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Samuel Mudd

Samuel Alexander Mudd, I (December 20, 1833January 10, 1883) was a Maryland physician implicated and imprisoned for aiding and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth, in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Early years

Born in Charles County, Maryland, he was the fourth of ten children of Henry Lowe Mudd and his wife, Sarah Ann Reeves. His father owned a large plantation called "Oak Hill," which was approximately 30 miles (48 kilometres) from downtown Washington, DC.

The Mudd family valued education highly. At 15, after several years of home-schooling, Sam Mudd attended boarding school at St. Johns in Frederick, Maryland. After two years, he attended Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. He then studied medicine as a student in the University of Maryland Medical Department, in Baltimore. He wrote his graduation thesis on dysentery. Upon graduation in 1856, he returned to his Charles County home to practice medicine. The following year in 1857 he married his childhood sweetheart Sarah Frances Dyer Mudd, who was known by family and friends as “Frankie” or “Frank”.

As a wedding present, Dr. Mudd's father, Henry Lowe Mudd, gave his son 218 acres of his best farmland, known as St. Catherine’s, and built a new house for his son on the property. While the house was being built, Dr. and Mrs. Mudd lived with Jeremiah Dyer, Mrs. Mudd’s bachelor brother. In 1859, Dr. and Mrs. Mudd moved into their new home. They had the following children:

  • Andrew Jerome Mudd (1858-1882)
  • Lillian Augusta "Sissie" Mudd (1860-1940)
  • Thomas Dyer Mudd (1862-1929)
  • Samuel Alexander Mudd, II (1864-1930)
  • Henry Mudd (born 1870, died at eight months)
  • Stella Marie Mudd (1871-1952)
  • Edward Joseph Mudd (1873-1946)
  • Rose De Lima "Emie" Mudd (1875-1943)
  • Mary Eleanor "Nettie" Mudd (1878-1943)

To supplement the income of a newly minted doctor, Sam Mudd became a tobacco grower and slave owner like his father, albeit on a much smaller scale. According to the 1860 U.S. Slave Census, Dr. Mudd had five slaves, and his father 61 slaves. Before his imprisonment in 1865, Dr. and Mrs. Mudd had four children. They had five more after he returned home in 1869.

The Civil War began in 1861, just two years after Dr. Mudd and his wife moved onto their new farm. The Southern Maryland slave system and the economy it supported began to rapidly collapse. Slaves began to run away to freedom in Washington D.C. and other northern cities. In 1863, the Union Army established Camp Stanton only 10 miles from the Mudd farm to enlist free and run-away slaves. Six regiments totaling over 8,700 black soldiers, many from Southern Maryland, were trained at Camp Stanton. In 1864, Maryland, which was exempt from Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, abolished slavery on its own. With the end of slavery in Maryland, farmers like Dr. Mudd could not find field hands to plant and harvest their crops. As a result, Dr. Mudd thought about selling his farm and setting up a medical practice near Benedict, Maryland. As he pondered what to do, Dr. Mudd was introduced to someone who said he might be interested in buying his property, a 26 year-old actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth.

Booth connection

Most historians agree that the well-known actor John Wilkes Booth visited Bryantown, Maryland, in November and December 1864, allegedly to look for real estate investments. Bryantown is about 25 miles from Washington, D.C., and about 5 miles from Dr. Mudd’s farm. The real estate story was just a cover. Booth’s real purpose was to investigate the area as part of an escape route in a bizarre plan to kidnap President Lincoln. Booth thought the Federal Government would ransom Lincoln by releasing a large number of Confederate prisoners, military manpower sorely needed by the Confederate army. Historians agree that Booth was introduced to Dr. Mudd at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bryantown during one of those visits, probably the November visit. Booth visited Dr. Mudd at his farm the next day, and stayed there overnight. The following day, Booth purchased a horse from Dr. Mudd’s neighbor and returned to Washington. Some historians believe that Booth used his visit to Bryantown to recruit Dr. Mudd to his kidnap plot, while others believe that Dr. Mudd would have had no interest in such a bizarre scheme. A short time later, on December 23, 1864, Dr. Mudd went to Washington where he met Booth a second time. Some historians believe it was a pre-arranged meeting. Others believe it was an accidental meeting. Whatever the case, the two men, plus John Surratt and Louis J. Weichmann, had a conversation and drinks together, first at Booth’s hotel, and later at Mudd’s. The third and last time Dr. Mudd saw Booth was when Booth sought medical assistance at the Mudd farm after the assassination.

