Dr. Samuel Mudd Trial: 1865

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Dr. Samuel Mudd Trial: 1865

Defendant: Dr. Samuel A. Mudd
Crimes Charged: Treason and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyer: General Thomas Ewing
Chief Prosecutor: Judge Advocate Joseph Holt
Judges: Military commission officers Lieutenant Colonel David Clendenim, Brevet Brigadier General James Ekin, Brigadier General Robert Foster, Brigadier General T. M. Harris, Major General David Hunter, Brigadier General Alvin Howe, Brevet Major General August Kautz, Brevet Colonel C. H. Tompkins, and Major General Lew Wallace
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: May 9-June 30, 1865
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment, pardoned in 1868

SIGNIFICANCE: During his flight after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth visited Dr. Samuel A. Mudd for treatment of his broken ankle. Although there was little evidence linking him to Booth's crime, Mudd was convicted by a military commission interested more in vengeance than justice. The military's assertion of its authority over that of civilian courts represented the post-Civil War Union's thirst for retribution at the expense of justice.

By spring 1865, the Civil War was all but over. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Confederacy. Although the North resounded with triumph, Southerners and their sympathizers were bitter and resentful. Particularly bitter was a minor actor from Maryland named John Wilkes Booth.

After Appomattox, Booth, long a Confederate sympathizer, vowed to kill President Abraham Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, Booth had his chance. Lincoln went to see the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. The lone security guard assigned to protect Lincoln had gone to a nearby bar for a drink. Unimpeded, Booth sneaked into the theater. From behind the presidential party's box seats, Booth pulled out his pistol and shot Lincoln in the head. Booth leapt from the box to the stage, 12 feet below, breaking his left ankle in the process. After shouting "Sic Semper Tyrannis!" ("thus shall it ever be for tyrants," the state motto of Virginia), Booth ran from the theater and fled Washington on horseback.

Troops Search for Booth and his Co-Conspirators

Lincoln died within hours. On the same night, two of Booth's accomplices, David Herold and Lewis Payne, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward. Payne was arrested at the boarding house where he lived, as was Mary Surratt, the owner of the house. Herold was able to join Booth across the Anacostia River in Maryland and the two rode south. Meanwhile, the authorities continued to round up others suspected of assisting Booth.

As Booth rode through southern Maryland, his ankle worsened. On April 15, shortly before dawn, he stopped at Dr. Samuel Mudd's house outside Bryantown and asked for help. Mudd did what he could for Booth's ankle, provided Booth with crutches, and collected $25 as his fee. Booth then continued to ride south, eventually crossing into Virginia and eluding the authorities. On April 26, federal troops caught up with Booth outside the town of Port Royal, Virginia. A soldier shot Booth, who had barricaded himself in a barn.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had anyone suspected of conspiring with Booth arrested. In addition to Herold, Payne, and Surratt, the authorities arrested Samuel Arnold, George A. Atzerodt, Michael O'Loughlin, Edward Spangler, and the unfortunate Dr. Mudd. Each of the first four men had had some degree of contact with Booth. Although there was no proof that Mudd was involved in the conspiracy, he had met Booth at least once before the assassination.

Mudd and Conspirators Tried

Nine officersMajor General David Hunter, Major General Lew Wallace, Brevet Major General August Kautz, Brigadier General Alvin Howe, Brigadier General T. M. Harris, Brigadier General Robert Foster, Brevet Brigadier General James Ekin, Brevet Colonel C.H. Tompkins, and Lieutenant Colonel David Clendenimcomprised the military commission formed to try Dr. Mudd and the others. The trial began May 9, 1865, with Judge Advocate Joseph Holt as prosecutor and General Thomas Ewing as Mudd's defense counsel.

From May 9 until June 30, the military commission listened to the evidence Holt presented. Although Mudd was entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the trial was conducted under military jurisdiction, making the rules of the game favor the prosecution. Further, the public was clamoring for convictions. Nevertheless, Ewing showed with remorseless logic how the prosecution had failed to prove that Mudd was guilty of treason in tending to Booth's broken ankle:

I will show, first, that Dr. Mudd is not, and cannot possibly be, guilty of any offense known to the law.

One. Not of treason. The overt act attempted to be alleged is the murder of the President. The proof is conclusive, that at the time the tragedy was enacted Dr. Mudd was at his residence in the country, thirty miles from the place of the crime. Those who committed it are shown to have acted for themselves, not as the instruments of Dr. Mudd. He, therefore, cannot be charged, according to law, and upon the evidence, with the commission of this overt act. There are not two witnesses to prove that he did commit it, but abundant evidence to show negatively that he did not.

Ewing went on to show that, since the prosecution had not proven that Mudd was a member of Booth's conspiracy, Mudd could not be convicted of being an "accessory after the fact" in tending to Booth's ankle. Under the law, Mudd could only be convicted of being an accessory after the fact if the prosecution proved that he knew Booth was trying to escape the authorities because of Lincoln's murder:

If a man receives, harbors, or otherwise assists to elude justice, one whom he knows to be guilty of felony, he becomes thereby an accessory after the fact in the felony. Now, let us apply the facts to the law, and see whether Dr. Mudd falls within the rule. On the morning after the assassination, about daybreak, Booth arrived at his house. He did not find the Doctor on watch for him, as a guilty accomplice, expecting his arrival, would have been, but he and all his household were in profound sleep. The Doctor rose from his bed, assisted Booth into the house, laid him upon a sofa, took him up stairs to a bed, set the fractured bone. But he did not know, and had no reason to suspect, that his patient was a fugitive murderer.

Despite Ewing's eloquence, the military commission focused on any circumstance that tended to implicate Mudd, including the fact that Mudd had met Booth on at least one occasion prior to Lincoln's assassination. On June 30, 1865, the commission pronounced Mudd guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Of the other defendants, Atzerodt, Herold, Payne, and Surratt were sentenced to death by hanging. Arnold and O'Loughlin were also given life sentences, and Spangler was sentenced to imprisonment for six years.

Was Mudd Really Guilty?

The government first sent Mudd to serve his sentence in an Albany, New York penitentiary. Later the government sent Mudd to a prison on Dry Tortugas Island in Florida. Poor prison conditions, low 19th-century standards of hygiene, and the tropical climate led to an epidemic of disease on the island. Mudd used his professional training to save the lives of many fellow inmates. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd for his humanitarian work in 1868.

Although Mudd was a free man after 1868, he was tainted by the military commission's guilty verdict until he died in 1883. While there were certainly some guilty individuals among the convicted conspirators, Mudd's involvement seemed so innocent that many historians as well as Mudd's descendants have challenged the commission's guilty verdict as being politically motivated. These believers in Mudd's innocence kept his cause alive. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter wrote Mudd's descendants to express his belief in Mudd's innocence and effectively extended Johnson's pardon to cover any implication that Mudd had been involved in Booth's conspiracy.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Carter, Samuel. The Riddle of Dr. Mudd. New York: Putnam, 1974.

Herold, David E. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. Westport, Corn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

. The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Mudd, Samuel Alexander. The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Linden, Tenn.: Continental Book Co., 1975.

Weckesser, Elden C. His Name Was Mudd. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1991.

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