Alumnus Profile: Harry C. Knipp, 76

His Name Was Mudd

Samuel Alexander Mudd, 1856The career of Samuel Alexander Mudd, class of 1856, did indeed make popular that expression, even though scholars have traced its origins to at least one generation prior to Mudd’s birth in 1833. A native of Charles County, Maryland, Mudd would became famous—or infamous—for setting the broken left fibula of John Wilkes Booth on the morning of April 15, 1865. The action nearly caused Mudd to swing from a hangman’s rope. Before that, however, he was better known as a young physician with a good education and a strong family background. Mudd would survive the tumultuous months following the end of the Civil War, yet would also spend the rest of his life trying to convince his fellow Americans that he was a good and innocent man.

The son of a prosperous farmer whose family roots in southern Maryland went back to the mid-17th century and the state’s founding as a haven for Roman Catholics, Sam Mudd attended schools in Maryland and the District of Columbia, including Georgetown College (now University), before enrolling at what was then Baltimore Medical College. After receiving his MD, Mudd returned to Charles County where his father gave him a 200-acre farm, and he opened a medical practice. Sam married Sarah Frances “Frank” Dyer in 1857; Sam and Frank would eventually have nine children and more than thirty grandchildren. Their descendants remain numerous into the 21st century. Newsman Roger Mudd is a fifth cousin.

Like many of the farmers around them, the Mudds relied on slave labor, and their political sympathies leaned toward the Confederacy after it was formed in 1861. The Civil War years were hard on the citizens of southern Maryland, and during the 1865 trial of the conspirators who plotted the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and other members of the Union government, it became clear that Sam Mudd had known at least some of the assassins, including Booth. He may have partaken of the original plot to capture rather than kill the President. In any case, Mudd was equivocal when interrogated by US Army agents. Scholarly opinions differ, and there is unlikely ever to be full agreement on points of dispute; yet regardless of denials by Mudd and his wife, it seems probable that, when Booth and co-conspirator David Herold arrived at the Mudds’ house early in the morning of April 15, they were recognized as friends and offered both medical care and support.

One possible explanation for Mudd’s less-than-honest statements to Army agents, and for twice changing his story, was that he feared for the lives of his family. Like other men who were involved in the conspiracy and later trial, Sam was young—just 31 at the time—and in his case already the father of four small children. He would not have been the first criminal suspect to tell various “truths” when confronted with the reality of harsh punishment and retribution.

Mudd and the other Lincoln conspirators were tried by a US Army tribunal set up under orders of President Andrew Johnson. In June, 1865, he escaped a death sentence by just one vote: military commissions do not require unanimous verdicts. Later that summer, Mudd was sent to remote Fort Jefferson in the area of the Florida Keys known as the Dry Tortugas. There he almost immediately began to campaign for his release, as did his wife from their home in Maryland. Mudd also attempted escape, an action which caused him to be put in irons and housed in the fort’s dungeon. Many of his fellow prisoners were Union Army deserters, while many of the guards were members of the U. S. Colored Infantry.

One of the great killers of the Caribbean world was yellow fever, an often fatal disease caused by a flavivirus and known as “the Yellow Jack” among sailors. It was an infection not only lethal but also characterized by the rapid onset of vicious symptoms. In August of 1867, yellow fever reached Fort Jefferson and quickly claimed many of the fort’s soldiers and other staff members, one of them the only Army surgeon on duty. The inmates who died included Michael O’Laughlin, a Lincoln co-conspirator who had been convicted and sent to Fort Jefferson along with Mudd.

According to an account written by Mudd’s youngest daughter Nettie, Sam volunteered to replace the prison’s surgeon only after deciding that, having been wrongfully (in his mind) convicted in the Lincoln trial, he did not wish to “subject myself to renewed imputations of assassination” by allowing his fellow sufferers to die from neglect. Mudd’s care of the sick was evidently more effective than that of his credentialed predecessor, and it earned him kudos from the soldiers at the fort. He appeared to have understood certain of the basic processes by which such a contagious disease could be spread, something that not all his fellow physicians would have known at that time. Mudd gained a Presidential pardon in February, 1869, in one of Andrew Johnson’s last official acts. More recently Mudd’s family has tried to expunge the record of his military trial, but that effort continues to meet with resistance from the Department of the Army.

After his return to Charles County, Sam and Frank had five more children, and he resumed his work as a farmer and physician. He became involved in local and state Democratic politics, although his efforts to gain elective office were unsuccessful. Mudd died of lung ailments at age 49; he may have suffered long-term effects from having endured the Yellow Jack himself while at Fort Jefferson.

In a curious coda to his public career, Sam Mudd became involved in an outbreak of yellow fever that took place in New Orleans and the lower Mississippi Valley during 1878. According to an article in The Washington Post dated August 29, 1878, he wrote to a relevant official, the Postmaster General, who reported that:

. . . for eight or more years he has been studying how to fight the yellow and other contagious fevers. . . . He wants the [postal] department to telegraph to the health officer in New Orleans . . . that the poison or infection is to the effete or dead matter that has been eliminated from the system and absorbed into bedding and articles of clothing . . . as contagion is to the lung tissues, capable of reproduction and entension [sic]. . . . Therefore it follows that if all articles of bedding, particularly woolen blankets, throughout the whole city, be at once submerged into strong soap and water, washed out and dried, the means of extension would be cut off, and the disease could no more prevail than a fire burn without fuel.

Samuel Alexander Mudd may indeed have been guilty of complicity in the conspiracy to capture or kill Abraham Lincoln, but he had been solidly educated in scientific medicine. And although his support for the contagion theory of yellow fever may have been incorrect, Mudd continued to keep abreast of advancements in medicine and hygiene during the bitter years after his release from prison.

Wayne MilanAbout the author: Wayne Millan is a lecturer in ancient history at The American University in Washington, D.C. A high honors graduate of Swarthmore College, he did graduate study at Brown and the University of Maryland before serving as a historical consultant on televised series for Discovery Communications, PBS, and National Geographic Channels. Since 2001, Millan has also been primary consultant to the medical school’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference. He is currently at work on a biography of Harry Fielding Reid, a native of Baltimore, long-time Johns Hopkins scientist and the father of modern earthquake studies. Reid’s son Francis was a 1930 graduate of our medical school.

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