Samuel Mudd MD: Good Samaritan or conspirator?

Kevin R. Loughlin
Boston, Massachusetts, United States

 

Photograph of Samuel A. Mudd
Figure 1 Samuel A. Mudd, MD. Wikimedia.

As he rose in the Washington, D.C. courtroom on June 30, 1865, to hear his verdict, Dr. Samuel Mudd looked older than his thirty-one years (Figure 1). His odobene mustache framed his mouth and his goatee was speckled with prematurely gray hair. His shoulders were slightly slouched and perspiration dampened his collar and shirt.

His trial for conspiracy and treason in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln had lasted from May 9 until the end of June in a crowded courtroom during a hot, humid Washington, D.C. summer with open windows as the only means of ventilation. Although the assassination had only occurred six weeks earlier on April 14, the Confederate plans to harm Lincoln began even before his inauguration.

The future of slavery was the central issue of the election of 1860, with heated debate about the extension of slavery into the Western territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed popular sovereignty on the issue, only intensified the tension.

There were four candidates for president in 1860. Lincoln was the candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party. He was not in favor of interfering with slavery as it already existed in the Southern states, but opposed extending slavery into the territories. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of the Northern Democrats and supported the concept of popular sovereignty, where each territory would decide for itself the status of slavery. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was the nominee of the Southern Democrats and was strongly pro-slavery, as was John Bell of Tennessee, the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party. The opposition to Lincoln was so strong that his name was not even on the ballot in ten Southern states.

However, Lincoln won the election with 180 of the 303 electoral votes with support from the Northern states. He only received 39.8% of the popular vote.1 The opposition to Lincoln intensified in the South as seven states seceded even before he was inaugurated.

The plan was for Lincoln to board a train on February 11, 1861, in Springfield, Illinois and conduct a “whistle-stop” tour through more than two dozen cities in eight Northern states over a two week period. He was to change trains in Baltimore to start the last leg of his journey and arrive in Washington D.C. on February 23.

Although Maryland was not considered a Southern state by many, slavery was not abolished in Maryland until November 1, 1864. John C. Breckinridge carried the state in the 1860 election and Lincoln finished a distant fourth. Consistent with his poor showing in the state, the election of Lincoln only galvanized the pro-slavery fervor within Maryland.

 

The Baltimore plot

Rumors began to circulate in Baltimore and Philadelphia that plans were afoot to kidnap or assassinate Lincoln before the inauguration to prevent him from becoming president. The rumors reached the ears of Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Lincoln was scheduled to travel the last portion of his trip on that railroad. Felton was concerned with both the safety of Lincoln as well as that of his railroad. He decided to contact Allan Pinkerton in Chicago, who had emerged as the preeminent detective of the era. Pinkerton met with Felton in Philadelphia on January 21, 1861 and immediately began to investigate a plot to kidnap Lincoln in Baltimore in a few weeks when he would be changing trains en route to Washington, D.C.

Pinkerton employed undercover agents and was able to penetrate an organization known as the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC).2 The KGC was a secret society started in the 1850s whose goal was to establish a separate federation of slave states in Cuba and Central America. Baltimore was one of the epicenters of the movement. The ringleader of the group in Baltimore was Cypriano Ferandini, a Corsican immigrant in his late thirties.2 Within weeks, Pinkerton and his colleagues had uncovered enough information to confirm a plot to kidnap Lincoln in Baltimore.

With Lincoln’s reluctant consent, they formulated a response to have a disguised president-elect leave on an earlier train from Philadelphia. The original schedule was to have Lincoln depart from Philadelphia at 9 AM on February 23 and arrive in Baltimore at the Calvert Street Station at 1 PM, transfer into carriages, cross through the city streets to the Camden Street Station, and then board the 3 PM train to Washington, D.C.3

Pinkerton decided that it was best to have Lincoln leave Philadelphia earlier at 11:50 PM on Felton’s railroad and arrive in Baltimore at 3 AM, ten hours earlier at a different train station, the President Street Station. The ruse was successful and the disguised president-elect arrived unharmed in Washington on the morning of February 23. However, this would not be the last attempt by conspirators to kidnap Lincoln.

