In the name of the Mudd family honor

Descendants of Dr. Samuel Mudd have won a round in their battle to clear his name of the shame of the Lincloln assassination.

January 12, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"No mortal mind can appreciate the feelings of one who has been so foully dealt with, and separated suddenly and violently from family and all near and dear, and banished hundreds of miles away ... for no fault, and having done my duty to God and man ..."

Samuel A. Mudd, Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, October 18, 1865

"I feel that I complied with every duty to God, to man and to the Government. My conscience rests easy under all the grossly false and frivolous charges notwithstanding their approval by an unjust, bigoted, and partisan court ..."

Fort Jefferson, June 2, 1866

Excerpts of letters from The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, edited by his daughter, Nettie Mudd, 1906.

The 137-year-old case of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, branded as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, refuses to go away. It echoes down the corridors of history to a new relevance in a new century.

The crusade to clear Mudd's name has been led by the doctor's grandson, Richard D. Mudd, a Michigan physician who will be 101 years old Jan. 22. As a teen-ager, he found his Aunt Nettie's book and read his grandfather's letters. He immediately felt Dr. Sam had been treated unjustly.

"I think his fight has kept him alive," says his daughter, Mary Mudd McHale, who lives in Suitland.

Samuel Mudd was sentenced to life in prison in 1865 by the military commission that tried the seven men and one woman accused of plotting to kill Lincoln. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd four years later. The doctor had performed heroically when yellow fever swept through the Fort Jefferson prison on the Dry Tortugas.

The pardon set Mudd free but the taint of guilt remained.

Few people in the family spoke of the case, when Dr. Richard Mudd was a boy in Anacostia, in D.C., where his father practiced medicine. "It was something they were just keeping in the closet. It was a shameful thing to have happen to the family," says Tom B. Mudd, a history teacher who is his father's caregiver and spokesman.

But now, decades after Dr. Richard broke the silence, the family has won the right to appear before federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to try to vindicate their forebear. This case from out of the past resonates with a particular relevance today. It poses a potential challenge to the military tribunals proposed by President George W. Bush to try non-citizen terrorist suspects.

The case of Mudd vs. the Secretary of the Army awaits a hearing date in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. The case promises to become a landmark decision - or just one more footnote to the history of the Civil War.

It all began on April 15, 1865, when Dr. Mudd, a country doctor in Charles County, set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg the morning after he shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Booth cracked a bone when he dropped to the stage from the box where Lincoln slumped mortally wounded. Some say he cried, "Sic Semper Tyrannis," Thus Always To Tyrants - the state motto of Virginia. He dashed out of the theater and jumped on a waiting horse.

He was joined in Maryland by David Herold, "a light and trifling boy," who prosecutors said was supposed to kill Secretary of State William Seward. They rode to Mary Surratt's tavern, which still stands in Clintonville, about 12 miles south of Washington. They picked up two carbines and a bottle of whiskey and rode on.

The fugitives reached Dr. Mudd's home at Beantown near Waldorf about 4 in the morning. Booth was perhaps disguised with a fake beard and using a false name. Mudd, a Southern sympathizer who had met Booth, claimed he didn't recognize him.

The military prosecutors would say Mudd not only set Booth's leg and allowed him to rest, but also pointed the way south through Zekiah Swamp to where he and his companion could cross the Potomac. Booth was killed in Virginia 11 days later, shot by a sergeant with the Union troops that had been tracking him. Herold surrendered.

Along with seven others, Mudd was tried by the military commission as a conspirator in a plot to kill Lincoln. He was defended by Thomas Ewing Jr., a tough Union general who had fought along the Kansas-Missouri border.

Ewing saved Mudd and two others from hanging, but they were sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, an isolated key 70 miles southwest of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.

"If Booth hadn't broken his leg, nobody would have heard of Dr. Mudd," says Mary Mudd McHale, the doctor's great-granddaughter.

Her husband, John E. McHale, a retired FBI agent and former Prince George's County police chief, has examined the case in a book he's written, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd and the Lincoln Assassination. "You can't prove legally if he's innocent or guilty," he says. "They never proved his guilt. The guy should have been set free."

The Mudds of Maryland

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