Dr. Samuel Mudd, Prisoner and Physician
Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Robert Summers who has been researching, writing, and lecturing on his ancestor Dr. Samuel A. Mudd’s role in the Lincoln assassination for more than a decade. During his research he visited NLM to consult Army medical records held in our History of Medicine Division for details about Dr. Mudd’s activities as a physician.
My great-grandfather, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, was convicted and sent to prison for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson, in part for his life-saving work during a yellow fever epidemic at his military prison, Fort Jefferson, Florida. I was always curious about what actual medical procedures he used to save lives during the epidemic, and a few months ago I found the answer at the National Library of Medicine.
Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He fled the theater and rode quickly out of Washington across a bridge into Maryland, meeting up with an accomplice, David Herold. However, Booth had broken a small bone in his left leg, either when jumping to the theater stage after shooting Lincoln, or when his horse fell on the muddy road. He needed medical help, so he headed for the farm of a young doctor he had met before, Dr. Sam Mudd.
They arrived at the Mudd farm just before dawn. Dr. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg and allowed him to rest in an upstairs bedroom. During the day, Dr. Mudd visited nearby Bryantown where he learned that John Wilkes Booth had assassinated President Lincoln. For reasons that are still unknown, he failed to notify the soldiers there of Booth’s presence at his farm. Instead, he rode back to his farm where Booth and Herold were just leaving.
Many people were arrested during the Government’s investigation of the assassination, but ultimately only eight of these, including Dr. Mudd, were put on trial by a Military Commission. The Court didn’t believe Dr. Mudd had anything to do with the assassination, but thought he was guilty of aiding Booth’s escape by not alerting the authorities to Booth’s presence at his farm. All eight were found guilty. The four whom the military commission believed had actually helped plan and participate in the assassination were executed. The other four, including Dr. Mudd, were sent to Fort Jefferson, a military prison located on a small Gulf of Mexico island about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.
The 1867 yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson lasted from August 18th to November 14th. The fort’s physician, Major J. Sim Smith, was one of the first to die. Dr. Mudd and a civilian physician at Key West, Dr. Daniel Whitehurst, agreed to take Smith’s place for the duration of the epidemic. Three hundred thirteen soldiers, 54 prisoners, and 20 civilians, a total of 387 people, were at the fort during the epidemic. Two hundred seventy of them contracted yellow fever. Thirty eight died. Towards the end of the epidemic, Dr. Mudd himself contracted yellow fever and almost died.
At the National Library of Medicine, I found a report about the epidemic at Fort Jefferson, filed by the Army doctor who relieved Drs. Mudd and Whitehurst at the end of the epidemic. He wrote:
“The treatment pursued here before my arrival, as I am informed, consisted in the administration of 10 gr. Calomel & 10 gr. Dover’s Powder when the patient was first taken with the fever. Afterward, the sick were allowed to drink freely of warm teas, such as Boneset, fever plant, & hyson. Cold water & ice was peremptorily and uniformly denied them. During the progress of the fever in cases of great restlessness and hot, dry skin, spirit of nitre ether & Dover’s Powder were occasionally administered. In convalescence, ale, porter & other stimulants were used.”
I had never heard of any of the medicines in the report, but Google searches told me that Dover’s Powder was powdered opium, Calomel was powdered mercury, and boneset, fever plant and hyson were forms of herbal teas. I doubt that any of these would be used to treat yellow fever today, but the ale, porter and other stimulants sound promising. Whiskey was freely available to soldiers and prisoners alike at Fort Jefferson.
After Dr. Mudd was pardoned in 1869, he returned to his family and farm near Bryantown, Maryland where he resumed his medical practice. He died of pneumonia 14 years later on January 10, 1883 at the young age of 49.
Learn more about Robert Summers’ research into Dr. Mudd and the 1867 yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson on his website.