 

John Wilkes Booth, helped by Dr. Mudd
Figure 2 John Wilkes Booth. Wikimedia

Major John Walker Taylor’s plot—summer 1862

Joseph Walker Taylor was a major in the Confederate army and was part of the Southern aristocracy. He served in the Mexican War under his uncle, General Zachary Taylor. In the first year of the Civil War, Major Taylor was on the staff of General Simon Bolivar Buckner and fought at Fort Donelson where he was wounded.4 Early on he established his value, gathering intelligence and relaying messages among scattered Confederate units. It may have been this experience that caused him to conceive of a plan to kidnap Lincoln.

In the early summer of 1862, he traveled to Richmond to present his plan to Jefferson Davis, whom he knew well. After his first wife died from malaria, Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, one of Zachary Taylor’s daughters and Walker Taylor’s cousin. Taylor proposed that he and his accomplices could easily capture Lincoln when he traveled to the Soldier’s Home, his summer residence just outside of Washington, and deliver him to Jefferson in Richmond. Davis dismissed the plan out of hand as impractical and Taylor went no further. The details of this event remained unknown except to the principals until the turn of the century.4

 

Colonel Bradley T. Johnson’s plot—winter of 1863-1864

During the winter of 1863-1864, Colonel Bradley T. Johnson, a Confederate partisan from Maryland, conceived of a plan to lead a battalion of his cavalry to capture Lincoln at the Soldier’s Home and continue on to Virginia. Negotiations would then commence to exchange Lincoln for Confederate prisoners to replenish the ranks of the Confederate army. The plan was never carried out, although years later it was confirmed that Johnson had the approval of his commanding officer, General Wade Hampton.5

 

A shot through Lincoln’s hat—August 1864

It may push the limits of credulity of the modern reader, but in August of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was riding, unescorted, on his horse, Old Abe, to the Soldier’s Home.6 He suddenly heard a loud blast, not fifty yards from where he rode, that startled his horse and dislodged his hat. He continued on, unencumbered, to his destination.

When he arrived at the Soldier’s Home a few minutes later, the hatless Lincoln was met by Private John W. Nichols of Company K, who was on guard duty. When he inquired about the missing hat, Lincoln replied that, “Somebody fired a gun off at the foot of the hill,” which frightened the horse and “jerked the hat off.”6 Years later, Nichols recalled that he and another soldier went down the driveway and recovered Lincoln’s hat with a bullet hole in the crown. The next day he returned the hat to the president, who replied that he wanted the matter “kept quiet.”6

 

Booth’s kidnapping plans

As the war continued through 1864 and 1865, the plight of the South became more desperate. Southern casualties continued to mount and Southern forces dwindled. There was an increasing appetite to consider kidnapping Lincoln to exchange him for the return of Confederate prisoners of war.

John Wilkes Booth was a prominent actor of the era. Although a Marylander, Booth was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and a segregationist (Figure 2). To carry out the kidnapping, Booth organized a group of six men: John Suratt, Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, Michael O’Laughlen, David Herold, and Lewis Powell (Payne).7 They attempted several gambits. In early 1865 they planned to kidnap the president during his visit to the Seventh Street Hospital, but Lincoln did not arrive as his plans changed at the last minute.8 They also considered a kidnapping at Ford’s Theater where they would kidnap the President in his box, lower him to the stage, and then carry him out of the theater. This plan was abandoned as impractical.9

On March 17, 1865, Booth was told that Lincoln would visit the Campbell Military Hospital to see a play. Booth mobilized his co-conspirators, but again their plans were foiled as Lincoln went instead to a ceremony at the National Hotel.10 At this point, the group of six became convinced that kidnapping Lincoln was unrealistic and they disbanded. However, Booth remained singularly undeterred.

The fortunes of the South deteriorated precipitously in the next few weeks as Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9. On April 11, Lincoln gave a speech from one of the windows of the White House where he proposed voting rights for freed slaves. Booth and Powell were part of the crowd on the White House lawn listening to the speech and Booth was reported to have remarked, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”7

 

Enter Doctor Mudd

Samuel A. Mudd was born and raised in southern Maryland. He grew up on Oak Hill, his father’s tobacco plantation, which worked eighty-nine slaves.12 He attended Georgetown College and studied medicine at the University of Maryland.

Mudd practiced medicine, but also became a small scale tobacco grower, using five slaves, according to the 1860 census.13 In late 1864 Booth began spending considerable time in southern Maryland, apparently in preparation for an escape after the abduction of Lincoln. Historians believe that Mudd and Booth first met in November 1864. It is unknown whether Booth actively recruited Mudd to the kidnapping plot at that time, but Booth apparently spent the night at Mudd’s farm.

