insubordination. Naples was part of the kingdom of Italy, hostile to the Papal States, and the Neapolitan authorities were not interested in returning any deserters to the enemy. At his own request, Surratt was lodged in the Naples jail for three days, after which he asked to be taken to the British consulate, where he claimed protection as a Canadian.

On the evening of November 11, Surratt, alias John Agostina, boarded the steamer Tripoli, bound for Alexandria, Egypt, his third-class fare paid by "some English gentlemen." Word that Surratt was aboard the Tripoli reached United States Consul William Winthrop at Valletta, Malta, but when the steamer called at that port, Winthrop was so hampered by local red tape that Surratt continued his voyage unmolested.

The fugitive was not so fortunate when the Tripoli docked at Alexandria on November 23. Along with 77 fellow third-class passengers, Surratt was detained aboard in quarantine. Four days later, United States Consul-General Charles Hale came aboard the Tripoli and confronted Surratt, who now insisted his name was Walters. Hale was not taken in, arrested Surratt, and reported the capture to the secretary of state. Seward asked the navy to send a ship to Alexandria, and on December 21, 1866, Consul-General Hale turned John Surratt over to the captain of the corvette USS Swatara for transportation to Washington. When he was arrested in Alexandria, Surratt possessed no more than five francs and his tattered Zouave uniform.

Taken ashore and deposited in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, Surratt faced a different prospect than did his mother and seven other defendants when they were tried by a military commission in 1865. Such proceedings were illegal, the United States Supreme Court declared in an 1866 decision, ex parte Milligan, ruling that the military authorities had no right to try civilians in areas where the civil courts were operating. John Surratt's fate would be decided by a jury of twelve citizens in the criminal court of the District of Columbia. The trial, before Judge George P. Fisher, lasted 62 days, and a team of first-rate lawyers managed the defense of the indigent Surratt, presenting 98 witnesses. The prosecution's case, buttressed by 108 witnesses, failed to convince more than four jurymen, and a mistrial resulted. Surratt remained in the Old Capitol Prison until released on $25,000 bail. The district attorney, reassessing his strategy, dropped the murder charge and went ahead with a new arraignment for conspiracy and treason. Surratt's lawyers successfully argued that the statute of limitations had run out on these charges. The government abandoned further legal action, and Surratt took up a quiet private life in Baltimore, where he worked as a clerk for a shipping company, married, and raised a family.

Other than one attempt at lecturing on his part in the Lincoln plots, the public heard no more from John H. Surratt until his obituary appeared in 1916.