Our History: Mudd family unable to clear ancestor’s name

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The story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is an episode in our history that remains of interest to researchers who continue to delve into our past. One of the most controversial historical cases of the 19th century is that of Samuel Mudd, the physician convicted and sent to prison for his role in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The myth that Mudd was convicted only because he followed the Hippocratic oath and set the broken leg of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, has been disproved convincingly by the research of Edward Steers Jr., a recognized authority on the life and death of Lincoln.

Booth had broken his right fibula while jumping to the stage at Ford’s Theater and rode on horseback to Mudd’s home in Bryantown, Md. Booth was apprehended 11 days later in Virginia and shot and killed.

For his role in the assassination, Mudd was sentenced to serve his prison term at Fort Jefferson, a fort built on one of the Dry Tortegas, a group of tiny islets off the southern coast of Florida, planned to serve as the “Gibraltar” of America.

As it turned out, the fort was so useless that the government turned it into a prison during the Civil War. It was later abandoned because its true enemy was the mosquito.

The mosquitoes caused severe and frequent yellow fever epidemics, which spread so rapidly that the bodies of the dead could not be buried fast enough. While a prisoner there, Mudd, who was the only physician on the island, recovered from his bout with the fever and was called on to treat the other victims.

Spurred by a theme of innocence, the Mudd family tried for many years to clear his name. His daughter’s book, “The Life of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” was published in 1906 and reiterated that theme.

By the 1920s the Mudd family continued to pursue a vigorous campaign to establish the doctor’s innocence; however, when the family pressured the Army Board for Corrections of Military Records to change the record of their relative, things went awry.

When the trial records were reopened it was learned that the doctor was not the man his family extolled but rather one whose reputation for harshness and ill-treatment of others was rather well-known. Sources indicated that he had mistreated his slaves and others and that he was a close acquaintance of Booth.

Booth had also been a guest in his home. It was revealed, too, that Mudd had previously been involved in a plot to capture Lincoln and bring him to Richmond. The records spelled out that Mudd was “indeed guilty as set out, of advising, encouraging, harboring and concealing aid and assistance to the said John Wilkes Booth.”

For 70 years Mudd’s grandson, Dr. Richard Mudd, attempted to clear his grandfather’s name. In 1996 the assistant secretary of the Army stated, “Any further Army action would be an ill-advised attempt to alter legal history by non-judicial means. It would improperly disturb the importance of the finality of both judicial and executive decisions.”

While President Andrew Johnson gave Mudd a full and unconditional pardon on Feb. 8, 1869, it did not satisfy his family nor did it expunge his guilt. The legal authority of the military commission was upheld and their finding that Mudd was guilty could not be overturned.

All any president could do was free him from jail, and though attempts to clear his name were made by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the ruling of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records stands.

Many articles written about Mudd may try to plead his innocence, but scrutiny of the primary sources available now throw new light on his complicity in the assassination plot.

Today “his name is mud” is used in a derogatory way to suggest someone out of favor. In common parlance in the United States this phrase may be used to refer to Mudd’s reputation and his connection to Booth, as it was in the days following the Civil War.

After Mudd’s pardon in 1869, public feeling ran high and he was never forgiven by the people; however, “mud” in the sense of a “fool” appears in an 1811 dictionary. As far back as 1846, well before the Civil War, the phrase “the mud press” described newspapers that defiled people’s reputations by throwing “mud.”

Though it is likely “his name is mud” was well-established before Mudd’s treachery, his name happened to fit a play on words and the expression was attached to him and the ignominy of his nefarious deeds.

The writer wishes to thank Alfred Jay Bollet, Civil War medical historian and author of “Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs,” for his help in pursuing the facts in this story.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a freelance writer, historian and member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee.

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