The SAGA Of DR. SAMUEL MUDD
(Lincoln assassination, John Wilkes Booth)
by John-Henry Hill, M.D.
Written: April 15, 2015
Published: April 20, 2015
Many questions remain about Lincoln’s assassination. Had Lincoln truly become a tyrant, as Booth (and many others even in the North claimed). After all, Lincoln has suspended “habeus corpus” and had imprisoned without charges or trial tens of thousands of Americans living in the North who criticized his policies, among whom were newspaper writers, editors and even a sitting U.S. Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham (D-Ohio), whom Lincoln first imprisoned, then forcibly deported. In Congressman Vallandigham’s case, it was Vallandigham’s opposition to many of Lincoln’s policies, most notably the Lincoln administration’s Legal Tender Act. In the speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Vallandigham predicted that the Act, by flooding the country with paper money (later called “Greenbacks”) backed by nothing, would lead to
“. . . high prices, extravagant speculation, enormous sudden fortunes, immense fictitious wealth, general insanity. These belong to all inordinate and excessive paper issues.” Vallandigham continued, “What is to be the result of this? The collapse follows the inflation, and is terrible and disastrous just in proportion as the bubble has been magnificent. The object of all this . . . is to subjugate the States and the people perpetually to the Federal government” and to aggrandize the political posture of “Abraham Lincoln . . . now President and Caesar of the American Republic.”
Many people in the North felt that Lincoln had greatly exceeded the powers granted to a President in the Constitution. Many, especially in the Southern states, considered Lincoln a “traitor to the Constitution” and a “tyrant.” John Wilkes Booth was among those Southerners whose hopes for an independent Confederate States of America” had been crushed just days before with Lee’s surrender of his entire army to General Grant.
One must remember that before Lincoln’s death, “security” was almost non-existent for a President. There was NO fence around the White House and “ordinary folks” could simply walk the White House grounds and even enter the White House without any special permission. The White House was considered “the People’s house”, with the sitting President merely a temporary occupant. Apart from George Washington (who was truly revered by the people for his military service), most presidents were accorded NO special privileges – the OPPOSITE of today when a President is truly treated like ROYALTY.
Many Presidents up to and including Lincoln found this very annoying, since many people would seek out a newly-inaugurated President in search of a job. The Civil War made the situation worse for Lincoln, as he was also bombarded by businessmen seeking “war contracts” with the federal government.
It was also very common for Lincoln and previous Presidents to walk the streets of Washington, with no security detail. After the Army intelligence service learned of several plots to kidnap and/or assassinate Lincoln, he was then given a “military escort” – usually one junior officer – when he went on his frequent carriage rides, occasionally to visit wounded soldiers in what is now Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
By the way, Lincoln was NOT a “country lawyer” by any means. In fact, he was the lawyer for one of the largest railroads in the mid-west and was among the highest paid lawyers in America prior to his election. (One does NOT go from being a former lowly Congressman to President without a large group of very rich financial supporters.)
During the Colonial period, several states had attempted to ban or heavily tax the importation of slaves from Africa (NOT the ownership of slaves already in the Colonies), but ALL such laws were over-turned by the British Crown. The Royal African Company had been granted by the British government a near-monopoly on all international slave trade and, in fact, that one company brought more Africans slaves to the American colonies than any other single entity. Even other international slave trading companies had to use the Royal African Company as their intermediary. (The British Crown and many members of Parliament were heavily invested in this company.) International slave trading was BIG BUSINESS in Britain and an important part of its economy.
The Revolution, Articles of Confederation and Constitution did NOT end slavery in America, despite the provision in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which prevented Congress from ending the slave trade before 1808 [meaning the importation of new slaves; NOT the freeing of existing slaves within America]. It merely gave Congress the authority to pass such an act (statute). However, at the time the Constitution was written and ratified, it was generally assumed that the Southern States would continue to grow much faster in population and produce most of America’s wealth than the Northern States; and thereby control both the House and Senate for the foreseeable future – so most delegates to the Convention knew this clause was merely symbolic.
As Professor Paul Finkelman (Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy, Albany Law School) wrote in a 2007 essay titled, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade – U.S. Constitution and Acts”: (which I recommend highly)
“In some of the northern colonies, abolition of the slave trade [importation of new slaves into America] had a moral as well as an economic basis. Opposition to slavery [of slaves already in America] was growing, and during or immediately after the Revolution, five states would either end it [slave trading; the importation of new slaves] outright (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) or pass gradual abolition acts (Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) that would lead to a relatively speedy end to slavery. In those states, a ban on the international slave trade was consistent with growing opposition to slavery [slaves already in America] itself.”
The Acts of 1819 and 1820 by Congress put and end to international sale trading (but NOT to slave ownership) in America. To again quote Professor Paul Finkelman,
“In 1819 Congress passed yet another act that dramatically changed the regulation of the trade. First, it authorized the president to send “armed vessels of the United States, to be employed to cruise on any of the coasts of the United States … or the coast of Africa” to interdict slave traders. This was the beginning of what became known as the “African Squadron”, which patrolled the waters off the coast of Africa in an attempt to stop the slave trade at its source. The act also provided that the slaves be returned to Africa, rather than being sold in the United States.”
The country selected as the liberated slaves’ destination was Liberia.
The issue in America soon changed from slave trading (importation of new slaves) to slave ownership within America itself: the injustice of enslaving any man or woman who deserved to be free. In part, the law now implicitly condemned American slavery itself. If it was wrong to enslave an African AFTER 1819, was it not wrong to enslave an African before 1808?
The Act of 1820 was even more restrictive. The law stated that “any American citizen engaging in the African slave trade shall be adjudged a pirate; and on conviction thereof before the circuit court of the United States for the district wherein he shall be brought or found, shall suffer death.” The same language was applied to non-Americans slavers aboard ship or commissioned by Americans. This act was made permanent on January 3, 1823.
To enforce this act Congress included incentives for both the African Squadron and “independent contractors”: a bounty of $50 per slave for the “independent contractors”. Any informant could make an easy $5,000 for tipping off authorities that one hundred Africans had illegally been loaded onto a ship. For the crews of the African Squadron, which intercepted many more ships, the bounty was $25 a slave, plus the proceeds from the sale of all ships were seized and forfeited, made the business of the African Squadron very profitable, indeed.
Within America itself, public opinion was divided both in the Northern and Southern states. Only a tiny minority of Americans were “slave owners”, with most owning one slave who worked alongside the owner in his fields. Occasionally, the slave owner was a free black man. After the importation of new slaves ended, the price of a field slave skyrocketed to one-thousand dollars or more in gold coin (priced in U.S. dollars of 1830 to 1860). For the typical American, owning a slave was, at best, an enormous financial investment; not only in terms of the initial price (but interest paid on any loan taken out for the purchase), but for subsequent feeding, housing and medical care of that slave, as required by “ownership laws” within most States. And while slaves possessed no “natural rights” guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (as affirmed in the opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)), in fact in many states slaves possessed “civil rights”, which are defined as privileges granted by legislated acts (statutes), including owning property, filing charges against their owner for unwarranted, excessive brutality, etc..
Lincoln, who had made a fortune as a contract (commercial) lawyer knew that the U.S. Constitution was itself a contract (as a legal Trust) among the various States, the ratifying States as the “Grantors” (“Trustors”); the federal government called the “United States of America” as the “Trustee”; and the People (“for ourselves and our posterity”) as the “Beneficiaries”. And any good lawyer will tell you that the Grantor or Beneficiary of ANY Trust can change the Trustee at his discretion. The States that seceded were doing just that: firing the Trustee called the “United States of America” and hiring a NEW Trustee called the “Confederate States of America” – all perfectly lawful and legal under international commercial law.
Consequently, Lincoln had NO legal or lawful basis for making war on the States that seceded – and he wrote as much. He needed a pretext to go to war. His first attempt LEGAL maneuver was to demand that South Carolina and some of the other Southern States pay the “taxes” (as tariffs on goods imported from abroad into those States) BEFORE the formally seceded. His first LAWFUL maneuver, using international commercial law, was to somehow get the “Confederate States of America” (or one of its member States) to perpetrate an “act of war” against the United States of America. South Carolina “took the bait”, first by demanding the evacuation of all Federal troops from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, then by attacking that fort. (It must be kept in mind that South Carolina had previously and formally ceded this land (with its fort) to the United States of America – so by international law Fort Sumter island WAS, in fact, the territory of the United States Of America; NOT part of South Carolina or the Confederate States of America. Lincoln now had both a legal reason (under the U.S. Constitution as a contractual Trust) and a lawful reason (under international law) to make war on the Confederate States of America. Both Lincoln and Seward had discussed such matters in great detail and some of these notes and confirming documents are today in the Library of Congress.)
Following Lincoln’s assassination, rumors ran wild and many questions still linger to this day. For example, it was understandable that John Parker, Lincoln’s bodyguard, wished to watch the play, and during intermission went to the saloon next door. Men attending a play at Ford’s Theater often sought “refreshment” there during intermission. Lee had just surrendered a few days earlier and pro-Unionists were celebrating – EXCEPT for Confederate sympathizers in Washington (of which there were MANY!), including Booth and his colleagues. (It should be noted that hundreds of people were arrested immediately following the assassination, but only 8 people went to trial.)
