Hanging Mary: A Novel

Hanging Mary: A Novel

by Susan Higginbotham


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"This is my favorite kind of historical fiction: evocative, deeply moving, and meticulously researched."—Jillian Cantor, author of Margot and The Hours Count

Meet Mary Surratt, the woman who could have saved Lincoln. Find out what stopped her in this vivid reimagining of Lincoln's assassination.

1864, Washington City. One has to be careful with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.

A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he's invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.

But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?

Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492613626
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 301,068
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitor's Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Hanging Mary

A Novel


Sourcebooks, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Susan Higginbotham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4926-1363-3




There were two things for which I could thank my late husband: buying our house in Washington, and dying.

It was in 1862 when my husband left this world, but two years later I still woke sometimes, trembling, before I remembered I was perfectly free. No more drunken rages to endure. No more finding my husband facedown on the floorboards. No cuffs to the head, which to John's credit did not come that often, but of which I always lived in dread. I could lie in bed and stretch out comfortably, knowing no brute was going to soil the sheets or violate my body.

A drunken man is seldom careful with his money, and John was no exception: though he was fairly prosperous when I married him (it was, I must admit, one of his attractions), he made bad decisions, the worst of which was to build the tavern and bar I continued to run after his death. How I hated the place! It brought John to his ruin, I sincerely believed, because as a naturally taciturn man, he had to drink harder than ever to make himself jovial to his customers. Worst, it left him in debt, which I still owed — his parting gift to me. For two years, my children and I struggled to maintain this folly of his, and with the prospect that Maryland would soon adopt a new constitution that would free our three slaves, we could expect only to struggle harder.

But John made one investment that brought in a steady income: a handsome house on H Street in Washington, about fifteen miles from this sleepy crossroads in southern Maryland. For years, it had been rented to a reliable tenant — until, one sweltering August day, I received a letter. Poor health was obliging my tenant to move to the country, and he would not be renewing the lease. So atop of everything else, we would have to find a new tenant, one who might or might not be dependable. Bad news — until I sat back and pondered the situation more thoroughly.

This was my chance to start a new life.

* * *

"The tenant in Washington is not renewing his lease," I told my son and my daughter as we sat down to our dinner that evening. "After praying about the matter, I have come up with an idea I hope will suit us all. Instead of leasing our house in Washington, we move into it ourselves. If we lease this place, and take in boarders at H Street, we can live much less expensively than we are living now, and we can pay off some of those wretched debts."

"Boarders?" Anna wrinkled her nose.

"We must, my dear. Even if we did not need the income, it would be foolish to waste all of that space. And what is wrong with taking in a few quiet, well-behaved people in the city when we already take our chances with anyone who

passes through here?" "That is a point. And there will be shops, and concerts, and the theater ... I like the idea, Ma."

"And we can walk to church as well. You, Johnny?"

"Suits me fine. And I might even have a boarder for us: my friend Mr. Weichmann. He's got a government job now, so he can pay, and I know he's not happy with his present lodgings. Too far from his job, and too large and lonely, he says." Johnny looked sidelong at his older sister. "And no pretty girls."

"Johnny! If he is to come to live with us, you mustn't encourage that sort of thing. I won't abide it. But when can we move, Ma? I will need a new dress for the theater. It won't do to walk around in rags, or we will never attract a good class of boarder."

"Don't pack yet, child. We must first lease this place. And we have to get the Washington house fixed up as well." In truth, I was scarcely less excited than Anna and was already settling in my mind which furniture to take to Washington and which to leave here.

* * *

The last of the evening tipplers had weaved away from the bar and Anna had gone to bed when Johnny knocked at my door. "Ma, you're going to rent the place to someone on our side, aren't you?"

"Most certainly."

War is men's business, I had always believed, but on the day Lincoln was inaugurated, my oldest son, Isaac, rushed off to Texas and later joined the Confederate army, so it drew me in. It drew me in another way as well: my husband — who, like most people in this part of southern Maryland, sympathized with the South — allowed the tavern to become a stop for those making the dangerous journey across the Potomac River into Virginia, running the blockade between North and South with goods, mail, and money. I had no choice in the matter, of course, but had I been consulted, I no doubt would have agreed. How could I do otherwise, with a son fighting for the Confederacy? So after my husband died, I saw no reason to alter the tavern's status as a safe haven — especially as my Johnny had been aiding the Confederacy too, since he left school after my husband's death, first by using the post office in our tavern as a drop for those wishing to send mail to the South, then, once the Union took his postmaster position away from him for disloyalty, as a courier himself.

