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Gotta check those sources

So yesterday one of The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite websites, History.com, was running a cool interactive feature called “Bet You Didn’t Know,” a set of 552 facts about history that the website bet we didn’t know.

Mary Surratt

I’m not one to pass up a resource like that, so I poked around for a while until I came across one of those facts that makes my inner legal geek stand up and take notice:

Mary Surratt, the owner of a Washington boardinghouse, became the first woman to receive the death penalty in 1865, after she was convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.1

Um… no.

Not by a long shot.

As a matter of fact, the somewhat dubious honor of being “the first woman to receive the death penalty” — at least as far as the available records show — belongs to one Jane Champion, who was hanged in James City, Virginia, in the year 1632. The records don’t say what her crime was.2

She was followed by Margaret Hatch of James City, hanged in 1633 for murder, and then by a pair of Plymouth, Massachusetts, women: Dorothy Talby, hanged in 1638 for murder; and Mary Latham, hanged in 1643 for adultery.3

In fact, Mary Surratt is number 280 on a list of 356 women put to death in America between 1632 and 1962. The oldest was number 25 on the list, 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse of Massachusetts, one of five women hanged on 19 July 1692 for witchcraft; the youngest was number 121 on the list, a 12-year-old Native America girl named Hannah Ocuish, hanged in Connecticut in 1786 for murder.4

Of the 356, 197 were African-American, 130 were white, five were Native American, three were Hispanic and the race of 21 was not reported. By far, the vast majority — 219 or 61.5% — were executed for murder. Witchcraft was the second most common crime, with 26 or 7.3%; followed by arson, 20 or 5.62%; murder-robbery, 18 or 5%; and poisoning, 12 or 3.37%.5

And nearly 86% of the women executed were hanged — 306 in all. Another 25 were electrocuted; 15 were burned to death; seven went to the gas chamber; and the method of execution wasn’t reported in three cases.6

So… no. Mary Surratt wasn’t “the first woman to receive the death penalty.”

What she was, was the first woman to be executed by the federal government.

There has been a federal death penalty law on the books since 1790. That first statute provided for death as the punishment for treason, murder on federal territory, piracy and counterfeiting.7 Surratt was convicted of conspiracy to murder Lincoln by military tribunal and hanged in July 1865, the first woman ever executed by the United States government.8

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Now phrasing it that way, you’d think there’d be a whole laundry list of women executed by the United States government after Mary Surratt. The fact is, Mary Surratt was one of exactly — count ’em — two women ever executed by the federal government. After the Surratt hanging, it would take nearly more 88 years before another woman would face the federal executioner.

That woman, in June of 1953: Ethel Rosenberg, convicted with her husband Julius of espionage.9

And the moral of this story, of course, is: even if it’s on your favorite website, it ain’t true just because it’s on the Internet. We still need to check our sources.

Sigh… A genealogist’s work is never done…


 
SOURCES

Photographs:
Mary Surratt: Wikimedia Commons

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg: Roger Higgins, New York World-Telegram and the Sun, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

  1. Bet You Didn’t Know,” History.com (http://www.history.com : accessed 13 Jan 2013).
  2. Rob Gallagher, “Female Executions: The Espy File 1632 To 1962,” Before The Needles; website as it existed 29 Dec 2009, Internet Archive Wayback Machine (http://web.archive.org : accessed 13 Jan 2013).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States,” 1 Stat. 112 (30 Apr 1790); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 13 Jan 2013).
  8. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Mary Surratt,” rev. 13 Jan 2013.
  9. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” rev. 6 Jan 2013.
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