Date of Award

Summer 1996

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Director

Lorraine M. Lees

Committee Member

Harold S. Wilson

Committee Member

James R. Sweeney


The same day on which accused Abraham Lincoln murder conspirator Mary Eugenia Surratt was arrested at her Washington, D.C. boardinghouse, her son and alleged co-conspirator, John Harrison Surratt, was in a small town in northern New York. The arrest of the widow Surratt, however, marks the first of a series of points of departure between the destinies of the mother and the son. She was destined to follow a path from arrest to trial and execution by means of a military commission created by the War Department. John's circuitous route from trans-Atlantic flight to extradition, trial, and dismissal by a civilian court over two years after the original conspirators' trial could hardly have contrasted more with his mother's lot. The delineation between their two legal dramas is clearly the 1866 ex parte Milligan decision by the Supreme Court which detoured John Surratt's trial away from the military venue that his mother had experienced. That case, questioning the jurisdiction of military commissions may account, in part, for the son's eventual release. It does not, however, explain the United States government's laissez faire attitude toward young Surratt during his time as a fugitive. This study, using documents ranging from State Department dispatches to published trial transcripts and unpublished court papers, demonstrates that certain executive branch officials engineered a strategy to indefinitely maintain John Surratt's fugitive status. When this plan failed, it conversely became in the best interests of the United States government to convict him and measures were taken to insure that end.


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