O death! Thy name is woman

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…


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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21 Responses to O death! Thy name is woman

  1. I’d read about the hanging of Mary Surratt, even seen the photo of the hanging bodies, but I’d never had the prospective that you provide here. Thank you, Judy. Tomorrow I want to learn more about Hannah Ocuish when I’m in Hartford.

    Thank you, too, for your wonderful footnotes, which lead to so many great resources.

  2. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Interesting story, and good catch, Judy! People hail the I-net as if it were some type of golden oracle, and there is SO MUCH irresponsible information out there that I tend to check everything from at least three different perspectives. When I leave my genealogy work to my family, I don’t want it to be tainted by bad information!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good way of thinking, Mary Ann! Checking, and checking again, and checking yet again!

      • Mary Ann Thurmond says:

        When I first started working on genealogy I had no teacher or mentor and didn’t know what I was doing. But I thought about it for awhile and decided that I would set a goal of a minimum of three “water-tight” pieces of information for each family member. Of course, on some, I’ve wildly exceeded that number and on others—well, I’m still looking!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Aw, come on, Mary Ann! We can find three pieces of information for each of our Robertson side ancestors! Of course, none of the three will agree with any of the others, but… hey… details…

          • Mary Ann Thurmond says:

            And, of course, genealogy is one of the studies in which “the devil’s in the details” for sure, and the details have to match or the searcher has to know why they don’t!! I’m convinced that we’ll get all of our Robertsons squared up and pinned down if we all keep working at it.

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            I sure hope you’re right!!!

  3. Another nail in the coffin for why you shouldn’t believe everything posted on the internet AND why being specific matters. Thanks again for another great post!

  4. What I want to know is, did you contact History.com and set them straight? Or at the very least, give them the link to this post?

  5. Lindi says:

    What a great article! Your “inner legal geek” tingling made me smile and laugh. Interestingly, I checked your link to the Espy file where it has the list of female executions, and found that that too is missing information. The journals of Michael Grant, a town clerk of Windsor CT, list Alse Young being hung in Hartford Connecticut on 26 May 1647. She should be #7 on the list.

    Diary of Matthew Grant is digitized here: http://cslib.cdmhost.com/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15019coll14/id/414 List of those Hanged is p.190.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Lindi — and that’s most interesting about the Grant diary. I suspect Espy went only with official records, which of course means there are a lot of missing events.

  6. Well, this is grim stuff, all right. Did Mary Surratt conspire with anyone? Anyone we know? Or was John Wilkes Booth a completely solo act?

  7. Anita says:

    The History Channel is wrong a lot these days. It’s really kind of disheartening.

  8. Pingback: Murder! Name Dropping! Reinventing Genealogy? It’s Follow Friday | finding forgotten stories

  9. M. Gray says:

    There is a great movie about Mary Surratt called The Conspirator.

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