When The Rev. Jacob Walter told the newspapers there wasn’t enough evidence against Mary Surratt to hang a cat, Archbishop Martin Spalding already had his hands full.
The Rev. Jacob Walter
The archbishop, spiritual leader of Washington and Baltimore Catholics in 1865, was already under pressure from the Know-Nothings. The sometimes violent anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Protestant group was stirring up anti-Catholic sentiment by pointing out that several of the assassination conspirators were Catholics.
Although the Catholic churches had observed a day of mourning, held a High Mass for the repose of the president and tolled their church bells of a half hour as the Protestant churches did, the bishop feared a backlash over the conspirators’ connection to the church.
He was also in negotiations with Attorney General Joshua Speed over the case of The Most Rev. Patrick Lynch, a Charleston bishop accused of disloyalty.
On top of that, he was concerned for Catholics living in the South.
Spalding ordered Fr. Walter to keep mum about Mrs. Surratt.
Fr. Walter, who said who took his superior’s warning as a suggestion rather than an order, blithely ignored it.
He went to the Executive Mansion with Surratt’s 22-year-old daughter in tow, hoping for a last-minute reprieve for Mrs. Surratt. When the president refused to see them, Anna Surratt threw herself on the mansion steps. Word got back to the archbishop.
Walter said he was confident no Catholic woman would take Holy Communion on Holy Thursday and commit murder on Good Friday.
James A. Hardie, the army’s inspector general and a devout Catholic, warned Spalding to keep a lid on Walter.
The archbishop was anxious to end the confrontation with the government. He called Hardie a staunch friend of the church, but he told Hardie that Walter was also doing what he believed best.
Hardie demanded Walter be silent as a condition for his visiting Mrs. Surratt in prison.
Walter agreed to keep mum: “Of course, I cannot let Mrs. Surratt die without the sacraments, so, if I must say yes, I say yes.”
Walter, known for standing up for the disenfranchised and collecting items for the poor, did give Hardie a tongue-lashing though: “You wish me to promise that I shall say nothing in regard to the innocence of Mrs Surratt? Do you know the relation exisitng between a pastor and his flock? I will defend the character of the poorest woman in my parish at the risk of my life…You wish to seal my lips; I wish you to understand that I was born a freeman and will die one…”
Walter kept quiet for about a quarter century. Then he wrote his side of the story.
Source: A Parish for the Federal City: St. Patrick’s in Washington, 1794-1994 by Morris J. MacGregor