American “Criminal” Women

Mary Eugenia Jenkins Surratt (1817-1865)

Mary Surratt was the first woman executed in America.

Surrat was hung, along with three men, on July 7, 1865.

Surrat was hung, along with three men, on July 7, 1865.

On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. His co-conspirator, Lewis Powell, stabbed (but did not kill) Secretary of State William Seward, third in line for the presidency. Another conspirator, George Atzerodt, was dispatched to kill Vice President Johnson, but failed to even attempt his assignment. Mary Surratt was convicted and hung in the fallout after that fateful day.

The players involved in the assassination of President Lincoln were associated by Mary Surratt’s son via the boarding house she ran, which she supported herself with after her husband died in 1864. During the war she had made two business trips to areas of southern sympathy, which was later used as evidence against her. These two “facts” comprised the sum of the government’s case against her; she had private conversations in her home and traveled to conduct business.

Surratt’s cowardly son fled to Canada before he could be captured, but returned and stood trial in 1867, two years after his mother had been executed for his crime. Mary Surratt’s trial was a Military Commission, and was prosecuted overzealously in the case of this lone female.  Some scholars have speculated about suppression of evidence that would have cleared her. She was denied the opportunity to testify on her own behalf, and some of the men involved were intimidated into falsely testifying against her. To add insult to injury, the lawyers assigned to defend her learned of her conviction through the newspaper.

Surratt was hung, along with four “accomplices,” while four others were given life sentences. President Johnson suspended the writ of habeas corpus for her, preventing her appeal. Before the sentence was carried out, Lewis Powell, who was considered the “brains” of the operation, pleaded for Surratt’s release and proclaimed her innocence. In the end, President Johnson himself articulated Surratt’s real offense against America when he said she “kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953)

Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and her husband Julius were sentenced to death on April 15, 1951. Mrs. Rosenberg was the first woman in America to be executed for espionage.

Arrest Photo of Ethel Rosenberg

Arrest Photo of Ethel Rosenberg

During the “red scare” that followed World War II, and because of the relatively open anti-Semitism of the era, the Rosenbergs was easy targets for government prosecutors. Julius Rosenberg and his brother-in-law were arrested in the summer of 1950; her arrest followed shortly after. Initially the government provided no specific evidence to support the prosecution’s claim against her of espionage, and it was not until months later that they claimed that she had typed notes on atomic secrets for her brother, David Greenglass. Both insisted on their innocence, but Rosenberg’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass (who was never indicted) testified against them. David Greenglass then turned state’s witness in exchange for reduced charges and a light sentence.

The Rosenberg’s sentence of death came as shock to civil libertarians around the world, and ignited a wave of humanitarian activism on their behalf. Even J. Edgar Hoover recommended a lighter sentence. Sadly, the campaign for clemency failed. Jean-Paul Sartre called the case a “legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation.”

The Rosenbergs were not only the first civilians ever executed for espionage, they were the first civilians to be executed for espionage during peacetime. Ethel Rosenberg was not even convicted of treason, but “conspiracy to commit espionage.” Technically, the Soviet Union and America were still allies as a result of their cooperation in WWII. The couple was executed on June 19, 1953, the day after their 14th wedding anniversary. They were survived by two sons under the age of eleven.

Morton Sobell, who was accused along with them of Soviet espionage, admitted in 2008 that he and Julius Rosenberg were Soviet spies, and confessed that Ethel Rosenberg was completely innocent. She had paid the ultimate price for her guilt by association.


12 comments on “American “Criminal” Women

  1. lehigh389 says:

    Very enlightening post. I knew about Ethel Rosenberg but not Surratt.

  2. bluelyon says:

    You write that Ethel Rosenberg was the first woman in America to be executed for espionage. Who are the others? Or is she the only one?

  3. Patti says:

    Wow, another great post. How tragic and shocking! I feel like such an ignoramus not knowing these things. If you keep this up (and I know you will) I’m going to need a place to scream.

  4. Patti says:

    Sorry, I still don’t like that “gravatar” of mine. Guess I’ll have to research how to change it unless anyone would like to school me.

  5. Good questions, BL. I don’t know, actually. That would be a good research question.

    Patti, you are NOT an ignoramus! This history has been deliberately kept from you in an attempt to keep you shackled to men and to prevent you from having any reasonable role models for anything. Don’t ever be mad at yourself over this–be mad at the patriarchy.

    That said, I think if you go to you can replace your gravatar. Or if you have a wordpress account you can upload any photo you want for your profile pic.

  6. cyn623 says:

    Interesting reading, Anna Belle. It reinforces the fact that while things are always changing, certain things remain the same

  7. cyn623 says:

    Whoa, look at me! I totally relate to that gravatar!

  8. Patti says:

    Anna Belle, you’re correct. It’s just the more you teach me the angrier I get at what I never knew. And I’ve always been mad at the patriarchy, don’t worry about that!

  9. Oh, I know, Patti. You can imagine my increasing rage when, at the age of 22, I took a women in history class and learned all about women I should have known about all along. I was pissed off for quite a while. I understand your anger. Glad to see you aren’t blaming yourself!

  10. marille says:

    Anna Belle, can you cross post at the new agenda about these two death sentences. that part of history needs to get out and receive the widest exposure.

  11. Stephen Sparkman says:

    Mary Surratt, was executed by being hanged, on Friday, July 7th, 1865, 84 days (12 weeks) after John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, on Friday, April 14th, 1865. Friday, June 19th, 1953 & Friday, July 7th, 1865 differ by 32,172 days (4,596 weeks & 0 days).
    Before Sunday, July 11, 2010, the 2 dates of execution were:
    Surratt: 52,964 days: equaling 7,566 weeks & 2 days.
    Rosenberg: 20,841 days: equaling 2,977 weeks & 2 days.
    Math_Maestro @ Yahoo! Answers

  12. A&E’s Biography Channel informed me of Mary Surratt’s actions & being executed by hanging, “way back” around 1996, approximately. 36x24x36=31,104. My username @ Yahoo! Answers is Math_Maestro. My address requires all ten Arabic Numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 0) it is also correct. 63 times 927 does equal 58,401.

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