After Booth shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, he broke his left leg while fleeing Ford's Theater. Booth met up with David Herold and together they made for Virginia via Southern Maryland. They stopped at Mudd's house at around four o'clock in the morning on April 15. Mudd set, splinted and bandaged Booth's broken leg, and arranged for a carpenter, John Best, to make a pair of crutches for Booth. "I had no proper paste-board for making a piece of bandbox and split it in half, doubled it at right angles, and took some paste and pasted it into a splint". Booth and Herold would spend between twelve and fifteen hours at Mudd's house. They slept in the front bedroom on the second floor.

By noon, the news of the President's assassination had reached Bryantown, and of Booth's complicity in it as well. Dr. Mudd went to Bryantown during the day on April 15 to run errands; if he did not already know the news of the assassination from Booth, he certainly learned of it on this trip. He returned home that evening, and accounts differ as to whether he came home shortly after Booth and Herold had left, or he met them as they were leaving, or they left at his urging and with his assistance.

Whichever is true, he did not immediately contact the authorities. When questioned, he stated that he had not wanted to leave his family alone in the house lest the assassins return and find him absent and his family unprotected. He waited until Mass the following day, Easter Sunday, when he asked his second cousin, Dr. George Mudd — a resident of Bryantown — to notify the 13th New York Cavalry in Bryantown under the command of Lieutenant David Dana. This delay in contacting the authorities drew suspicion and was a significant factor in tying Mudd to the conspiracy.

Dr. Mudd gave a sworn statement to the investigating detectives. In it, he told about Booth's visit to Bryantown in November 1864, but then said "I have never seen Booth since that time to my knowledge until last Saturday morning. He deliberately hid the fact of his meeting with Booth in Washington in December 1864. In prison, Dr. Mudd belatedly admitted the Washington meeting, saying he ran into Booth by chance during a Christmas shopping trip. Dr. Mudd’s failure to mention the meeting in his sworn statement to detectives was a big mistake. When Louis Weichmann later told the authorities of this meeting, they realized Dr. Mudd had misled them, and immediately began to treat him as a suspect rather than a witness. During the conspiracy trial, Lieutenant Alexander Lovett testified that "On Friday, the 21st of April, I went to Dr. Mudd's again, for the purpose of arresting him. When he found we were going to search the house, he said something to his wife, and she went up stairs and brought down a boot. Mudd said he had cut it off the man's leg. I turned down the top of the boot, and saw the name 'J. Wilkes' written in it."

Trial and imprisonment

After Booth's death (April 26, 1865), Mudd was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln.

On May 1, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators. Mudd was represented by General Thomas Ewing, Jr.. The trial began on May 10, 1865. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, Edmund Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln.

On June 29, 1865, Mudd was found guilty with the others. The testimony of Louis J. Weichmann was crucial in procuring the convictions. Mudd escaped the death penalty by one vote and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Four of the defendants, Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold, were hanged at the Old Penitentiary at the Washington Arsenal on July 7, 1865. Mudd, O'Laughlen, Arnold and Spangler were imprisoned at Fort Jefferson located in the Dry Tortugas about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The fort was used to house Union Army deserters and held about six hundred prisoners when Mudd and the others arrived. Prisoners lived on the second tier of the fort, in unfinished open-air gun rooms called casemates. Dr. Mudd and his three companions lived in the casemate directly above the fort's main entrance, called the Sally Port.

In September 1865, two months after Dr. Mudd arrived, control of Fort Jefferson was transferred from the 161st New York Volunteers to the 82nd United States Colored Infantry. As a recent slave owner and a person convicted of conspiring to kill the president whose presidency led to the freeing of the slaves, Dr. Mudd was fearful of his treatment by the incoming 82nd United States Colored Infantry. On September 25, 1865, he attempted to escape from Fort Jefferson by stowing away on the transport Thomas A. Scott. He was quickly discovered and placed in the fort's guardhouse. On October 18, he was transferred along with Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Edman Spangler, and George St. Leger Grenfell to a large empty ground-level gunroom the soldiers referred to as "the dungeon". Dr. Mudd and the others were let out of the dungeon six days a week to work around the fort. On Sundays and holidays they were confined inside. The men wore leg irons while working outside, but the irons were removed when inside the dungeon.

After three months in the dungeon, Dr. Mudd and the others were returned to the general prison population. However, because of his attempted escape, Dr. Mudd lost his privilege of working in the prison hospital and was assigned to work in the prison carpentry shop with Spangler.