"I have been thinking, Johnny, that a tenant may not be necessary. Should you want to run the place on your own —"

Johnny shook his head. "I'm tired of peeling drunks off the floor, Ma, and I can serve the Confederacy a lot better if I don't have this place to worry about. No, as a matter of fact, I was thinking when I was tending bar tonight that I know a man who might be perfect, a Mr. Lloyd. He's in Washington now, but he stops here whenever business brings him through Prince George's County, and I know he's been hankering for a country life, if he can find something to do."

"And he is a Southern man?"

"Yes — and even better, he's a man who minds his own business."




"I don't like my present lodgings, Father."

My father looked around at my room, which was large and comfortably furnished. It was not cool — no place could be so in Washington City in late August — but a shade tree rendered it at least tolerable. "Why not, child? The Misses Donovan are sweet ladies."

"They are sweet old ladies. We do nothing besides drink tea and go to Mass. If I go outside, I have to go with their servant, Clarence, and he is almost as old a lady as they are."

"Child —"

"Well, it is true. 'Miss Nora, the misses won't like you going on this street. There is a saloon here!' There's a saloon on every street in Washington, Father. I might as well be a prisoner."

"Surely you exaggerate, my dear."

"There's nothing to read here, either."

"Why, they have a library full of books."

"Dreary books. Dull books. Nothing but essays and history and religious works, because the misses consider novels unsuitable reading for impressionable young ladies." I frowned. "Well, that's not entirely true; they do have Clarissa, which I have read. Twice. It's very sad."

"What about the piano? Don't they let you play upon it?"

"Yes, but it's out of tune. They can't hear it well enough to know the difference. When I asked them if they could engage a tuner, they acted as if I were trying to turn the place into the Canterbury music hall." I sighed theatrically. "I might as well enter a convent, Father. This dreariness is insupportable."

My father sighed as well.

My mother had died when I was quite small, and my father, having loved my mother dearly and not caring to remarry, had sent me away for my education. The schools I attended were not the sort of places depicted by Mr. Dickens or Miss Charlotte Brontë (whose novels I devoured), but well-run, quiet establishments where I learned to write an elegant hand, play the piano, and speak tolerable French. In such a manner, I had passed a happy, if somewhat monotonous, existence in tranquil surroundings until this June, when at age nineteen, I had reached the point where there was very little that could be taught to me (or so I thought), and so I came home.

Father was a messenger and a collector for the Metropolitan Bank and had been so for decades. He had once left his position due to ill health, but his superiors missed him so sorely, and he missed them so sorely, that they begged him to resume his duties, which he did, with a rise in salary as his reward. He probably could have afforded to lease a small house, with me keeping it, when I left school. But he worked long hours and sometimes had to go out of town on business, and Washington City was not the quiet town it had been when he came there in the 1830s. The war had brought in people from everywhere and every walk of life, and Father feared that, home alone, I might fall into unsuitable company. So he had placed me to board with the Misses Donovan, just a few blocks away from his own lodgings.

"You are truly unhappy here, child?"

"I do like the ladies, Father," I replied truthfully. "But they are old maids, and if I stay here much longer, I will turn into one myself. I can just feel myself growing old here."

"I will consult with Peter, then. Perhaps he will know of a suitable lodging."

I suppressed a groan. There were two sorts of men my father admired — learned men and men of religion — and my older brother, Peter, an aspiring priest who had taken a teaching job at the soon-to-be-opened Boston College, had the happy distinction of falling into both categories. For the past few years, Father had been in the habit of consulting him about any business involving the family, which, since my older sister, Hannah, was a cloistered nun, generally meant my business. As Peter had often told Father that I was overindulged, I could imagine only with the greatest trepidation what sort of lodging, short of a convent, he would consider suitable. I knew better than to argue, however, although I felt that Father hardly needed Peter's advice. It was true that he had no more than a charity school education and that he felt this keenly, but he could read anything put in front of him and wrote a beautiful hand. He could add and subtract long figures in his head while others — Peter included — were scratching their pens on papers and frowning over their errors.

