Clearing Mudd's name

January 28, 1992

The uproar over director Oliver Stone's "JFK" movie has once again highlighted the nation's recurring fascination with conspiracy theories -- and not only those purporting to explain the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Last week in Washington, descendants of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Charles County doctor implicated in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln nearly 100 years earlier, presented their case for overturning the verdict of an Army tribunal they claim wrongly convicted their ancestor and rendered the family name synonymous with disgrace.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1865, Mudd was awakened by a knock on the door and was asked to attend to a man with a broken leg who claimed he had fallen from his horse. The man was John Wilkes Booth, the actor who had fatally shot Lincoln six hours earlier in Washington.

At his military trial, Mudd claimed he had done nothing more than treat an injured man who showed up at his door. But the Army tribunal, which included two judges who were personal friends of Lincoln, found him guilty and sentenced the physician to life in prison. In 1869, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd, but he was never cleared of the conspiracy charges. He died a broken man in 1883.

Mudd's descendants have labored to clear his name ever since. Last week, they finally got a hearing before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, where they argued, among other things, that Mudd's conviction was unconstitutional.

Based upon the panel's recommendation, Army Secretary Michael W. Stone could overturn Mudd's conviction, 127 years after the fact. But if history is any guide, even that won't put an end to the speculation of die-hard conspiracy buffs. In the Mudd plot we already can see the makings of a new cinematic epic: "Lincoln: The Cover-up."

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