On December 23, 1864, Mudd met with Booth in a Washington hotel. John Surratt and Louis J. Weichmann, who would both later be implicated in the assassination, were also at that meeting. Another conspirator, George Atzerodt, would later reveal that Booth had sent liquor and provisions to Mudd’s farm in early April.14 What remains unclear is when Booth’s plans to kidnap the president turned to assassination. Did Lee’s surrender cause him such despair and anger that he realized that a prisoner exchange for Lincoln was no longer viable? Speculation suggests that may have been when he turned his thoughts to assassination.

On April 14, 1865 Booth, a well-known actor, entered Ford’s Theater, which he knew well, without arousing any suspicion. He entered the president’s box, shot him in the head, and jumped to the stage declaring, “Sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants),” the Virginia state motto. In so doing, he fractured his left fibula as he landed on the stage.

Booth met up with Herold outside the theater and they left Washington on horseback, stopping at Mudd’s farm at about 4 AM on April 15. Mudd splinted Booth’s leg and gave him a shoe to wear on the injured leg. He also arranged for a local carpenter to make a pair of crutches for Booth. Booth and Herold spent between twelve and fifteen hours at Mudd’s house.13 It is unknown whether Mudd was aware of the assassination at this time. Booth and Herold left Mudd and continued on to Virginia. What is clear is that Mudd did not contact authorities immediately. He waited until the following day, Easter Sunday, before notifying anyone. This delay was a significant factor in linking Mudd to the conspiracy.

When Mudd was interviewed on April 18, he stated that he had never seen Booth or Herold before. On April 22, when confronted with Booth’s visit to his farm in November 1864, he changed his story and said he had not seen Booth again until the night of the assassination. After Booth’s death in Virginia at the hands of the Union calvary, Mudd was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder Lincoln.

 

The trial of the century

Mudd was tried by a military commission, which began on March 9, 1865, and lasted over seven weeks. He was charged with treason and conspiracy. The chief defense lawyer was General Thomas Ewing and the chief prosecutor was Judge Advocate Joseph Holt.16 The prosecution called 366 witnesses.13

Considerable evidence was presented that implicated a direct role for Mudd in the conspiracy. Several witnesses testified that they saw him with Booth in Maryland on November 13 when Mudd helped Booth purchase a horse. Mudd was again identified as being seen with Booth on December 23 in Washington. A boot with Booth’s name on it was found in Mudd’s home. The evidence of Mudd’s prior dealings with Booth strongly suggested that Mudd had previously lied to investigators when he denied having recognized Booth when he treated his leg on April 15.16 It was problematic for General Ewing to explain why Mudd did not become suspicious of a broken-legged visitor who shaved off his mustache while staying with Mudd.

Another witness, Daniel Thomas, testified that he heard Mudd state in early 1865 that “. . . The President, Cabinet and other Union men would be killed in six or seven weeks,” although he admitted that he didn’t know if Mudd was joking or not.16

Testimony from some of Mudd’s former slaves was also damaging. Mary Simms, a former slave, testified that during the war Mudd complained that Lincoln “stole [into office] at night, dressed in women’s clothes” and if “he had come in right they would have killed him.”16 Another slave, Milo Gardiner, testified that he overheard a friend of Mudd’s, Benjamin Gardiner, tell Mudd that “Lincoln was a goddamned old son of a bitch and ought to have been dead long ago” and that Mudd replied, “that was much of his mind.”16 It was also alleged that Booth and Mudd were both members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, although this was not proven.17

So we return to the Washington courtroom on June 30, 1865. As Mudd rose, the chief judge, Lieutenant Colonel David Clendenim, asked the jury foreman to announce the verdict. The foreman rose and declared that the jury found Mudd guilty of treason and conspiracy. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.18 He escaped the death sentence by a single vote.16

Mudd was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about seventy miles west of Key West, Florida.13 On September 25, 1865 he attempted to escape from Fort Jefferson by stowing away on the transport vessel Thomas A. Scott.19 As a result, he spent three months in an area of the prison known as the “dungeon,” after which he was returned to the general prison population.

