Thursday, December 20, 2012

Doctor, Conspirator?

His name really was Mudd.

Today is the 179th birthday of the most vilified doctor this side of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil.

Samuel Mudd was born on December 20, 1833. Before his 32nd birthday, he was a convicted felon.

With the rebirth of Abraham Lincoln in our social consciousness (they even made a movie where Abe isn't a vampire hunter), now is a good time to remember Dr. Mudd, who was convicted along with several others for conspiring to kill the president in 1865.

Justice moved a lot quicker in those days, for good and for bad. The president was assassinated on April 14, 1865 (he died in the wee hours of the 15th). Less than a month later, Mudd and his co-defendants were on trial. By the end of June, Mudd was convicted along with the others.

It was Mudd's prior acquaintance with assassin John Wilkes Booth that planted the seeds of conspiracy.

Mudd first met Booth, history says, in November 1864 in a church in Bryantown, MD. Booth used a guise of a real estate hunt as an excuse to visit the town, but his real intent was to scout out an escape route in his plot to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the release of Confederate prisoners of war. During this first Bryantown visit, Booth allegedly met Dr. Mudd and even stayed overnight at the doctor's farm.

Historians pretty much agree that it's unlikely that the doctor would have knowingly participated in Booth's kidnap plot, though a second Booth-Mudd meeting occurred in December, which included drinks at a tavern and at Mudd's farm. The nature of the meeting is unknown.

Mudd's farm was only five miles from Bryantown.

Co-conspirator defendant George Atzerodt claimed that Mudd knew of Booth's plot ahead of time, which turned into one of the murder variety.

You know the rest. Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater, and sought medical assistance at Dr. Mudd's farm later that night. The doctor treated Booth's broken leg (suffered while leaping from the balcony onto the stage after the shooting) and let Booth spend the night. It's unclear---and this is a biggie---whether Dr. Mudd knew, at that time, that Booth had murdered Lincoln.

The doctor didn't help his own cause. Mudd failed to contact authorities until several days after Booth left his farm, fueling speculation that Mudd was part of some sort of plot.

Mudd was also less than forthcoming about whether he had met Booth previously, once authorities were able to question the doctor. Mudd at first denied ever having met Booth, then retracted and confessed to the first meeting in Bryantown in November 1864. It wasn't until he was in prison that Mudd confessed to the December 1864 meeting. Both denials were, obviously, big mistakes.

Mudd served less than four years in prison. It always helps to have friends in high places; Mudd's defense attorney, Thomas Ewing Jr., was influential in then-President Andrew Johnson's administration. This connection was a big factor in Johnson's pardon of Mudd in February 1869. Mudd returned home in late March.


Dr. Samuel Mudd, as he appeared while in prison


Thanks to the pardon, Mudd resumed practicing medicine and in 1877 he even ran for the Maryland House of Delegates as a Democrat. He lost.

Mudd died of pneumonia on January 10, 1883. There is irony in his burial, which was in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bryantown.

That's the church where Dr. Mudd first met John Wilkes Booth.

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