Mary Surratt's Heartless Judge

(from John Alexander's GHOSTS: Washington's most famous ghost stories - Illustration by Harry Dierken)

Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who had been the presiding judge at the Lincoln conspiracy trial and had insisted on the death penalty for Mary Surratt, was said to have changed dramatically afterward. Holt, who was from Kentucky, had apparently never been well liked in Washington. Once, when he was commissioner of patents, his boss recommended him for promotion to Postmaster General of the United States because "he has no heart." Gerald Cullinan, in his book The Post Office Department, says, "he was taciturn, vindictive, and ill-mannered." Attitudes toward Holt didn't change after the conspirators were hanged, and he began to increasingly lead the life of a recluse. Newspaper articles from that period say he withdrew into the privacy of his home, which was described as decaying, with bars on the windows, and shades that never permitted the sun's rays inside.

One reporter in the late 1880's said that the once-manicured garden of Holt's house had become an "overgrowth of weeds and tangled vines." Children crossed the street to avoid the old house, which stood only a few blocks from the Old Brick Capitol Prison where Mary Surratt was originally incarcerated. Judge Holt apparently spent the remainder of his years in almost total solitude. Infrequently, he would venture out to buy food, but he is said to have much preferred to be sequestered in his shadowy surroundings, among his many volumes. Neighbors were quoted by one writer as saying, "His irrevocable decision weighed heavily upon him," and they speculated that he spent his time rereading the transcripts of the famous trial.

After Holt's death, the new owners of his house worked diligently to make it a cheerful, warm home, but the presence of the departed "man with no heart" is said to have chilled more than one room. The sound of someone pacing in the upstairs library is reported to have often lasted for hours. Capitol Hill residents were sure they knew who it was. They used to tell of a remorseful Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, sentenced to an eternity of pacing back and forth while reading over and over again the testimony taken at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.

When the old house was torn down, the story changed somewhat. The Judge has been seen when the hour is late, clad in his midnight blue Union uniform, with cape pulled tightly about him, walking down 1st Street. According to the legend, he is headed to the Old Brick Capitol to try to learn the truth from Mary Surratt.