Dr. Mudd went on to distinguish himself during a yellow fever outbreak at the prison in the fall of 1867 as the prison doctor, helping to stem the spread of the disease. The soldiers at the fort noted this and petitioned President Johnson to pardon Mudd, which he did in February 1869. Samuel Mudd returned to his Maryland farm where he lived out his life until his death in 1883.

 

Good Samaritan or conspirator?

Was Samuel Mudd guilty of conspiracy to kidnap or assassinate Abraham Lincoln? Or was he a good doctor who helped an injured man who showed up at his door? The lens of justice becomes blurred over more than a century-and-a-half. Much of the evidence against him was circumstantial or hearsay.

Mudd’s descendants have carried on an arduous effort to clear his name. Presidents Carter and Reagan both were sympathetic to his innocence, but maintained that they had no authority to overturn his conviction. His grandson, Dr. Richard D. Mudd of Saginaw, Michigan, carried on a decades-long effort to seek justice for his grandfather.20 A judge on the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia told the Mudds that they had no standing in that court to appeal because Dr. Mudd was convicted by a military tribunal but was not himself in the military.20 The family lawyer then missed the deadline to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. His great-grandson, Tom Mudd, a retired history teacher, remains convinced of Dr. Mudd’s innocence and remarked, “He was railroaded.”21 Was he a good Samaritan in the wrong place at the wrong time or was he a conspirator in the crime of the century? The truth lies in the graves of Booth and Mudd.

 

References:

  1. Election of 1860. Wikipedia. https://www.election-of-1860. Accessed 7/20/2020
  2. Meltzer B and Mensch J . The Lincoln Conspiracy, Flatiron Books, New York, 2020 pp.87
  3. Ibid pp. 293
  4. Nation JB. Major Walker Taylor, CSA. https://www.math.hawaii.edu/-jb/walker.pdf. Accessed 7/19/2020
  5. Hanchett W. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, Illini books, edition, 1986, pp30
  6. The Shot Through Abraham Lincoln’s Hat. www.https://roger jnorton.com/Lincoln86.html. accessed 7/17/2020
  7. Castro-Lindarte L. John Wilkes Booth’s Abduction Plot Gone Wrong. https://boundarystones.weta.org/2018/03/02/john-wilkes-booths-abduction-plot-gone-wrong
  8. The text of John Surratt’s 1870 lecture at Rockville, Maryland. https:rogerjnorton.com?Lincoln55.html
  9. Edward WC, The Lincoln Assassination. The Reward Files 2012,pp95
  10. Tiswell WA. Come Retribution-The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University of Mississippi, 1988, pp414
  11. McPherson E. Testimony taken before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in the investigation of Samuel Mudd. Thirty-ninth Congress and first session Fortieth Congress, 1867, Clerks Office, House of Representatives 1867,pp674
  12. Mudd RD (1951). The Mudd Family of the United States. Vol.1 (second edition) Saginaw, Michigan, Dr. Richard D. Mudd pp520
  13. Samuel Mudd. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Mudd accessed 6/15/2020
  14. The text of George Atzerodt’s last confession. http://rogerjnorton./Lincoln82.html.rogerjnorton.com
  15. Booth and Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln: An extraordinary life. https://americanhistory.si.edu/lincoln/booth-and-lincoln
  16. Famous Trials – Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. https://famous-trials.com/lincoln/2149-mudd accessed 7/25/2020
  17. Knights of the Golden Circle. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_the_Golden_Circle accessed 7/27/2020
  18. Dr. Samuel Mudd Trial: 1865. https://www.encyclopedia.com?law/law-magazines/dr-samuel-mudd-trial-1865 accessed 7/25/2020
  19. Reid, Thomas. America’s Fortress. Gainesville. University Press of Florida, pp93, 96-97
  20. McFarland J. Lincoln’s assassination’s doctor whose name is Mudd relies on public to clear his name. https://www.mlive.com/opinion/saginaw/2015/04/lincoln_assassination_dr_samue.hmtl. Accessed 8/3/2020
  21. Donnelly FX. Mudds aim to clear name of doc who treated Lincoln killer. https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/07/16/mudd-reunion/30274731/ Accessed 8/3/2020

 

 


 

KEVIN R. LOUGHLIN, MD, MBA, was born in New York City and raised on Long Island. He is a retired urological surgeon and a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School. He enjoys reading medical history and staying informed on current events. He enjoys traveling, at least he did before Covid-19.

 

 

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