Mudds aim to clear name of doc who treated Lincoln killer

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

On Friday, a Saginaw man and 75 relatives will visit a long-closed prison in a remote island off the southern tip of Florida.

A brick cell holds a plaque honoring a prisoner from 150 years ago.

The honor seems odd considering the inmate, Dr. Samuel Mudd, was linked to one of the most infamous acts in U.S. history — the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

But that’s why Tom Mudd, one of doctor’s great-grandsons, organized the upcoming family reunion at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.

For nearly a century, his family has tried to clear their ancestor’s name. Mudd was convicted of helping John Wilkes Booth escape after shooting Lincoln.

By visiting Fort Jefferson on Friday, the 150th anniversary of Mudd’s arrival at the prison, his descendants hope to draw attention to their quixotic campaign.

“He was railroaded,” said Tom Mudd, 74, a retired history teacher from Saginaw. “His family was ruined for life.”

Samuel Mudd, taken some time in 1860. The National Archives

His father, Dick, worked on the case for 76 years, collecting 800 books and 1 million documents, presenting 50-page petitions to seven presidents, and traveling around the country to give hundreds of talks on the issue.

The 1961 plaque, a byproduct of the campaign, recognizes Mudd for fighting an outbreak of yellow fever at the prison.

But Dick died at 101 in 2002 without accomplishing his main goal — expunging the conviction from legal annals. Despite his herculean effort, the good doctor’s name remained mud.

“He was always optimistic, even at the end,” Conor McHale said about grandfather Dick. “He always felt there was something else to be done, to push a little harder, if he just contacted the right person.”

Doctor treats Booth’s leg

This story begins with the death of Lincoln.

After shooting the president at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Booth broke his left shin bone. He said the injury occurred when he leaped from the president’s box to the stage, but some historians believe it happened when he later fell from his horse.

Booth and accomplice David Herold rode 30 miles, arriving at the Maryland home of Mudd at 4 a.m. The country doctor splinted the leg, fed his visitors and had them stay in one of his bedrooms.

John Wilkes Booth

Mudd went into nearby Bryantown and heard about the assassination, but didn’t say anything to Union troops looking for the gunman.

Instead, he waited a day before asking a cousin to report his “suspicious” visitors to authorities. By that time, Booth and Herold had left.

“Mudd is between a rock and hard place,” said Edward Steers Jr., a historian who wrote or edited eight books about the assassination.

“He can’t acknowledge Booth is at his home. The best he can hope for is to get him out of there and never be found.”

Mudd, a Confederate sympathizer, had met Booth several times leading up to the assassination. The doctor was angry at Lincoln for forcing him to give up the slaves at his tobacco farm, said historians.

He and seven others were convicted by a military commission of aiding or conspiring to assassinate the president.

Four of the enemy belligerents were hanged. Mudd came within a single vote of being executed, instead being sentenced to life in prison.

But he was pardoned and released four years later after helping save the lives of guards and prisoners during the yellow fever outbreak at Fort Jefferson.

While he was pardoned, the conviction was never set aside.

Ex-anchorman: Mudd guilty

Tom Mudd believes his great-grandfather was unfairly convicted.

He said Mudd didn’t recognize Booth because he was wearing a fake beard and using an alias.

But not all of Mudd’s relatives are convinced of his innocence. Roger Mudd, a former CBS anchorman who is a distant cousin, believes Mudd was guilty.

A great-grandson, Bob Summers of Cheverly, Maryland, examined letters, diaries, affidavits, trial testimony and newspaper articles while working on a book about Mudd.

Published in 2014, “The Assassin’s Doctor” concludes Mudd wasn’t involved in the assassination but helped in Booth’s escape. The assassin was captured and killed by Union troops 12 days after leaving Mudd’s home.

“Why did he stonewall the people who were hunting Booth?” asked Summers, 76.

Family members have responded to their link to one of history’s most notorious events in various ways.

Some are tickled by it. Some consider it a stigma they would rather not discuss. Most fall somewhere between: not quite proud, not quite ashamed.

Mary Mudd McHale, a great-granddaughter of Mudd, is amazed how the family’s bit of celebrity endures 150 years later.

When tourists at the Samuel Mudd House in Waldorf, Maryland, learn that several Mudd descendants work there, they insist on having their photos taken with them, said McHale, 86.

“People respond like, oh gosh, we’re royalty, which is ridiculous,” she said with a laugh.

Among the varied reactions to the skeleton in the family closet, Dick Mudd’s may have been the most singular. He was captivated by his grandfather’s link to the assassination and began looking into it in 1925.

During his research, he also compiled a family genealogy to show the Mudds had many upstanding citizens among their ranks.

With those twin pursuits, he dragged his family across the country, knocking on strangers’ doors and scouring dusty documents in the basements of churches and city halls.

“We went to the home of someone in Kentucky who didn’t wear shoes and had never been down the hill,” said Tom Mudd.

Dick Mudd’s genealogy, reaching back to the 1660s, was 1,465 pages. It found 50 Mudds had been doctors, had fought in every war and one was a bodyguard to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Mudd did all this while raising seven children and working as a company doctor at several General Motors factories.

Far from haunting him, his was a happy obsession, said his children. He enjoyed the work and the attention it brought him.

He continued doing research until he died, said his children. Between puffs on a respirator, he would file yet another document into one of the file cabinets that filled two rooms in his basement.

“As long as the U.S. lasts, the story is never going to end,” he told a reporter in 2000.

Along the way, Dick Mudd scored several small victories.

He received letters of support from Presidents Carter and Reagan, and convinced Michigan and four other state legislatures to pass resolutions supporting Mudd.

Historians said his indefatigable work succeeded in raising questions about Mudd’s guilt that still linger today.

The closest Mudd got to clearing his grandfather’s name happened in 1992.

The U.S. Army Board for Correction of Military Records, a citizens advisory panel, said Mudd never should have been tried by a military commission because he was a civilian. It recommended that the verdict be set aside.

But the Army brass rejected the finding and, when Dick Mudd filed a lawsuit, a federal judge sided with the military.

“It’s never going to happen,” Dick Mudd told his son shortly before he died. “You can’t beat the Army.”

At 7 a.m. Friday, four generations of Mudds will board a ferry for a two-hour ride from Key West to Fort Jefferson.

Wearing key lime green T-shirts that say “Free Dr. Mudd,” their ages will run from 1 to 86.

This is the third family reunion at the fort. Dick Mudd began visiting it in 1946 and organized the first family reunion there in 1991. Relatives returned in 2010.

Mudd became emotional during the 1991 visit, said Conor McHale.

“When he walked into the cell, he teared up, had to take a moment,” said McHale. “It was one of the only times I saw him get so upset.”

As the ferry approaches the small island, the six-sided red brick fort will seem to rise from the water.

Built as a military outpost in 1847, the fort was still under construction when the Army abandoned it 27 years later.

Fort Jefferson was never finished. And neither, say relatives, is the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell