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Doctor Samuel Mudd and the Lincoln Assassination

Gina Tangelo
AP United States History
Bob Hoch
January 3, 2018
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The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a phenomenon that caused all of America to

go into a frenzy. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at the

Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.. There were many theories regarding the assassination and

who was involved: the main suspect, John Wilkes Booth, Doctor Samuel A. Mudd, said to have

helped Booth with the assassination, and others who were later executed and also found guilty

for helping to kill the president. Doctor Mudd was a young man who was believed to have been a

part of the plans to kill the president when in actuality he was not aware of Booth’s intentions.

Doctor Samuel Alexander Mudd was born on December 21, 1833 in Charles County,

Maryland.1 He was one of ten children and lived on his father Henry Lowe’s tobacco plantation

of hundreds of acres.2 He was sent to Frederick College in Frederick, Maryland after several

years of homeschooling.3 Two years later, he transferred to Georgetown College in Washington,

D.C. and later went to study medicine at the Baltimore School of Medicine.4 After graduating in

1856, Mudd returned to his hometown to become a doctor and married his childhood sweetheart,

Sarah Frances Dyer Mudd the next year.5 Mudd’s father gave the couple two wedding gifts: 218

acres of land and a new house built on it called Rock Hill Farm that they moved into in 1859.6

He had four children before the assassination7 and became a small scale tobacco grower to add to

1
Stacey Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883), alleged conspirator in the assassination of President
Abraham Lincoln | American National Biography," American National Biography, June 16, 2017, accessed
December 24, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.2001833.

2
Ibid.

3
Ibid.

4
Ibid.

5
Onsite visit 11/12/2017

6
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

7
Onsite visit 11/12/17.
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his income with the help of slave labor.8 In 1864, Maryland put an end to slavery, this making it

harder for Mudd to continue to manage his plantation after losing his slaves in November on that

same year.9 While considering his options, he was introduced to a twenty-six-year old actor

named John Wilkes Booth who said he may be interested in buying Mudd’s farm.

Booth visited Bryantown, Maryland twice claiming to be looking for horses to be able to

escape after kidnapping the president.10 He had been coming up with the ultimate plan to kidnap

the president, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State and incarcerate them for a great

monetary value for months. Booth’s first encounter with Mudd occurred at St.Mary’s Catholic

Church in November of 1864.11 Booth proceeded to visit Mudd at his farm the next day as well

as staying there overnight.12 The next day, Booth bought a horse and then returned to

Washington, D.C..13 About a month after this, Mudd traveled to Washington where he

encountered Booth again.14 During this visit he introduced Booth to John Surratt, the youngest

son of Mary Surratt, who ran a boarding house as well as being a Confederate courier.15 The

Surratt Tavern was said to be a “safe house” in between Richmond and Washington, D.C.16

8
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

9
Ibid.

10
Onsite visit 11/12/2017.

11
Ibid.

12
Ibid.

13
Ibid.

14
Ibid.

15
Robert and Marilyn Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd: The Assassination of Abraham
Lincoln." Litigation 31, no. 3 (2005): 52.

16
Ibid.
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Louis Weichmann, Mary Surratt's roommate, who was a federal government employee who was

there for the significant meetings that Booth held but did not take part in the assassination.17

On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was watching a play in Ford’s Theater completely

unaware that his assassin was also in the theater. He was planning on executing this plan until the

night of the assassination when he held a meeting with George Atzerodt, David Herold, and

Lewis Payne to tell them that the plan was to kill Lincoln instead.18 John Wilkes Booth shot

Lincoln in the back of the head while Atzerodt and Payne were to kill the Vice President and the

Secretary of State, Atzerodt losing his nerve and Payne severely wounding the Secretary of State

and anyone else who got in his way.

