Whisky, hidden rifles and a pair of field glasses at Surratt House tied it to one of the most hideous crimes witnessed by our nation. What begins like any other house tour in the area (well, almost any other - docents here wear Victorian garb while guiding visitors) quickly unfolds into a tale of intrigue surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Amid strip malls and fast-food chains in Clinton, Md., stands the red-oxide, two-story frame house, which for 12 years, from 1852 to 1864, was the home of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government. She was hanged for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to murder the 16th president. Determining whether she was guilty or not still keeps historians busy. Evidence for and against piles up on the tour, which is what makes things so interesting.
After her husband's death in 1862, his indebted estate forced her to lease the country home and move to Washington.
Her connection to Booth actually began at her boarding house on H Street (now a Chinese restaurant). There Booth visited tenants - including Mary's youngest son, John - who were involved in a plot to kidnap the president. Mary Surratt, and her house in Clinton, then called Surrattsville, come back into play shortly before the assassination. A witness living at the Clinton house told investigators that days before Lincoln's assassination Surratt delivered to the house a package containing field glasses. Booth would later pick up the package while fleeing from Washington. The witness also claimed that Surratt had told him to have the "shooting irons" ready, but didn't clarify why. Although the evidence might appear sketchy today, in the outrage following Lincoln's death it seemed concrete enough to condemn Surratt to death for conspiracy.
A metaphorical album of Victorian life parallels the Surratt-Booth story: Visitors are led through rooms furnished in the period - two pieces originally belonged to Mary. The house also functioned as a tavern (where Mr. Surratt "was his own best customer"), a polling place and a post office. Docents, who are members of The Surratt Society, a volunteer affiliate of the museum, narrate with considerable detail, explaining how to make Maryland beaten biscuits and how the sky-blue kitchen got its color. Upstairs features master and guest bedrooms, the storage space for a rifle carried by Booth during his escape and a room for temporary exhibits, which usually focus on U.S. history related to the house or Victorian culture.
If the story grabs you, sign up for the John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour, a tour sponsored by the Surratt Society which retraces Booth's steps until he was gunned down near a farm in Port Royal, Va. The real escape route took 12 days.
Directions: From Interstate 495/I-95, take Exit 7A, Branch Avenue (MD Route 5) south. Turn right on Route 223W and then left onto Brandywine Road. The museum and visitors center are immediately on the left.
-- Margaret Hutton