A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On This 150th Anniverary of Lincoln's Assassination, Did You Know One Accused Conspirator was Arrested After Fleeing to Egypt?

John H. Surratt, Jr.
One hundred and fifty years ago tonight, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford's theater, while one of Booth's co-conspirators stabbed Secretary of State William H. Seward while another assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson lost his nerve.

A massive manhunt for Booth and the other conspirators followed, and a vast literature about the plotters and their trials has been amassed over a century and a half.

Most people know that Booth died in a burning barn and that four of the conspirators were hanged, including a woman, Mary Surratt.  But this isn't a US history blog, so now let's get to the Middle East connection. The last of the accused conspirators, John Harrison Surratt, Jr., son of Mary Surratt, had fled the United States and evaded arrest until November 1866, when he was arrested by US authorities in Alexandria, Egypt,

Though Egypt's connection was largely accidental, it's a tale worth telling.  The Surratts were Confederate sympathizers, and Mrs. Surratt ran a boarding house on H Street in Washington and also owned a tavern at Surrattsville (now Clinton) in southern Maryland. Both buildings are still there; the much remodeled H Street house is now a Chinese restaurant and karaoke place in Washington's small Chinatown, while the old tavern is now the Surratt House Museum.

Southern Maryland was the slaveholding part of the state and had many Confederate sympathizers; it was a favored route for Confederate intelligence to pass messages into rebel Virginia just across he Potomac. John H, Surratt was one such courier, and had carried messages to Virginia and also had links to the Confederate Secret Service's spy network based in Canada. He was young; he turned 21 on April 13, 1865, the day before the assassination.

In March he had joined John Wilkes Booth in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln and trade him for Confederate POWs, but that plot failed. Surratt always claimed he had no knowledge that Booth had decided to kill rather than kidnap,

Surratt was in Elmira, New York on the day of the assassination, returning from a courier mission to Canada, and immediately on hearing the news he proceeded to return to Montreal, reaching Canada before the Federal manhunt knew where he was (they thought he was around Washington.)

Surratt as a Papal Zouave
In Montreal he relied, apparently, on the Confederate Secret Service and also on sanctuary from a Catholic priest. (The Surratts were Catholic and John had once studied for the priesthood.) After Mary Surratt was hanged, ex-Confederate agents smuggled him out of Canada using a pseudonym and he sailed to Liverpool, eventually reaching the Papal States (still separate from Italy until 1870), where he became a member of the Pontifical Zouaves under the pseudonym John Watson.

An old friend recognized him and the Papal authorities arrested him. But before he could be turned over to the US authorities in Rome he escaped, allegedly by jumping from a precipice, but with many believing friendly papal guards let it happen. He crossed into the Kingdom of Italy and made his way to Naples. The US Minister to the Papal States, Rufus King, advised the US consul in Naples Frank Swan, to be on the lookout. On November 19, 1866, it was learned that Surratt had sailed from Naples the evening before, on a British ship, RMS Tripoli, bound for Alexandria with a coaling stop at Malta.

The US representatives were keeping the undersea cables busy, now entreating the British to arrest him at Malta. But the British Agent at Malta informed the American representative that he needed more evidence and that vague claims of conspiracy were insufficient to arrest an American. Besides, he had boarded the ship and found no "Walters or Watson" aboard and the only Zouave was a "John Agostini from Candia." Candia is in Crete (the Italian name for Heraklion); Surratt had been posing as a Canadian. The  typo, if that's what it was, further delayed things but John Agostini was indeed Surratt's new alias. The Tripoli proceeded on to Alexandria.

US Consul-General Hale
A temporary break in the undersea cable between Malta and Alexandria also delayed communication, but when Surratt arrived in Alexandria on November 23, he and the other passengers were required to undergo a six-day quarantine. While there, he was visited by the US Consul-General in Egypt, Charles Hale, and admitted that he was an American.

The frustrations of Rome, Naples and Malta did not apply once Surratt acknowledged he was a US citizen. (Had he continued to claim to be Canadian, that might have complicated matters)

But this was the era if the Capitulations, prior to the 1875 founding of the Mixed Courts of Egypt, and the US Consul-General had absolute authority to arrest American citizens. Surratt was duly arrested. He remained in consular  custody until the US Navy's USS Swatara transported him to Washington in early 1867,

After so long a manhunt, several things had changed. In 1866 the US Supreme Court had ruled, in Ex Parte Milligan, that it was unconstitutional to try civilians before  a Military Tribunal if the civil courts were operating, so unlike his mother and the other conspirators, he could not be tried by a military court. And in the intervening years, many of the charges leveled at the others had seen their statute of limitations expire. The one charge that could be brought was the murder of Lincoln, and while Surratt admitted to the kidnapping plot, he denied knowing of the plan to kill, and was far from Washington on April 14, 1865.

After a two month trial, the result was a hung jury, splitting eight to four for acquittal. The government decided not to seek a new trial. You can find the trial transcript at Google Books.

He then planned a lecture tour, giving a first lecture at Rockville, Maryland in December 1870. You can read it here.

Surratt in Old Age
After similar lectures in New York and Baltimore, he canceled one planned for DC after protests. He lived quietly, teaching at a Catholic school, farming tobacco, and married, raised seven children, and worked for a steamship line in Baltimore. He died at age 72 in 1916, and is buried in Baltimore.

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