Sunday Travels: Fried Chicken…With a Side of Treason

Tom Warwick

This piece is part of our on-going “Sunday Travels” series.  These occasional entries will describe the recent adventures of one of our staff writers, while remaining true to our mission of being informative and well researched.  In the Second of these entries Tom Warwick describes a recent trip to the Dr. Samuel Mudd House Museum and explores the remaining question as to Mudd’s involvement in the Lincoln Assassination.

“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required”

– Hippocratic Oath

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

– US Constitution

In the hours after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the US government was in chaos.  For the first time in American history the President had been murdered, and his assassin was still at large. In an effort to regain control over the situation, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the Union Army into a massive manhunt to arrest John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. The decision to use the Army as a national police force, combined with the use of military tribunals instead of civilian courts, would shroud the proceedings that followed in controversy. Of these proceedings, arguably none are more controversial or covered in historical mystery than the arrest and conviction of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who set Booth’s broken leg following the assassination. The debate about whether Dr. Mudd was a traitor to his country or a simple country doctor at the wrong place at the wrong time, no longer exactly in the mainstream of current pop culture, lives on in the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum in Waldorf, Maryland. Maybe it’s the ewwy-gooey romantic in me, but I couldn’t think of a better place for a double date.

John, our dates, and I turned off of Maryland Route 5 and began to follow the twisting winding road up to the Dr. Mudd House. As we approached the house I couldn’t help but wonder how Booth would have been able to find this secluded place in an age where they didn’t have decent roads let alone Google Maps, but I guess that’s a question for the tour. The day itself couldn’t have been better, far from being hit by the hurricane that had been called for, we enjoyed the first cool, clear, day of fall and beautiful blue skies.  A sign out front prompted us to walk around to the back and enter through the gift shop.  Among the wooden muskets, confederate flag patches, and copies of the Mudd Family Cookbook (John insisted the highlight of the book includes a recipe for fried chicken…WITH A SIDE OF TREASON) we waited for our tour guide.  

Our tour guide was an elderly man in a tweed driver’s cap.  His keys were on a “proud veteran” lanyard, and I wondered if he fought for the North or for the South.  We entered the parlor and the tour guide started to give us some background on Dr. Mudd. Dr. Samuel Mudd was born not far from the modern day museum.  The fourth of ten children, Dr. Mudd continued the family tradition when, in 1854, he graduated from the Baltimore Medical College.  With the “ink on his medical diploma still wet” Dr. Mudd married his childhood sweetheart and set up his new practice (SMHM). When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Mudd was decidedly a southern sympathizer.  The owner of multiple slaves, Dr. Mudd had “often expressed his dislike, even hatred, for President Lincoln and his policies” (UM Law). While not an active member of the Confederacy, Mudd wasn’t exactly loyal to the Union. After showing off the Mudd family chamber pot (which John was disgusted to see didn’t come with a lid), our guide took us into the front entryway and we got to see what we really came for.

Standing in the cramped entryway, our tour guide motioned to the front door. Six hours after the President had been shot and three and a half hours before Secretary Stanton would declare that he “now belongs to the ages,” two men would have knocked loudly on it, waking Mudd and his family.  One of the men standing in the doorway was hurt, experiencing severe pain from a badly fractured leg, and asked for the doctor’s assistance. Whether or not Samuel Mudd knew it at the time is up for debate, but there is now no question that these two men were John Wilkes Booth and one of his co-conspirators, David Herold. Mudd invited the men in and set the patient, Mr. Booth, down on a couch in his parlor; a couch that was now only a few feet away from where our group now stood.  Mudd attempted to examine this man’s leg, but due to the swelling he was unable to remove the man’s riding boot.  Mudd suggested the party move upstairs to the guest room that doubled as Mudd’s examination room.  As we walked up the stairs you could hear the creaking they must have made as Mudd and Herold carried Booth.  The room is still arranged as it was that night, the only modern additions being the painting depicting the act that would have taken place.  In this room Mudd first cut away Booth’s boot exposing his leg and allowing him to examine and set the fracture. After daybreak, Mudd made arrangements to provide the man with crutches and, unsuccessfully, secure a carriage for the visitors.  The two men left soon after, armed with their medical care and directions provided by Mudd to their next destination.

Hours after Booth had left, Mudd was visited by a military investigator hot on Booth’s trail. When questioned about his early morning visitors, Mudd claimed that “the man whose leg he fixed ‘was a stranger to me’” (UM Law). A few days later, suspicious of Mudd’s dodgy answers, the military investigator returned to the Mudd’s home to conduct a search. When the commanding officer told the Mudd’s of his intentions, Sarah Mudd brought down from “upstairs a boot that had been cut off the visitor’s leg three days earlier” (UM Law).  The officer examined the boot, and on the top inside of it written in pen was the name “J Wilkes” (UM Law).  Mudd claimed not to have noticed the writing and when shown a picture of Booth said he did not recognize him. Mudd was arrested and tried by a military tribunal.

At Mudd’s trial, the prosecution produced testimony that showed a prior relationship between Booth and Mudd, in contradiction to Dr. Mudd’s claims.  Several witnesses testified that they had seen Mudd and Booth buying a horse near Mudd’s farm, standing together outside the National Hotel, and visiting with other conspirators, including John Surratt (UM Law).  The investigator who initially approached Mudd would tell the tribunal that “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” (UM Law).  Mudd’s defense attorneys retorted by highlighting the fact that there existed a much more interesting dichotomy within the debate — the duties of a medical professional vs the duties of a citizen at war.  The defense counsel argued that, while it was true Mudd may have aided Booth’s escape by setting his leg, Dr. Mudd was also a medical professional. Mudd was bound by oath to treat the patient in front of him. The argument boiled down to the idea that “it was not a crime to fix a broken leg, even if it were the leg of a presidential assassin, and even if it the doctor knew it was the leg of a presidential assassin” (UM Law).  In the end the argument was unsuccessful the tribunal found him guilty.  Mudd was sentenced to a life of hard labor at Fort Jefferson.

At this point our tour guide led us to a glass case in the upstairs landing filled with mementos from Mudd’s time at Fort Jefferson, including what are believed to be the keys to his jail cell. Our guide explained that, while hard, the time spent in Fort Jefferson was a blessing in disguise because it allowed Mudd a chance to redeem himself. In 1867, yellow fever broke out on the island and began to claim the lives of the residents there, including the only doctor.  Mudd, who had experience dealing with this specific disease, offered his services and as a result saved the lives of many on the island.  As a reward for his service, President Andrew Johnson granted him a Presidential Pardon in 1869.  After leaving Fort Jefferson, Mudd returned to his Maryland home and lived there until his death in 1883.

The question of Mudd’s innocence or guilt, and the extent to which he should be held responsible for setting Booth’s leg, has been debated for decades. While attempts to clear Mudd’s name have been made by his descendants, local advocates, and even Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, doubts still remain. In a court today it is unclear if the evidence presented against Dr. Mudd would have been enough to definitively prove that Mudd knew he was aiding in the escape of a wanted man. However, since the only records of what truly happened that night lie in Dr. and Mrs. Mudd’s court accounts of the matter, it’s likely that the complete story will simply never be known.

Photo Credit: Dr. Mudd House Museum 

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