On July 7, 1865, shortly after 1 PM, three men and one woman were lead to the gallows in the prison yard of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, on the shores of where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers meet. It was hot that day, reportedly a hundred degrees. Sweat surely dripped down the accused’s faces as they passed by the cheap pine coffins and shallow graves that had been dug for them.
The doomed were Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt, four of the co-conspirators in the plot to assassinate officers of the federal government. Their sentence had come after a seven-week trial that had found them guilty of “treasonable conspiracy.” While the group, along with five others that were either already dead or had been given less severe sentences, had been successful in one part of their plan—the murder of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth—they had failed at the other two. Powell attacked Secretary of State William Seward at his home, but managed only to injure him. Seward would eventually recover and purchase Alaska for the United States. Herold guided Powell to Seward’s house and, after abandoning Powell when it was clear the plan had gone astray, aided Booth in his attempts to evade authorities after his escape from Ford’s Theater. Azterodt had been assigned the task of assassinating Vice-President Johnson, but he didn’t going through with it. Instead, Azterodt got drunk and wandered the streets mumbling. He was soon arrested for suspicious behavior. During the trial, witnesses would call him a “notorious coward.”
Surratt faced a more tenuous case. Her son, John Surratt Jr., was a Confederate spy who had befriended Booth, a famed actor and Southern sympathizer. He often had Booth over to his mother’s tavern and boarding house for conversations and drinks. Soon, those conversations turned into conspiracy. It’s often been debated what and how much Mary Surratt knew about what went on in her place of business. Today, historians believe there was no way that Surratt was clueless about the plot. During the trial, the landowner who leased the property to Surratt testified about her knowledge of weapons being stored at the house. When reviewing the death sentence given to Surratt, President Johnson reportedly said, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”
The four were forced to climb the hastily built gallows that they had heard being tested the night before from their prison cells. A crowd of nearly thousand had come with their exclusive tickets to see this execution. Nooses were placed around the accused’s necks and hoods placed over their heads. Ever since the sentences had been handed down a week ago, Surratt’s lawyers and her daughter Anna had been fighting and pleading for her death sentence to be changed. In fact, many in attendance thought that Surratt would be saved from the gallows at the last minute. It was not to be.
After last rites and shortly after 1:30 PM, the trap door was opened and all four fell. It was reported that Atzerodt yelled at this very last moment, “May we meet in another world.” Within minutes, they were all dead. The bodies continued to hang and swing for another 25 minutes before they were cut down.
Today, Fort McNair sits on the land where the Old Arsenal Penitentiary once was. Tennis courts occupy the exact location of the Lincoln co-conspirators’ hanging.