Covering footprints of Lincoln's assassin

Development: Kin's sale of farmland for houses near where a doctor aided John Wilkes Booth raises questions about the price of saving history.

March 22, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

BRYANTOWN - The countryside around Dr. Samuel A. Mudd's house looks much as it must have more than a century ago, when actor John Wilkes Booth rode up on horseback seeking medical attention for the leg he had broken that night at Ford's Theater in Washington.

A rutted dirt road leads from Mudd's two-story white frame house through an open field toward murky Zekiah Swamp. It is a snippet of the tortuous route Booth took as he fled through Southern Maryland after shooting Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

But this stretch of the path taken by the nation's first presidential assassin might soon become someone's driveway. The bulk of the Charles County farm surrounding Mudd's restored home has been sold to a residential developer by one of his great-grandsons, Joseph Allan Mudd.

"I hate to see it pass, but all good things come to an end," says the 68-year-old retired farmer. He says he has accepted an offer of more than $5,000 an acre for the fields where he raised corn and soybeans until recently.

The sale of 187 acres of Mudd's original 218-acre plantation upsets history buffs, none more than Louise Mudd Arehart, his 83-year- old granddaughter and Allan Mudd's aunt.

"I just can't understand how anybody can be so greedy," Arehart says of her nephew. "He should have more respect for Charles County and history."

Arehart, who lives in La Plata, has been instrumental in preserving her grandfather's house near Waldorf and operating it as a museum dedicated to one of the more enigmatic figures linked to the plot to kill Lincoln.

Mudd, the scion of an old Charles County family, was convicted by a military court as an accomplice in the escape of Booth after he killed Lincoln. Though Arehart and other family members maintain Mudd's innocence, historians say there is strong circumstantial evidence of his complicity.

Booth apparently sought out Mudd, arriving before dawn at the doctor's house, where his broken leg was set. The doctor told authorities he did not know at the time that the president had been shot and did not recognize Booth, though he had met with the well-known stage performer at least three times in the previous six months.

The doctor's house and 10 acres of the farm are protected from development through an easement held by the Maryland Historic Trust. Arehart persuaded her brother - Allan Mudd's father - to sell the homestead to the state nearly two decades ago. She says she acted after being "bugged" by Mudd's ghost to do something with his home.

The property is owned by the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society, a nonprofit group that Arehart heads. The house is open to visitors on weekends and Wednesdays from April through November.

Though miles from well-traveled highways through Waldorf, the Mudd house draws about 3,000 visitors a year to see its period furnishings, including the couch where the injured Booth first sat and the upstairs bedroom where he and his traveling companion rested.

Dozens of bus tours stop at the Mudd house as they retrace Booth's 12-day flight from Washington through Southern Maryland to Virginia, where he was shot and killed by a cavalry patrol after being found hiding in a tobacco barn.

"The Booth escape route tour is one of the more popular historical tour routes you have in Maryland," says Edwin C. Bearss, a retired National Park Service historian who leads Civil War-related bus excursions for the Smithsonian Associates, a branch of the Washington institution.

The Mudd farm is among the best preserved of the stops on the Booth tour. The Surratt House, an old Prince George's County tavern also kept as a museum to the assassination plot, is within sight of "two not-very-distinguished-looking filling stations," Bearss notes.

Allowing homes to be built next to the Mudd house, the historian says, will spoil visitors' sense of its isolation at the time, which the injured assassin reached after a hard night's horseback ride.

"Yes, the house will be there," Bearss says of the Mudd homestead, "but you've destroyed the ambience of the setting, and it would be a tragedy."

County officials say they tried to buy the farm to save it from development but were hampered by limits on how much public money they could spend and by frosty relations between the two Mudd descendants.

Allan Mudd doesn't share his aunt's passion for preserving the memory of their infamous ancestor.

Both were born in the old house, but he says he hasn't visited it since it became a museum and does not belong to the society Arehart heads.

"I'm not a fanatic about it," he says. He says he sold the land because he no longer farmed it and wanted to reap the property's worth for his branch of the family.

"I don't like to get in the middle of a family feud, but I did everything I could to get the state to purchase it," says Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat.

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