Book Review: Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham

You’ve heard the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Well sometimes, even ill-behaved ones who did make history don’t get their due. Have you ever heard of Mary Surratt? She is considered to be the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government, for the crime of abetting John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln.  Despite her claim to fame, her name has faded into obscurity. That is, until Susan Higginbotham decided to write a novel about her role in that infamous affair.

Hanging MaryThe novel is told in alternating perspectives of two actual historical females: Mary Surratt and one of the young women living at her boarding house, Nora Fitzpatrick. Both women were personally acquainted with John Wilkes Booth, and both spent some time in jail in the aftermath of his crime. Although the author took liberties to fill in the blanks that history left as mysteries, such as the extent of each character’s knowledge of the conspiracy and their interpersonal relationships, one can tell that the novel is well-researched and rooted in historical records.

The novel develops Mary’s character so that one can understand that everything she did, she did out of a mother’s love. Her son John Surratt was a close associate of Booth’s and was embroiled more deeply in the plot than Mary. He was safely on the run when Mary was hanged and many believe that if she had sent word for him to return, he would have died in her place. But she did not. Her Southern sympathies were expressed mainly as anxiety over her eldest son who was serving in the confederate army and her youngest, John, who served the South as a courier and more. Even John Wilkes Booth was portrayed in a favorable light as a charismatic young man with a passionate belief that his plan would save lives. This sympathetic portrayal of history’s villains only goes to show that there are two sides to every story and no one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. Empathy is rarely a bad thing, for everyone is human, and our humanity can always relate to another person’s.

Mary is the one hanging on the left. You can see her voluminous skirts restricted by rope. Photo by Alexander Gardner.
Mary is the one hanging on the far left. You can see her voluminous skirts restricted by rope. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

Mary Surratt’s unprecedented hanging marked a departure from 19th century chivalric mores which made women untouchable by the hangman’s noose in America. Yet while the former practice of leniency towards women may seem like a positive thing, I believe it stemmed from the belief that women were not as mentally developed as men and thus could not be held responsible for their actions in the same way. If Mary had been guilty without a doubt of the murder of another human being, her punishment may have been a just one. But the historical records as depicted in the novel show the evidence against her to be circumstantial at best. The government, though, was eager to make an example of her as a warning to all women not to think that they could get away with treason just because of their gender.

I think Ms. Higginbotham’s decision to bring to life two female characters involved in a narrative that so often only features men is an important one. When most people think of the Lincoln assassination, they think only of Lincoln and Booth. History buffs may also know of the man who attempted to murder Secretary Seward on the same night. But how many know of the woman who hung from the gallows alongside them? Although her role in history was not a positive one (whether she was or was not actually guilty of the crimes she was sentenced for), Mary Surratt should not be erased from history.

Hanging Mary will be published March 1st by Sourcebooks Landmark. You can read excerpts of it or order it from the author’s website or pick it up from any major bookseller.

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