While fleeing from the the theater, he broke his left fibula by jumping from the

president’s box to the stage and met up with Herold on a horse. Booth remembered that Doctor

Mudd lived close by and decided to pay a visit to his farm at around 4 a.m. the following

morning.19 Mudd helped with Booth’s leg and gave him a shoe to wear along with telling his

maid to make them a grand breakfast.20 It is said that Booth and Herold were in disguise and so

there was no way for Mudd to have known that he was helping a murderer.21 The doctor went

into Bryantown that same morning to try and find a carriage for Booth22 when he learned about

17
Ibid.

18
Stephen M. Archer, "Booth, John Wilkes (1838-1865), actor and assassin of President Abraham Lincoln |
American National Biography," American National Biography, June 16, 2017, , accessed December 24, 2017,
https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0401210.

19
Onsite visit 11/12/2017.

20
Ibid.

21
Ibid.

22
Ibid.
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the assassination by stopping by a neighbor’s house, if he hadn’t already known about it.23

Doctor Mudd didn’t contact the authorities right away and instead waited until the following day

to tell his cousin about what had happened at his house and his cousin called the authorities soon

after.24 When asked, he also initially denied having ever met Booth, this causing problem for him

during his trial.25 On April 26, after the death of Booth, Mudd was arrested as a suspect in the

murder of Lincoln.26

Mudd thought he would be released quickly but realized he was wrong when he was

transferred from the Bryantown Tavern Jail to the Old Carroll Jail in Washington, D.C.27 On

May 1, President Johnson issued a nine-man military committee to try the suspects. Doctor

Mudd was to be represented by General Thomas Ewing, Jr., chosen by his wife.28 Ewing argued

that it was unconstitutional for civilians to be tried by a military commission when civilian courts

were available.29 He also claimed that it was illegal because it was not created by Congress and it

violated the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, “which provided for a grand jury indictment

in a case involving capital punishment”, and the Sixth Amendment, “which called for a speedy

and public trial by an impartial jury.”30 the trial began on May 10,31 366 witnesses testifying

overall.32 The specific charge against Mudd was that:

23
Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” 51.

24
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

25
Ibid.

26
Ibid.

27
Robert K. Summers, “The Doctor's Slaves: Samuel Mudd, Slavery, and the Lincoln Assassination” (2015), 49.

28
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

29
Ibid, 53.

30
Ibid, 53.
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on the various days between March 6 and April 20, 1865, he did advice,

encourage, receive, entertain, harbor, and conceal, aid and assist John

Wilkes Booth, the Surratts, and the other defendants, with knowledge of

the murderous and traitorous conspiracy aforesaid, and with the intent to

aid and assist them in the execution thereof and in escaping from justice

after the murder of the said Abraham Lincoln.33

Some of the witnesses, his own slaves, said that he shot one of them in the leg and threatened to

send others to help the Confederates as well as sheltering Confederate soldiers.34 He was found

guilty of helping with the murder on June 29. He missed death by one vote and was instead given

a life sentence.35

Mudd and the others suspects who were also given a life sentence were held at Fort

Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.36 On September 25, Mudd attempted to escape by hiding on a ship

that had recently docked at the fort but was quickly caught by soldiers on duty.37 In the fall of

1867 there was a wave of yellow fever at the fort, causing for the death of Michael

O’Laughlen.38 Because the prison doctor had died, Mudd decided to assume his duties and saved

lives by preventing the spread of the disease.39 The soldiers wrote a petition letter to President

31
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

32
Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” 53.

