Mudd descendant keeps heritage alive

April 14, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

BRYANTOWN -- It's been 20-some years now since Louis Mudd Arehart figured it out: The knocks on the door but no one there; the man in her yard in La Plata who disappeared; the same man in her dining room, who vanished into the hall when she walked toward him.

It was her grandfather, she swears, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Jr., the man who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth as he tried to escape south after assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Mudd had returned from the grave to tell his granddaughter to do something with his house.

It is the house where he died in 1883, and where she was born some years later -- she won't say how many.

The two-story farmhouse a few miles south of the Prince George's County line had remained in the family all those years. One of her older brothers, Joseph, still lived there, working more than 200 acres around it.

"I asked Joe about selling the house," she says, repeating an oft-told tale. "And he said that if something was to be done about the place, it would have to be in his lifetime."

They petitioned the Charles County Historical Society, the county commissioners and finally the Maryland Historical Trust, which bought the house and 10 acres, restored it and turned it over to the Dr. Samuel Mudd Society to operate as a museum. It opened in 1983, 100 years after Dr. Mudd's death.

"I just kept pushing and shoving and talking, and I guess they figured they had to do something to shut this woman up," she recalled.

"It was the one time in my whole life I ever got Joe to agree with me," Mrs. Arehart, a short, feisty woman, joked yesterday with members of the Surratt Society, a group that takes its name from Mary Surratt, who was hanged as an accomplice in the murder plot.

The society had come to tour the house on the day before the 126th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination. (The president was shot April 14, 1865, and died the next day.)

Joseph Mudd's sons still work the surrounding farmland while Mrs. Arehart and 20 volunteer docents, dressed in period costumes, lead tours of the house on Wednesdays and weekends.

In nearly every room are pieces handed down though two generations, including the sofa where Dr. Mudd first examined Booth's leg and a secretary desk and game table the doctor built while he was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson on an island in the Dry Tortugas off Florida.

There are other chairs and tables, family portraits and the family china. "We have things through 1911, the year Mrs. Mudd died," explained Jane Norfolk, one of the docents. "They didn't want the place to be frozen in 1865."

As they move from room to room, the tour guides recount the version of the story written by the doctor's youngest daughter, Nettie.

Dr. Mudd and his wife, Sarah Frances, were asleep in their bedroom when they were awakened by a pounding at the door at 4 a.m. It was Booth, with David Herold, an accomplice who was to lead Booth through Southern Maryland into Virginia. But they identified themselves as Tyler and Tyson.

The doctor examined Booth, set his leg and allowed him and Herold to sleep in an upstairs bedroom. Later that day, Dr. Mudd learned that the president had been killed and became suspicious of his patient. But by that time Booth and Herold had fled.

Dr. Mudd notified authorities, who eventually arrested him, convicted him of being an accomplice and shipped him off to Fort Jefferson to serve a life sentence. Four years later, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd after the doctor's efforts in caring for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic at the prison.

Historians appear to agree with that story to a point. They all say that Dr. Mudd did not know Lincoln had been shot when Booth showed up on his porch. But some say that the doctor knew Booth's identity and didn't report his presence until well after he had a chance to escape. Others say Dr. Mudd's involvement was unclear but insist it was likely that,as a sympathizer with the South, he would have helped Booth.

Mrs. Arehart tends to ignore such things, pushing ahead with plans to expand the museum area of the house and add new exhibits.

She agrees that her grandfather didn't get a fair trial, but she is perfectly happy, she says, with President Johnson's pardon. And she's not getting involved in the efforts of her first cousin, Richard D. Mudd of Saginaw, Mich., to clear the doctor's name.

Richard Mudd, 90, has persuaded an Army review board to reopen the case, hoping to convince the board that his grandfather merely set the broken leg of a stranger. But it may be some time before the board, which is inundated with thousands of cases, can get around to this one, Mr. Mudd said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Mrs. Arehart worries, however, about "changing history."

"Now, I don't want Dick Mudd to think that Louise doesn't care," she said, "but if you open up this kettle of worms, what about Mary Surratt and the others? I'm not unhappy with Andrew Johnson's pardon."

She even turns the words of one tourist -- "All that for setting someone's broken leg" -- into a joke.

"Well, whenever I see someone come around here with a limp, I tell them, sorry, hmph." She turns her head sharply. "Doctor isn't in."

What's in a name?

Don't tell Louise Mudd Arehart that the expression "his name is mud" stems from insults her grandfather, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Jr., suffered for his alleged role in helping John Wilkes Booth escape after killing Abraham Lincoln.

"It was some reporter that started that," Mrs. Arehart huffed. A docent who leads tours at the Mudd house traced the phrase to England, she said.

Richard D. Mudd, Mrs. Arehart's first cousin, who has written a family history and is crusading to clear his grandfather's name, agrees that the phrase is older, stemming from the expression, "Here's mud in your eye."

But, he adds, it came into wider currency after Dr. Mudd's trial.

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