The Testimony That Convicted Dr. Mudd

JEFFREY St. JOHN

March 10, 1993|By JEFFREY St. JOHN

Randolph, Virginia.-- A lawyer is the last person one should trust when it comes to historical judgments. Lawyers are by training truth trimmers; they omit evidence and testimony damaging to their case.

This clearly happened on Lincoln's birthday at the University of Richmond's T.C. Williams Law School when a three-judge moot (or mock) appeals court concluded that a Union army tribunal in 1865 unfairly convicted Dr. Samuel A. Mudd as one of eight conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The judgment was the latest in a long series of pleas, principally by descendants, that Dr. Mudd was the victim of post-Lincoln assassination hysteria.

Dr. Mudd's descendants have pressed this claim of a miscarriage of justice without challenge. The University of Richmond's mock court continued this pattern when it apparently failed to consider the testimony and evidence that led the military tribunal to convict the Maryland-born physician.

We are asked to believe Boston criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey's claim that all Mudd was guilty of was having known Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and of setting Booth's broken ankle at Mudd's Charles County, Maryland, farm on the morning after the April 14 Lincoln murder.

For 110 years after the Lincoln assassination, historians had not had access to views of the chief government witness who convicted the Lincoln conspirators. Then in 1975 Alfred A. Knopf published ''A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and of the Conspiracy of 1865,'' by Louis J. Weichmann. At 23 this Catholic college student chanced to be staying at the boarding house of Mary Surratt, who was subsequently hanged for her part in the plot which was, initially, to kidnap President Lincoln, not murder him.

Weichmann wrote his work over a 30-year period, and on his deathbed on June 2, 1902, he signed a statement that he told the truth at the great trial of 1865. It was not until 1972 that an aging niece of Weichmann's sold the unpublished manuscript to Floyd E. Risvold, a collector of historical documents who edited the work and arranged for its publication.

Risvold notes that Weichmann's history is the only account by a participant ''who was intimately associated with the conspirators,'' and that he was subjected to the longest and most searching interrogation of any of the numerous military tribunal witnesses.

''Although every effort,'' Risvold wrote, ''was made by the defense to confuse him and destroy his testimony, the attorneys succeeded only in correcting him on some dates. Because he appeared as a witness for the prosecution, he was the target of attempts at character assassination and he was persecuted by those who were trying to exonerate Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd.''

Weichmann testified that he met Booth, Mudd, and John Surratt (Mary's son) on December 23, 1864, at the National Hotel in Washington. He maintained that Booth talked to him about buying Mudd's farm and that the actor had visited Mudd's

property in November 1864 where he first met Mudd. It was at the two-hour meeting in December that Booth revealed his plans to kidnap Lincoln.

Weichmann later admitted that this meeting took place not in December but on January 15, 1865. But defense lawyers could not shake his testimony about the substance of the meeting.

''The meeting at the National Hotel,'' Weichmann wrote, ''was evidently a conference looking to the execution of the Conspiracy. The testimony given by me in relation to it was deemed by the Commission as very important for many reasons. It established the fact of Booth's and Mudd's mutual acquaintance prior to the assassination.''

Weichmann testified that Booth bought from Mudd several horses, one a bay blind in one eye and subsequently used by one of the conspirators, Lewis Payne, in Washington on the night the assassination. He also asserted that Mudd introduced Booth to John Surratt and it was by this introduction that his mother's boarding house became the safe meeting place for the conspirators.

After Booth had broken his ankle jumping from the presidential ++ box at Ford's Theater in Washington, he rode the 30 miles directly to Dr. Mudd's farm, the latter part of the way in the company of co-conspirator David Herold. The physician set Booth's broken ankle and cut off his boot, which was later found by Union troops in Mudd's second-floor bedroom.

Herold testified that the doctor had given Booth a razor and suggested he shave off his mustache to conceal his identity and that he provided instructions and a Negro slave to guide their escape south. Several of Mudd's slaves told the tribunal that Mudd had in 1864 hidden rebels in the woods near his farm, and that he had made several trips south on behalf of the Confederate cause.

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