Weeks passed, and I was resigning myself to staying with the Misses Donovan and getting used to their untuned piano when, in late September, Father came to see me again, this time with Peter — come all the way from Boston to see to my affairs — at his side. "Peter has found an ideal situation for you, Nora. A widow, Mrs. Surratt, is moving to Washington from the country and will be taking in boarders at her house on H Street. She is a very respectable lady."

A respectable widow sounded to me little better than an old maid, but I nodded politely.

"She has been keeping a tavern and bar in Surrattsville, in Prince George's County in Maryland," my brother informed my father. I noticed Peter was prematurely balding — unlike Father, who at age sixty-four still had a full head of gray hair.

"A bar?" Father, who had never been a drinking man, frowned.

"Her husband ran the bar, and it was necessary for her to continue with that line of business in order to live. She has long wished to give it up, she told Father Wiget, and move to Washington, but it was not until recently, when the tenant here failed to renew his lease, that this became a realistic possibility."

My father's expression lightened. "She knows Father Wiget, then?" As well as being the priest at St. Aloysius, he was the president of Gonzaga College, where Peter had been both a pupil and a teacher.

"Yes. She has known him for many years, and her sons were at his school of St. Thomas Manor before it closed."

I perked up. Mrs. Surratt had sons?

"She has had a difficult life, Father Wiget tells me. Her husband was adopted by a family of substance and inherited a handsome estate, but he was a poor businessman and a heavy drinker and squandered much of his holdings, and the war did the rest. They have only the tavern and the house in Washington." My brother glanced at me. "Nora, I have spoken rather freely. I hope that if you do go to live with Mrs. Surratt, you will treat what I have said as matters of confidence."

"Yes," I said. In truth, I had been too busy wondering about Mrs. Surratt's sons — Two? Three? More? Handsome? — to care about her difficult life.

"Are her sons much about the house?" Father asked.

"The elder is serving with the Confederate army — coming from where they do, that is to be expected, though — and the younger helps his mother with her affairs. Father Wiget sees the younger one occasionally when business takes him to Washington and knows him to be of good character. But what makes this situation ideal — and, I believe, more congenial for Nora than her present one — is that Mrs. Surratt has a daughter, an accomplished young lady of twenty-one. She will therefore have a suitable companion."

"It sounds ideal," said Father. "I knew that you would come up with something."

Peter nodded modestly.

"Of course, I must meet this lady and satisfy myself that Nora will be safe in her care, but I am sure that is merely a formality. Is she living here now?" "No, her business necessitates her staying in Surrattsville for a while longer, but her daughter will be moving here to set up the house."

"Then if Nora is agreeable" — I nodded — "we will drive over there on Saturday afternoon and introduce ourselves."

Two days later, we made our trip to the country. Father, who did not keep his own equipment, had rented a rather smart buggy for the occasion. It was a beautiful September day, neither too hot nor too chilly, and I felt very pleased with myself as, clad in my newest striped gown and the brand-new bonnet I had convinced Father I needed for the occasion, I settled into the buggy. Still, I could not help wishing I had a fine young suitor beside me instead of my father. We drove through the streets of Washington to the Navy Yard Bridge, after which we passed into the countryside. "Let me give you the advice I have always given you, child: speak little about the war in these parts — anywhere, really, but especially in these parts. Feeling is very strong here against the Union."

"I know that, Father."

"A reminder can't go amiss."

Although the war had been raging for over three years, I had never succeeded in finding out my father's true sympathies, so diligently did he follow the rule he had set for himself and me. I had come to suspect he, in fact, had no sympathy for either side: that his allegiance lay solely with Washington City, where he arrived over twenty-five years ago as a poor Irishman and where he had married, fathered six children, and buried my mother and my three baby sisters. His work brought him into every street and alleyway of the city; there was simply no address he could not find. If a building had been torn down over the past two decades, he could tell you where it had stood and what had replaced it. Few people in the city did not know him at least by sight, and there had to be a truly raging snowstorm to keep him from performing his duties. His affection for the city extended even to its miserable summer heat, in which he took an almost proprietary pride.

