Descendants to re-argue Mudd case

January 17, 1992|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

An article in Friday's Evening Sun incorrectly reported that Candida Ewing Steel, the great-great granddaughter of Thomas Ewing Jr., would be leaving her law practice to start her own business. Steel will continue her law practice as well as begin a new business, Anne Arundel Dispute Resolution.

Candida Ewing Steel stood across from her opposing counsel in the divorce case. He introduced himself as Richard J. Mudd.

Very casually, Steel asked opposing counsel if by any chance he was related to Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man alleged to have been an accessory in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Mudd, the great-grandson of Samuel Mudd, told Steel indeed he was related to the doctor.

Call it coincidence. Call it fate.

Steel, 42, is the great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Ewing Jr., the attorney who defended Samuel Mudd in his trial 127 years ago.

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"When I told [Mudd] I was the great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Ewing, he just couldn't believe it," she said. "Then, [Mudd] told me his family had held my [great-great] grandfather in such high regard for the work he had done. I hadn't known this. It was just unbelievable."

It has led to an even more unbelievable outcome. Steel, Mudd and attorney Laura Vargas Chapelle, Mudd's cousin, are to re-argue the case of Samuel Mudd before the Army in Crystal City, Va., on Jan. 22.

According to the history books, Samuel Mudd was convicted of helping assassin John Wilkes Booth elude police and of being an accessory in the shooting death of Lincoln.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife sat in a box at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., watching a play. Booth, a well-known actor, sneaked into the president's booth, held a gun to Lincoln's head, and fired one shot.

While trying to escape from the theater, Booth fell, breaking his left leg. Six hours later and 30 miles away in Bryantown in Charles County, Samuel Mudd was awakened by a knock at the door. Booth and his companion, David Herold, allegedly told the doctor Booth broke his leg when he fell from a horse.

Samuel Mudd claimed that he did nothing more than treat an injured man who showed up at his door in the middle of the night.

However, he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 31. Four years after the conviction, then-President Andrew Johnson pardoned him. Mudd died 14 years later.

The fight to clear Samuel Mudd's name, however, did not die. Samuel Mudd's 90-year-old grandson Richard D. Mudd has worked for decades to clear his grandfather's name, a name that formed the basis for the saying, "Your name is mud."

After years of work, the Mudd family will finally get a chance to remedy what they perceive as a wrong. And, Steel will get the chance to step into her ancestor's shoes.

"I am thrilled, and delighted, and nervous," Steel said. "My great-great-grandfather was a wonderful attorney. I'm not sure I can live up to his reputation but I'm going to do my best."

Steel, who has practiced law in Washington since 1978, now resides in Severna Park with her husband. She's about to leave her job to begin her own business, Anne Arundel Dispute Resolution, an alternative to her current litigation work.

But before Steel leaves the field of litigation, there's still one more big case to argue. And, the case is just as important to her family as it is to the Mudd family.

"Everyone in my family is very excited," Steel said. "I have an aunt and a cousin who are planning to come down from New York to hear the case. And, my mother may come up from South Carolina.

"So much about my [great-great] grandfather's involvement in this case was not known. I don't believe any of his children knew that he had defended [Samuel] Mudd. It was not a topic of conversation. I believe it was viewed as rather a disgrace to have lost. It certainly ruined [Thomas Steel's] political career," she added.

L Steel plans to pick up the case where her ancestor left off.

"We're not certain what the Army is expecting," Steel said. "We honestly didn't think we'd get a chance to present our arguments. We thought we'd go in there, give them the records, smile sweetly, and they'd render a decision.

"Basically, we're going to present the facts that are in dispute and argue that the military did not have jurisdiction over this case," Steel added.

A five-member panel of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records will listen to the arguments by Steel and her fellow counsel. Then, the board will make a recommendation to the secretary of the Army, who has the power to overturn the conviction of Samuel Mudd.

Steel said she believes the chances of having Samuel Mudd's conviction overturned are good. "The fact that there's a hearing at all is promising," she said.

But despite the importance the case holds, Steel said it holds something else for her -- a bit of fun.

"It's a very serious case," Steel said. "This is our history and it's incorrect. We have to try and resolve this. No one should be railroaded into jail, especially for a crime he didn't commit.

"On the other hand, this case is 127 years old and it's kind of fun to think I'll be trying the case my [great-great] grandfather tried. I'm torn between the two emotions."

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