The reason the history books don’t talk much about John Surratt is because his story sheds light on the real Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Surratt was John Wilkes Booth’s closest confident in a plot to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and spirit him to Richmond to be held for ransom. This plan was supported and probably fomented by The Grey Ghost (Col. John Mosby), who controlled Northern Virgina and parts of Maryland during the Civil War. Large military operations like the kidnapping of a head-of-state run through chains-of-command, and captains like Booth report to colonels like Mosby who report to Supreme Commanders. The kidnap plan involved dozens of secret accomplices, as well as a large cavalry unit, which was massed near the border on the eve of its execution. But since Booth and Surratt were surrounded by double agents, the kidnapping was easily thwarted through a shift in the president’s itinerary. Yet instead of arresting the plotters as one might have expected, the War Department left them all in place.
Surratt fled the country when he learned the kidnap had suddenly turned to murder as he wanted no part of it. He hid first in Canada, then Ireland, then Italy, then Egypt, often seeking refuge inside Catholic churches. Initially, a large award had been issued for his capture and return dead-or-alive, but strangely, as soon as his trail was uncovered in Europe, Stanton rescinded the reward offer. Suddenly, the War Department seemed uninterested in Surratt, although his mother had been swiftly hanged. Eventually, Surratt was captured and brought back to Washington, where he was visited in jail by Charles Dunham posing as Sandford Conover, who offered him immunity if he committed perjury. Surratt declined the offer, went to trial, and the case ended with a hung jury.
Surratt never denied involvement in the kidnap plot, but despite employing every possible trick to convict him, the government was unable to connect Surratt with the murder. This was a civil trial, and not a military tribunal like the one his mother had faced and not so easily manipulated. After Surratt walked free, it opened some minds to the possibility of a cover-up, and some became angry learning that the first woman executed in American history might have been a patsy.