Mystery Lingers Around the Doctor Who Treated Lincoln's Assassin

Great-grandsons of Dr. Samuel Mudd disagree over his role

Was Samuel A. Mudd an unsuspecting doctor caught up in the plot against President Abraham Lincoln or did he know he was aiding an assassin as he treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg the day after the president was shot?

On the 150th anniversary of the attack that felled Lincoln, mystery still surrounds the Maryland doctor whose farmhouse Booth stopped at after fleeing Washington D.C.

Even two of Mudd’s great-grandsons disagree over what role their ancestor played. No one believes Mudd had anything to do with the assassination, but had he heard of John Wilkes Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap the president? Or was the 31-year-old physician entirely innocent?

The commemorations marking Lincoln’s assassination this week will include events at the Mudd farmhouse in Waldorf, Maryland, 25 miles south of the capital. On Saturday and Sunday, there will be performances of a play “The Assassin’s Doctor,” historical re-enactments and tours of the house, now a museum.

Booth and an accomplice arrived on horseback just before dawn on April 15, 1865. Mudd set his leg and let him rest in an upstairs room bedroom until around sunset, when the men left. Union soldiers found them a week and a half later in Virginia and killed Booth.

As the government rounded up co-conspirators, Mudd was arrested and tried before a military commission. Spared execution, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson on a remote island off the Florida Keys in the Gulf of Mexico. But four years later, after he disregarded his own safety to treat soldiers and prisoners during a yellow fever epidemic, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.

Charles County Government Office of Tourism
The Samuel Mudd farmhouse in Charles County, Maryland, where President Lincoln's assassin was treated for his broken leg after he fled from Washington D.C.

Today, one of his great-grandsons, Robert K. Summers, believes that Mudd was aware of Booth’s intention to kidnap the president and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, a plan that petered out after General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Another, Thomas B. Mudd, believes Samuel Mudd's name must be cleared of any guilt. Despite their differences, the men are friends.

Robert Summers

Summers, 76, said that while Booth was at the Mudd family's tobacco farm, the doctor visited a nearby town and learned that the president had been shot the previous evening, Good Friday. But he did not alert soldiers there about Booth, he said.

“Why did Dr. Mudd basically stonewall the people who were hunting Booth and help him gain a few days in his escape?” he asked. “To me that was the interesting question. What was Dr. Mudd's motive in not turning Booth over to the authorities?"

Mudd could not have known that Booth was going to kill Lincoln, a spur of the moment decision Booth made the afternoon of April 14, Summers said. But the men had met before, at the farmhouse in November of the previous year and again in December when Mudd visited Washington, D.C. -- an acquaintance Mudd denied in a statement he signed for military investigators.

Later in life, he told several people that he did recognize Booth, though only privately, Summers said. And after his death, a noted Civil War reporter George Alfred Townsend interviewed several people who told him Mudd did indeed know of the earlier kidnapping plot, he said.

"No he wasn't guilty of having anything to do with the assassination," he said. "Yes, he was guilty of harboring Booth."

Charles County Government Office of Tourism
A marker shows the site of the Samuel Mudd farmhouse, where John Wilkes Booth was treated for his broken leg

Summers, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, initially had little interest in his family history, athough his mother had grown up on the farm. Her bedroom was the one Booth had stayed in during his 12 hours there.

But Summers got older, he began to read about his infamous ancestor, and decided to do his own research. The result is three books about Samuel Mudd, beginning with "The Assassin's Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd," and others in the works. A founder of RKS Software, Summers is now retired and spends his time researching the family.

He and Thomas B. Mudd, 74, will both be at the farm this weekend, Summers signing his books. During the summer, Thomas B. Mudd and other relatives will travel by boat from Key West, Florida, to Fort Jefferson on the morning of July 24, the day Samuel Mudd arrived there. The voyage, which they are calling a "Free Dr. Mudd Tour," is intended to publicize what they believe is history's poor treatment of the Mudd name.

"We’re still wearing the stigma of Dr. Mudd's conviction," Thomas Mudd said.

Mudd, a retired history teacher who lives in Saginaw, Michigan, said that far from harboring Booth, Dr. Samuel Mudd helped in his capture. At Easter services, Samuel Mudd told his cousin Dr. George Mudd about two suspicious men who had arrived at his house, information that was passed on to the authorities the next day, Thomas Mudd said.

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Without it, he said, "I think they would have had more difficulty running down Booth."

Detectives and soldiers visited the farmhouse twice that week. The second time, Mudd gave them the boot he had cut off Booth's leg, which they discovered had Booth's name penciled inside, Thomas Mudd said. He believes his ancestor was not sure his visitor was Booth until that moment.

"If Dr. Mudd knew that it was Booth in his home, that boot never would have been given to the authorities," he said. "That boot would have been buried in the nearby swamp. Period."

Thomas Mudd is carrying on work his father began as a young doctor himself and which became a lifelong mission: to exonerate Samuel Mudd. At the time that Dr. Richard Mudd died in 2002, he was still trying to get the U.S. Army to overturn the conviction.

Thomas Mudd (dressed as an umpire for the Saginaw Old Golds vintage baseball club)

After Richard Mudd's death, the family lost a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and missed a deadline for filing with the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving them with no other judicial options.

"We didn’t beat City Hall but we made a doggone good run at it," Thomas Mudd said.

He has donated many of his father's papers to Georgetown University and is still organizing others. And he has written articles for a newsletter published by the Dr. Mudd House Museum defending the doctor.

His focus now is trying to change public perceptions about his great-grandfather.

"There is no chance that we will ever get back into the court system in the case of Dr. Sam Mudd," he said. "But in the court of public opinion, I still am battling."

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