In 1880, Rev. Jacob Walter noticed a letter in the popular Century magazine complaining that Mary Surratt’s priest had told her not to assert her innocence from the gallows.
Since he was the priest mentioned, Fr. Walter decided to tell his side. He did it in a Catholic magazine.
Fr. Walter, Mrs. Surratt’s priest for the last week of her life, wrote that he would have told his story earlier, but it takes time for people to lay aside prejudices. The whole country was convulsed with the horror of the assassination in 1865, he wrote, so he decided to wait before making a full statement.
“Very few persons at this date believe that Mary E. Surratt knew anything about the plot to assassinate the president,” he wrote in 1880.
In the article, he called Mrs. Surratt a “quiet, amiable lady.” He actually had met her for the first time after the assassination, when Anna Surratt asked the activist priest to visit her mother. Mrs. Surratt was a devout churchgoer, and her regular priest was also in the loop.
In his article, Fr. Walter said that Mrs. Surratt made a solemn declaration of her innocence to him just before her execution.
Her told her: “You may say so if you wish, but it will do no good.”
The priest gave her the sacraments in her cell so she would not be “exposed to the public gaze” during her prayers at her final moment.
Fr. Walter witnessed the hanging from the scaffold, looked down to see that Mrs. Surratt had died without a struggle, then immediately went to tell Annie Surratt it was all over and to comfort her.
He planned to take Annie Surratt and her friend home in his carriage, but someone had moved it from inside the prison walls. A general offered him an ambulance to use for the ride to Surratt’s house. As they rode out of the prison, they spotted Fr. Walter’s carriage outside, transferred to it and drove to Mrs. Surratt’s home on H Street.
Source: United States Catholic Historical Magazine, Volume 3, No. 13, 1880