Mary Eugenia Jenkins Surratt (1817-1865)
Mary Surratt was the first woman executed in America.
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.
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.