The conviction of Dr. Samuel Mudd proved to be--along with the death sentence for Mary Surratt--the most controversial action of the Military Commission that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Critics suggested that Dr. Mudd was but a country doctor, in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing what doctors are trained to do: treat patients--in Mudd's case, a man who had just killed the President. An examination of the evidence makes clear, however, that Mudd lied to the Commission and concealed his knowledge of the conspiracy.
The son of a large plantation owner, Samuel Mudd attended Georgetown College, then graduated from the University of Maryland, where he studied medicine. Mudd married and set up practice on a farm five miles from Bryantown, Maryland.
Mudd, an advocate of slavery, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. He often expressed his dislike--even hatred--for Lincoln and his policies.
About four o'clock on the morning following the Lincoln assassination two men on horseback arrived at the Mudd farm near Bryantown. The men, it turned out, were John Wilkes Booth--in severe pain with a badly fractured leg that he received from his fall to the stage after shooting the President--and David Herold. Mudd welcomed the men into his house, first placing Booth on his sofa, then later carrying him upstairs to a bed where he dressed the limb.
After daybreak, Mudd made arrangements with a nearby carpenter to construct a pair of crutches for Booth and tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a carriage for his two visitors. Booth (after having shaved off his moustache in Mudd's home) and Herold left later on the fifteenth, after Mudd pointed the route to their next destination, Parson Wilmer's.
When a military investigator tracking Booth's escape route, Lt. Alexander Lovett, reached Mudd's home on April 18, Mudd claimed that the man whose leg he fixed "was a stranger to him."
Lovett returned to the Mudd home three days later to conduct a search of Mudd's home. When Lovett told of his intentions, Mudd's wife, Sarah, brought down from upstairs a boot that had been cut off the visitor's leg three days earlier [see above photo]. Lovett turned down the top of the left-foot riding boot and "saw the name J Wilkes written in it." Mudd told Lovett that he had not noticed the writing. Shown a photo of Booth, Mudd still claimed not to recognize him.
Much of the prosecution testimony concerning Samuel Mudd related to his relationship with Booth and other conspirators prior to the assassination. Several witnesses testified that they saw Mudd with John Wilkes Booth on November 13, 1864 in Maryland. Mudd helped Booth buy a horse from a nearby horsetrader. Mudd and Booth met again--most likely several times--after their initial visit. On December 23, Louis Weichmann was walking with John Surratt near the National Hotel in Washington when Mudd, walking with Booth, called out "Surratt! Surratt!" According to Weichmann, the three men later excused themselves for private conversation over what was claimed to be Booth's interest in purchasing real estate in Maryland.
Attorney Marcus Norton testified that in March, when he was in Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court, a man he now recognized as Mudd excitedly burst into his room at the National Hotel. He apologized for his entry, saying that he thought the room belonged to a man named "Booth"--who actually had rented the room directly above Norton's.
Numerous witnesses told of John Surratt and other alleged conspirators visiting Mudd's farm--in Surratt's case, "dozens of times"--in the months before the assassination.
A minister, William Evans, testified that he saw Mudd go into the home of Mary Surratt in early March of 1865. Evans also said he saw Booth with a man closely resembling David Herold at that time.
The evidence concerning Booth's prior dealings with Booth strongly suggested, of course, that Mudd lied to investigators when he denied having recognized Booth when he treated his broken leg on April 15. Alexander Lovett told the Commission that Mudd appeared suspicious from the start of his investigation: "When we first asked Dr. Mudd whether two strangers had been there, he seemed very much excited, and got pale as a sheet of paper and blue about his lips, like a man frightened at something he had done."
Mudd had a hard time explaining how he could have failed to recognize Booth on the early morning of April 15--or how, after a series of many interviews with investigators, he would come to admit "on reflection" that Booth was the man he had spent hours with the previous November. His attorneys tried to show that the only prior encounter with Booth had been the one in November and that all other later meetings were fabrications of prosecution witnesses. Mudd's defense attorney, Thomas Ewing, also had difficulty explaining why, after word of Booth's role in the assassination reached Bryantown, Mudd's suspicions were not overly aroused by a broken-legged visitor who, during his brief stay the Mudd farm, shaved off his moustache.
Prosecutors confronted Mudd with statements he allegedly made about Lincoln and the federal government. Daniel Thomas testified that he heard Mudd state in early 1865--whether jokingly or not, he couldn't tell--that "the President, Cabinet, and other Union men" would "be killed in six or seven weeks." (The defense countered with a witness who suggested that Thomas's testimony was false and that he hoped to collect part of the $10,000 reward that would follow Mudd's conviction. According to the defense witness, Thomas "never tells the truth if a lie will answer his purpose better.") Mary Simms, a former slave of Mudd's, testified that during the War Mudd complained that Lincoln "stole [into office] at night, dressed in women's clothes" and if "he had come in right, they would have killed him." Another slave, Milo Gardiner, testified that he overheard a friend of Mudd's, Benjamin Gardiner, tell Mudd that "Lincoln was a goddamned old son of a bitch and ought have been dead long ago" and that Mudd replied "that was much of his mind."
Prosecutors also sought to show--although it stretched the bounds of relevance--that Mudd treated his slaves harshly. A witness testified that Mudd shot one of his slaves, Elzee Eglent, in the leg, when he refused to do something for him and that Mudd sometimes threatened to "send his slaves to Richmond." The defense countered with a former slave who said Mudd "treated me first-rate."
Defense Attorney Thomas Ewing argued to the Commission that it is no crime to fix a broken leg, even if it were the leg of a presidential assassin and even if the doctor knew it was the leg of a presidential assassin. Ewing argued that the prosecution must prove more: that Mudd actually furthered the conspiracy in some way. Prosecutors responded by arguing that the evidence showed more than the defense admitted. They contended that Mudd furthered the conspiracy by, for example, pointing out to Herold the route that he and Booth should take upon leaving his farm.
The Military Commission convicted Mudd and sentenced him to life in prison. His life was spared by a single vote.
While enroute to the federal prison in the Dry Tortugas, Florida, Mudd confessed to his military escort, George Dutton, that "he knew Booth when he came to the house with Herold." According to Dutton, Mudd said he lied "to protect himself and his family." He also confessed to having come to Washington in March to meet with Booth at the National Hotel.
George Atzerodt, in a confession offered shortly before his execution, saw Mudd as playing a significant role in the original plan to kidnap the President and take him to Richmond. "I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it," Atzerodt said. "Booth sent liquors and provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd's."
In 1867, an outbreak of yellow fever overtook the Dry Tortugas, claiming the lives of fellow conspirator and inmate Michael O'Lauglin, as well as the prison doctor. Mudd assumed the role as the new prison doctor.
President Andrew Johnson pardoned
before he left office in March, 1869. Mudd returned to
Maryland. Mudd died of pneumonia
in in 1883.