In good time we arrived at the crossroads of Surrattsville, so named because the Surratts had once operated the local post office out of their tavern, which, along with its outbuildings, was the only habitation I could see in the immediate vicinity. Being accustomed to town life, I understood why the family was so eager to leave this quiet place.

As a colored servant took charge of our horse and buggy, Mrs. Surratt came outside to greet us. "This is the young lady Father Wiget recommended to me?"

"Yes, ma'am. This is my daughter, Miss Honora Fitzpatrick. We call her Nora."

I stood by silently as my father and Mrs. Surratt eyed each other. It was clear they each approved. Clad in gray half mourning, Mrs. Surratt looked to be in her early forties. She was tall, with dark brown hair, and her figure was of substantial, though not fat, proportions. As for my father, with his gray hair and his erect figure, and with his faint Irish lilt, his presence was a courtly one. Had he not been aghast at the idea of replacing my late mother, he could have remarried six times over.

Father explained to Mrs. Surratt what a modest and innocent young woman I was, presumably, I suppose, to assure her that I would not be attempting to sneak men into the house or to do any of the other untoward things that more adventurous boarders than I evidently managed. It was all quite true — I was modest and innocent — but he made me sound like such a dull creature, it was disheartening to hear it all. Fortunately, there was not much to say about this subject, and the conversation soon turned to Mrs. Surratt, who assured Father that her boardinghouse would be a perfect repository for my virtue. Only well-behaved young men would be allowed to board, anyone with liquor in his rooms would be turned out immediately, and I would be sharing a room with either Mrs. Surratt herself or her daughter, Anna (an equally respectable and virtuous creature), depending on how many boarders were in residence. It went without saying that I would be expected to attend Mass with the family regularly; as a matter of fact, Mrs. Surratt stated, the ease of walking to church from the H Street house had been one of the chief advantages of removing to the city.


Excerpted from Hanging Mary by SUSAN HIGGINBOTHAM. Copyright © 2016 Susan Higginbotham. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Front Cover,
Title Page,
Part I,
1. Mary Surratt — August 1864,
2. Nora — August 1864 to October 1864,
3. Mary — October to November 1864,
4. Nora — December 1864,
5. Mary — December 1864,
6. Nora — January 1865,
7. Mary — January 1865,
8. Nora — January 1865,
9. Mary — January 1865,
10. Nora — February 1865,
11. Mary — February 1865,
12. Nora — March 1865,
13. Mary — March 1865,
14. Nora — March 1865,
15. Mary — March 1865,
16. Nora — March 1865,
17. Mary — March 1865,
18. Nora — March 1865,
19. Mary — March 1865,
20. Nora — April 3, 1865,
21. Mary — April 3, 1865,
22. Nora — April 1865,
23. Mary — April 10 to 11, 1865,
24. Nora — April 11, 1865,
25. Mary — April 13 to 14, 1865,
26. Nora — April 13 to 15, 1865,
Part II,
27. Mary — April 15, 1865,
28. Nora — April 15, 1865,
29. Mary — April 15, 1865,
30. Nora — April 16 to 17, 1865,
31. Mary — April 17, 1865,
32. Nora — April 17 to 18, 1865,
33. Mary — April 18 to 22, 1865,
34. Nora — April 22 to 24, 1865,
35. Mary — April 24 to 30, 1865,
36. Nora — April 24 to 30, 1865,
37. Mary — May 8 to 13, 1865,
38. Nora — April 30 to May 11, 1865,
39. Mary — May 13 to 18, 1865,
40. Nora — May 13 to May 31, 1865,
41. Mary — May 25 to June 6, 1865,
42. Nora — June 1865,
43. Mary — June 19 to July 6, 1865,
44. Nora — July 6, 1865,
45. Mary — July 6, 1865,
46. Nora — July 6 to 7, 1865,
47. Mary — July 6 to 7, 1865,
48. Nora — July 7, 1865,
49. Mary — July 7, 1865,
50. Nora — July 7, 1865,
51. Mary — July 7, 1865,
52. Nora — July 7, 1865,
Epilogue: Nora — June 1869,
Author's Note,
Reading Group Guide,
A Conversation with the Author,
About the Author,
Back Cover,

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