Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born to a slave-owning family in Maryland’s Prince George’s County in 1823. She was the middle child and the only daughter.
Her mother was widowed when Mary was two, but Mrs. Jenkins reared her children without remarrying. She managed a small plantation and managed to send her three children to private schools.
Although the family was Episcopalian, she sent 12-year-old Mary to the Academy for Young Ladies, a school associated with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. There Mary converted to Catholicism.
When the academy closed four years later in 1839, Mary reluctantly returned home.
A year later, she married John Surratt. She was 16; he was 26 and a disreputable alcoholic who had already fathered an illegitimate child.
The new bride got involved in a growing Catholic parish near the farm where they settled.
They moved again.
Then a fire destroyed their home, forcing John to work in Virginia while Mary and the children lived with relatives in Maryland.
He earned enough to buy land and build a tavern in Maryland. Mary and the children moved there in 1853.
John Surratt’s drinking cost most of the profits from running the tavern and a post office on the site, but Mary raised tobacco, bred hogs and pigeons, managed a storage granary, ran a livery stable and a blacksmith shop, and found the money to send their children to Catholic schools.
John Surratt died of a stroke in 1862. To stay solvent, Mary leased the inn and moved to a house the family owned on H Street in Washington, D.C. She took in boarders to support herself.
Her son John took over the post office for 14 months, a good position for a Confederate spy and courier.
Source: Review of “The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot To Kill Abraham Lincoln” by Kate Clifford Larson. Review written by The Rev. Paul Liston in Potomac Catholic Heritage, Spring 2009