Dr. Samuel Mudd was probably the ONLY innocent person convicted and imprisoned for the assassination. At the trial by a military commission, it was revealed that Booth’s original plan to ride down the eastern shore of the Potomac and then cross the river by boat to Virginia. However, Booth jumped onto the stage from Lincoln’s box. at which point he yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis! (Thus ever to tyrants!) The South is avenged!”. Booth next jumped off the stage to the theater floor, breaking his leg in the process – an accident he could NOT possibly have anticipated!
Herold, who was riding with Booth, testified that Booth was in great pain and stated he felt he needed immediate medical treatment. Against Booth’s original plan, Booth and Herold turned inland and headed for the farm of a doctor he knew, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, arriving at the Mudd farm just before dawn. Dr. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg and allowed him to rest inside his house for the day, which was NOT uncommon for country doctors and their patients. Around sunset Booth and Herold left the Mudd farm. A week and a half later, Union cavalry soldiers cornered Herold and Booth at Richard G. Garret’s farm in Port Royal,Virginia on April 26, 1865. Hiding in Garret’s barn, Herold was captured. Booth was wounded in the lower neck, but refused to surrender. The troops set the barn on fire and Booth, shot in the upper spine at the neck and unable to walk and barely able to use his arms, eventually crawled out, severely burned, and died soon after. (That section of Booth’s spine, with the bullet still lodged in the bone, was on display at a small medical museum at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where I personally saw it when I was a medical student doing a clinical rotation at Walter Reed in the mid-1970’s.)
How could Dr. Mudd been a conspirator? Booth breaking his leg was obviously NOT in the plan. Herold testified that Booth changed their escape route ONLY because Booth was in such extreme pain.
Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton was effectively in command, serving much like an “acting President, despite Vice-President Johnson having assumed office. It was Stanton, not Johnson, who organized the manhunt for Lincoln’s killers. (The 2 men hated each other. Indeed, Johnson’s attempt later to dismiss Stanton ultimately led to President Johnson being impeached by the House of Representatives, but the Senate failed to convict Johnson.) Stanton resigned.
The military commission, appointed and controlled by Stanton, convicted 8 people, sentencing 4 whom it believed had actually helped plan and participate in the assassination to death by hanging. The other 4 convicted, 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 public “wanted blood” and Stanton (an astute politician) knew it! Anyone even remotely associated with Booth was considered a suspect. Given that John Wilkes Booth, like his father Junius Brutus Booth (a famous British actor who had immigrated to America with his mistress, leaving his wife behind) and older brother Edwin Booth, was an extremely charismatic and popular stage actor, touring throughout most major American cities, the Booth brothers were truly FAMOUS – like the rock stars of today! It was not unusual that many people knew John Wilkes Booth personally, especially in the greater Washington area where he grew up and lived. The older brother Edwin Booth, the more serious student of acting, was considered by far the best actor in the family and toured throughout America and the major capitals of Europe, performing Shakespearean plays. In 1869 Edwin founded Booth’s Theater in New York, a spectacular theater that was quite modern for its time. Some theatrical historians consider Edwin Booth he greatest American actor, and the greatest Hamlet, His fame has since been overshadowed by his younger brother’s infamy.
In 1867 YELLOW FEVER (infectious hepatitis) epidemic at Fort Jefferson. The epidemic lasted three months, from August 18th to November 14th.. Dr. Mudd and a civilian physician at Key West, Dr. Daniel Whitehurst, agreed to treat the ill for the duration of the epidemic, since the fort’s physician was among the first to die. Of the fort’s 313 soldiers, the fort”s physician, 54 prisoners, and 20 civilians, a total of 387 people at the fort during the epidemic, a total of 270 contracted yellow fever; and 38 died. Many of the survivors credited Dr. Mudd with their recovery. Towards the end of the epidemic, Dr. Mudd himself contracted yellow fever and almost died. When the epidemic had finally run its course, the surviving soldiers, many of whom credited Dr. Mudd with their recovery. at Fort Jefferson signed a petition asking President Johnson to pardon Dr. Mudd for his service during the epidemic. The petition said in part: “He inspired the hopeless with courage, and by his constant presence in the midst of danger and infection, regardless of his own life, tranquilized the fearful and desponding.” President Andrew Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd in 1869 in part because of his work during the epidemic. It is more than likely that President Johnson viewed Dr. Mudd’s conviction by Stanton’s military commission as a true injustice, but with Stanton now gone, Johnson saw a way to correct Stanton’s injustice to Mudd.
After returning home in 1869, Dr. Mudd resumed his medical practice and worked at restoring his farm. He lived for 14 more years, until 1883, when he died of pneumonia at the relatively young age of 49, probably in part due to liver damage suffered during the Yellow Fever epidemic..
Dr. Mudd’s wife Sarah Frances Mudd died in 1911. One of Dr. Mudd’s descendants was ROGER MUDD, the former TV news reporter for CBS who replaced WALTER KRONKITE upon Kronkite’s retirement.
John-Henry Hill, M.D.