33
Ibid, 53.

34
Summers, “The Doctor’s Slaves,” 49.

35
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

36
Ibid.

37
Onsite visit 11/12/2017

38
Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” 55.
39
Ibid, 55.
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Andrew Johnson telling him of what Mudd did during the outbreak, leading to Mudd’s release

later on.40 On March 19, 1869, Mudd was pardoned by President Johnson.41 Three weeks after

Mudd was pardoned, Edmund Spangler and Samuel Arnold were pardoned as well.42 Mudd

resumed his medical practices as soon as he returned and slowly, but surely, brought his farm

back to normal as well as having five more kids.43 Spangler went to visit Mudd and his family in

1873 and lived with them until his death, earning money from carpentry, gardening, and other

farm chores.44 One day Mudd was visiting one of his patients when he caught pneumonia. At the

time, no one knew how to treat it and at the age of 49, he died on January 10, 1883.45

Doctor Mudd’s accountability in the murder has remained a controversy for over a

century. Many of his descendants, mainly his grandson Richard Dyer Mudd, sought justice for

his innocence. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both wrote to Richard concurring

that the doctor was innocent after years of hard work on Richard’s end.46 Mudd, after this, filed a

petition to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR) as well as asking for

them to forget about his grandfather’s sentence.47 Two years later it was recommended that it be

removed completely from army records because Samuel Mudd was tried improperly “before a

40
Ibid, 55.

41
Ibid, 55.

42
Ibid, 55.

43
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

44
Ibid, 55.

45
Ibid.

46
Ibid. 56.
47
Ibid, 56.
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military commission instead of a civilian court.”48 The ABCMR finally decided that it “had the

advantage of hindsight and looked at the facts of the case with more detachment than was

possible in the emotionally charged atmosphere in the Civil War.”49 It disputed the military

general’s opinion in 1865 that the crimes were “uniquely military” and made note that none of

the people that Mudd alleged to have collaborated with was a member of the military.50 The

board later found:

no good reason why Dr. Mudd should not have been tried by a civilian court.

It, therefore, unanimously concludes that the military commission did

not have the jurisdiction to try him, and that in so doing denied him his

due process rights, particularly his right to trial by jury of his peers.

This denial constituted such a gross infringement of his Constitutionally protected

rights, that his conviction should be set aside. To fail to do so would be unjust.51

In July 1992, acting assistant secretary of the Army William D. Clark refused the ABCMR’s

suggestions by saying that the board was not in business of settling historical disputes.52 In

August, Mudd filed a petition to the secretary of the army seeking a reversal of Clark’s decision,

the new secretary Sara E. Lister declining his request for reconsideration.53

That December, Mudd decided to take an action in the U.S. District Court for the District

of Columbia to have Lister’s decision reviewed as well as a declaratory judgment that his

48
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

49
Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” 56.

50
Ibid, 56.

51
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

52
Aitken, "The Long, Strange Case of Dr. Samuel Mudd,” 56.
53
Ibid, 56.
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grandfather had been wrongfully convicted.54 In October 1998, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the

D.C. District of Court dismissed the petition but he ruled that the secretary’s decision was

reached in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner and ordered the army to rethink the

suggestion.55 On March 6, 2000, the army ruled that the commission had the right to try and

convict Mudd because of the Ex Parte Quirin (1942), which states that a “military trial was

justified… [for] those accused of committing offenses against the law of war.” 56 They said that

Mudd’s case fit this definition because the assassination of the president was essentially a

military act and the city of Washington, D.C., was at the time under “threat of invasion.” 57 This

ruling, unfortunately, did not classify whether Mudd was guilty or innocent, and so the fight for

his innocence continues.

Samuel Mudd’s story will never truly be uncovered for obvious reasons, one of them

being that he’s dead and he can therefore be the only one to be able to testify to the true story of

his part in the assassination, if he ever played a part. Though there is plenty evidence that is

being used to try and say that he did play a part, he was still pardoned by multiple presidents

even centuries later who saw the goodness within him. He was a good man who made a

reputation for himself in Charles County, Maryland, and his story is one unlike any other. The

conspiracies may never end and there may never be a conclusive decision amongst historians but

they can all agree on one thing: Doctor Samuel A. Mudd was a man of many talents who did

great things with them and will surely never be forgotten.

54
Ibid, 56.

55
Ibid, 56.

56
Hamilton, "Mudd, Samuel Alexander (1833-1883).”

57
Ibid.
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