There was an outbreak of yellow fever in the fall of 1867 at the fort. Michael O'Laughlen eventually died of it on September 23. The prison doctor died and Mudd agreed to take over the position. In this role he was able to help stem the spread of the disease. The soldiers in the fort wrote a petition to President Johnson in October 1867 stating of Mudd's assistance, " He inspired the hopeless with courage and by his constant presence in the midst of danger and infection....doubtless owe their lives to the care and treatment they received at his hands."

Probably as a reward for his work in the yellow fever epidemic, Dr. Mudd was reassigned from the carpentry shop to a clerical job in the Provost Marshall's office, where he remained until his pardon.

Career after release

On 8 February 1869, Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. He was released from prison on 8 March 1869 and returned home to Maryland on 20 March 1869. On March 1, 1869, three weeks after he pardoned Dr. Mudd, President Johnson also pardoned Spangler and Arnold. (Michael O'Laughlen had died during the yellow fever epidemic.)

When Dr. Mudd returned home, well-wishing friends and strangers, as well as inquiring newspaper reporters, besieged him. Dr. Mudd was very reluctant to talk to the press because he felt they had misquoted him in the past. He gave one interview after his release to the New York Herald, but immediately regretted it. The article contained several factual errors, and he complained that it misrepresented his work at Fort Jefferson during the yellow fever epidemic. On the whole though, he was relieved to find that he continued to enjoy the friendship of his friends and neighbors. Dr. Mudd resumed his medical practice, slowly brought the family farm back to productivity, and became active once again in the life of his community. In 1874, he was elected chief officer of the local farmers association, the Bryantown Grange. Before he went to prison, Dr. and Mrs. Mudd had four children – Andrew, Lillian, Thomas, and Samuel. After prison, they had five more – Henry, Stella, Edward, Rose de Lima, and Mary, known as “Nettie.”

In 1873, Spangler traveled to the Mudd farm, where Dr. Mudd and his wife welcomed him as the friend whom Dr. Mudd credited with saving his life while suffering with yellow fever at Fort Jefferson. Spangler lived with the Mudd family for about eighteen months, earning his keep by doing carpentry, gardening, and other farm chores, until his death on February 7, 1875. Spangler is buried just two miles from Dr. Mudd’s farm, at St. Peter’s Cemetery, Waldorf, Maryland.

Dr. Mudd always had an interest in politics. While in prison, he stayed abreast of political happenings through the newspapers he was sent. In 1876, seven years after he returned home, he was elected Vice President of the local Democratic Tilden-Hendricks presidential election committee. Tilden lost that year to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a hotly disputed election. The next year Dr. Mudd ran as a Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, but was defeated by the popular Republican William D. Mitchell. Dr. Mudd’s ninth child, Mary Eleanor “Nettie” Mudd, was born in 1878. That same year, Dr. and Mrs. Mudd temporarily took in a seven-year-old orphan named John Burke. Burke was one of 300 abandoned children sent to Maryland families from the New York City Foundling Asylum run by the Catholic Sisters of Charity. Other local families also took in children. The Burke boy was permanently settled with farmer Ben Jenkins.

In 1880, the Port Tobacco Times reported that Dr. Mudd’s barn containing almost eight thousand pounds of tobacco, two horses, a wagon, and farm implements were destroyed by fire.

Dr. Mudd was just 49 years old when he died of pneumonia on January 10, 1883. He is buried in the cemetery at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bryantown, the same church where he was introduced to John Wilkes Booth.

Mudd's grandson Dr. Richard Mudd tried unsuccessfully to clear his grandfather's name from the stigma of aiding John Wilkes Booth. In 1951, he published The Mudd Family of the United States, an encyclopedic two-volume history of the Mudd family in America, beginning with Thomas Mudd who arrived from England in 1665. A second edition of this work was published in 1969.

Film and television

Mudd's life was the subject of a 1936 John Ford-directed film The Prisoner of Shark Island, based on a script by Nunnally Johnson. Another film, entitled The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd, was made in 1980. It starred Dennis Weaver as Mudd, and espoused the point of view that Mudd was innocent of any conspiracy.

Roger Mudd, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and television host, is related to Samuel Mudd, though he is not a direct descendant, as has been mistakenly reported.

Samuel Mudd is sometimes mistakenly given as the origin of the phrase "your name is mud", as in, for example, the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets. However, this phrase has its earliest known recorded instance in 1823, ten years before his birth, and is based on an obsolete sense of the word 'mud' meaning 'a stupid twaddling fellow'.


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