Shade of Guilt

updated 02/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT WAS 4 A.M., AND ARMY CAPT. DAVID Osborne was sleeping in his quarters at Fort McNair in Washington. Osborne, 34, is not given to flights of imagination. He talks reluctantly about the events three years ago this week—on Feb. 12, Lincoln's birthday—when he was awakened by piteous sounds of moaning and weeping. "It was a female voice," he says, "and it was crying out, 'Oh, help me, help me!' It was coming out of the basement."

Osborne raced to the door that led to the basement of Quarters 20, where he lives, and flung it open. There was nothing there but the wind sighing in the night.

Osborne refuses to speculate about his experience. But for those who know about Fort McNair's bloody secret, there is one possible explanation: The ghost of Mary Surratt, hanged on the grounds in 1865, was out and about again.

Surratt, a 42-year-old widowed Washington boardinghouse operator and Confederate sympathizer, was executed on July 7, 1865, along with three men—one of whom proclaimed her innocence. After three months in a cell in what is now Quarters 20, she was convicted, on circumstantial evidence, of helping John Wilkes Booth assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Ever since her death, there have been stories. Soldiers' children report a "lady in black" who plays with them. Mysterious lights are said to flash around Quarters 20 in the night. Heavy furniture moves about. Pictures are tilted on the walls. Doors mysteriously open.

Skeptics, including Michael Kauffman, who has published many articles on the Lincoln assassination, scoff at the stories. "Personally I find the actual history much more interesting than the ghost stuff," he says.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Walter Knauss, 53, for 10 years the senior noncommissioned officer at the fort, thinks, however, there is little doubt that something haunts the old stockade. "There's a presence here," says Knauss, of Burtonsville, Md., who is working on a history of the fort. "I've talked to too many people who have seen her or heard her weeping and wailing. Until her name is cleared, she's gonna stay right here."

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