Dr. Samuel Mudd, whose medical aid to John Wilkes Booth led to his conviction as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination plot, died at age 49 of pneumonia in Waldorf, Md., a free man for the past 14 years but still futilely protesting his innocence.
I first became aware of the case of Dr. Mudd about 50 years ago, while watching a 1936 film about the controversy, The Prisoner of Shark Island. Director John Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson compellingly depicted the doctor’s heroism in fighting a yellow-fever outbreak at a maximum security military prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas—an isolated but dangerous facility nicknamed “Shark Island.”
When it comes to portraying American history, Ford’s nonfiction films are better seen as cinematic poetry than as literal fact. That was even more the case with The Prisoner of Shark Island than with better-known classics by the great director such as Young Mr. Lincoln and My Darling Clementine, his western on Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Prisoner, then, is best appreciated for its aesthetic qualities (including the stunning cinematography by Bert Glennon) and its warning against wartime hysteria. (At the time of its initial release, many in the audience could stall vividly recall anti-German prejudice during WWI and the “Palmer Raids” against subversives right after the conflict’s conclusion.)
As for the actual facts in the case: They were—well, Mudd-y.
In the early morning hours of April 15, 1865—less than 12 hours since Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theatre, and only three hours before the President would die—two young men appeared at Mudd’s farm in Bryantown, Md. The doctor carried one of the pair into an upstairs room, where he set the young man’s fractured leg and let him recuperate.
The two visitors were Booth—who had injured his leg while jumping to the stage at Ford’s Theatre after firing on the President—and his associate in the Lincoln conspiracy, David Herold. After departing the Mudd farm and eluding the most massive manhunt in American history to that time, the pair would be tracked down to a tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Va., where Herold would surrender and Booth would be shot to death.
In the meantime, Federal troops swarming the Maryland countryside had quickly made their way to the Mudd farm, where a boot found upstairs with Booth’s name on it quickly established that the assassin had been there recently.
From then to the end of his life, Dr. Mudd would contend that he had no idea who his visitors were and that he was doing what any doctor would do for a patient in extreme physical distress. But his claim of lack of recognition of his overnight visitors would be easily disproved by witnesses who saw the actor and the doctor—both, incidentally, Confederate sympathizers and severe critics of President Lincoln—on several occasions.
At very least, Mudd was an accessory after the fact, and the military tribunal convened to decide his fate and that of seven other defendants in the Lincoln conspiracy was fully entitled to consider his veracity.
To what extent the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was a conspirator, however, is another matter—and that doubt might have allowed Mudd to escape the hangman’s noose by a single vote (a fate unfortunately not shared by fellow defendant Mary Surratt, the boarding-house owner who was the subject of Robert Redford’s 2010 film, The Conspirator, starring Robin Wright).
Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor in the Dry Tortugas, a small cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico, in a prison termed “America’s version of Devil’s Island.” Only a month after his conviction, he tried to escape this perilous environment by stowing away on a ship bringing replacement soldiers to Fort Jefferson, only to be recaptured.
Two years later, even worse circumstances, however, resulted in his release. A yellow-fever outbreak at the fort proved so virulent that the attending doctor came down with it.
Mudd, now working in the prison dispensary, took over as the prison doctor in the emergency. Working tirelessly day and night, insisting on clean bedding and clothes for the sick, Mudd succeeded in limiting the spread of the epidemic, saving dozens of lives.
More than 200 grateful members of the garrison petitioned Andrew Johnson for clemency for the doctor who saved their lives, and Lincoln’s successor granted Mudd a pardon shortly before leaving the White House in 1869.
Mudd lived out his remaining 14 years quietly back home in Maryland. But controversy still clings to him nearly a century and a half after his death.
Since the start of the 20th century, the doctor’s descendants have unsuccessfully pressed to clear his name. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were sympathetic to the family’s pleas, but felt they did not have the authority to reverse the guilty verdict.
On TV and the big screen, Hollywood has largely embraced the cause of Mudd’s innocence. More than four decades after Ford’s depiction of the case, Dennis Weaver portrayed the beleaguered physician in the 1980 TV movie, The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd.
A contrary point of view—one more in accordance with what many historians believe—may be provided in the Apple Original limited series Manhunt, with Matt Walsh (the press secretary on Veep) portraying Mudd.
If it reflects the viewpoint of James Swanson’s nonfiction narrative from which it’s been adapted, it will show not a doctor in an overnight encounter with an unknown visitor, but someone who knew Booth well enough to become embroiled in his assassination.
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