Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Challenges of Life Reveal True Character: Samuel Mudd and His Imprisonment at the Dry Tortugas

70 miles west of Key West, Florida sit seven small islands called the Dry Tortugas. "Dry" because there exists no fresh water on the islands, and "Tortugas" (Spanish for "turtles) because Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon discovered the islands in 1517 and found thousands of sea turtles dwelling on them. Ancient seaman survived by collecting turtles and storing them upside down on their shells in cargo holds, killing them as needed for their fresh meat. The turtles on the Dry Tortugas nourished Ponce De Leon's men during a critical time of exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Spain claimed all of Florida and the Keys (i.e. "islands" south and west of Florida) until 1819 when Spain sold Florida and the Keys to the United States for $5 million dollars.  United States government and military officials knew that if a fort were built on the Dry Tortugas, the United States could control entrance and egress into the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico in the same manner a Spanish fort on the Straight of Gibralter  for centuries had controlled entrance and egress into the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea. During the 1840's and 1850's, the United States built the largest stone fort in the history of American military fortifications - Fort Jefferson (pictured above). During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served the Union as an isolated prison. Due to advanced military technology that made the fortress obsolete, the United States government abandoned Fort Jefferson in the late 1800's. Today, Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas form the most isolated National Park in America, accessible only by seaplane or boat. The best snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing in America are within the park, but my fascination with Fort Jefferson lies with what occurred at the fort during September and October of 1867, in the third year of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd's imprisonment. Though the island on which Fort Jefferson sits looks beautiful and tranquil, during the four years Dr. Mudd was imprisoned on the island, it was known as "Death Island" and "Skull Island" for the number of deaths that occurred among both soldiers and prisoners.

Dr Samuel Mudd (1833-1883) was one of ten people charged in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and other government officials at the end of the Civil War (April 1865). Four conspirators--Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Edman Spangler and Michael O'Laughlin--escaped death by hanging, and were sentenced to prison terms at Fort Jefferson. Three of the four, including Dr. Mudd, received terms of life in prison. All four men knew absolutely nothing about John Wilkes Booth plan to kill the President. All four, however, knew John Wilkes Booth. Two of the men, Arnold and O'Laughlin were childhood friends of Booth in Baltimore and had previously conspired with Booth to kidnap the President and try to exchange him for Confederate prisoners. Dr. Samuel Mudd and Edman Spangler had unwittingly helped Booth. For example, Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theater, a building which had previously served as the First Baptist Church of Washington. Edman Spangler, a carpenter and stage hand at Ford's Theater, held open the back door leading into "Baptist Alley" in order to admit Booth into the theater, not knowing the famous actor's plans to kill the President. Dr. Mudd, who only briefly met Booth at church five months before the assassination, treated the assassin's broken leg after the assassination because Booth came to the Dr's home at 4:00 a.m. in the morning for treatment, less than six hours after the President's assassination. Both Dr. Mudd and his wife swore to their graves that Dr. Mudd had no knowledge of the President's death when he treated Booth's leg, and even had he known, he would have been obligated by the Hippocratic Oath to treat the assassin. Regardless, Dr. Mudd escaped hanging by a single vote of the Military Commission. Shortly after the verdicts were announced, Dr.Mudd, Arnold, Spangler and O'Laughlin were taken, shackled and handcuffed, to a ship on the Potomac River and secretly transported south along the Atlantic seaboard, then southwest around the tip of Florida. The ship stopped briefly for supplies at Key West and then moved then went 70 miles further west into the Gulf of Mexico to her final destination--Fort Jefferson. Dr. Mudd wrongly believed that he would be released when the facts of his lack of involvment in the President's death became known, but that was not to be. When he arrived at Fort Jefferson on July 24, 1865, Dr. Mudd was 1,000 miles away from his farm and medical practice in southern Maryland, his wife, and his four small children. He was thirty-one years of age.

Prison life at Fort Jefferson was brutal. Heat and humidity zapped human energy. Vegetables rotted in the gulf sunshine. The prison cells were filled with insects, scorpions, and rats. The walls leaked buckets of rainwater during the rainy season. Diseases formed the greatest phobias in both soldiers and prisoners, and in October 1867 the greatest fears became reality. Fort Jefferson had an outbreak of Yellow Fever. In early stages Yellow Fever is a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting, generally lasting only three to four days. In about twenty percent of sufferers, Yellow Fever will enter a second, toxic phase which includes juandice due to liver damage, thus the name Yellow Fever. The infected have extreme abdominal pain, bleeding in the mouth and eyes, and horrific vomiting, called black vomit due to intestinal bleeding. It wouldn't be until 1900 that Major Walter Reed, M.D. would discover that Yellow Fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. In 1867 people falsely believed Yellow Fever spread through human contact. Fort Jefferson's commander, physician and over two dozen officers died within a month. The sick would be isolated and sometimes even transported to an island called Hospital Key, over two miles from the fort. The infected would be taken to Hospital Key with their coffins in the boat. Husbands would not come near infected wives, even to say a final goodbye. Prisoners and officers would be treated together in the same rooms, the only concern being isolation from those not infected. An officer's wife on the island compared Fort Jefferson during the outbreak to Dante's Inferno.

Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, alleged Lincoln assassination conspirator, Fort Jefferson prisoner, the man for whom the phrase "Your name is Mudd" became a common phrase in American vocabulary, took over the care of the Yellow Fever victims. Risking his own life, Dr. Mudd comforted the sick--both officers and prisoners, men and women--bathing them with cold water during fevers, covering them with blankets during chills, hydrating them during their vomiting episodes. For nights on end Dr. Mudd would not sleep. Though he had been beaten in earlier days, thrown into the prison's dungeon after an escape attempt, and had been poorly treated by many of his captors, Dr. Mudd made no distinction in his patients. He cared for the sick until thirty days into the outbreak he became sick himself. When he awoke from his own fever, he found two fellow Lincoln conspirators--Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold--had treated him in the same manner they had observed him treat others during their sicknesses. Dr. Mudd had become their hero. Convicted Lincoln conspirator Michael O'Laughlin died of Yellow Fever during the outbreak. After six weeks of Yellow Fever hell, the disease abated. Dozens of people directly attributed their survival to the efforts of Dr. Mudd. All 300 officers and soldiers on the island signed a petition asking the President of the United States to pardon Dr. Samuel Mudd. President Andrew Johnson would eventually pardon Dr. Mudd on February 8, 1869. He arrived back on his Maryland farm just shy of four years of his arrest. He went to his grave proclaiming his innocence of any knowledge of the Lincoln assassination. Dr. Mudd would die in 1883 of pneomonia at the age of forty-nine after making a house call to care for another sick patient. His descendents would spend over a century trying to clear Dr. Mudd's name.

Rachelle and I returned Saturday from Key West. After reflecting on Dr. Mudd and the four years he spent on the Dry Tortugas, I can't help but think of Shakespeare and The Tragedy of Othello:

"Reputation is an idle and false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving."

For those of us who have experienced people privately and/or publicly reviling us, wrongly judging our motives, and falsely accusing us, Dr. Mudd provides us a moral lesson. Character is revealed in the crucible of conflict, not created. Who you are is seen when you are squeezed. It would behoove us to not worry so much about what people think of us as much as what people receive from us. No man is an island unto himself. You are not alone in the false accusations and the loss of reputation. Next time you experience such things, consider giving up your defense and rededicating yourself to doing right in the midst of the wrongs perpetrated against you.


Anonymous said...


I am reminded of something Rev. Ron Dunn used to say when talking of walking in the Spirit, "What comes out of an Orange when you squeeze it, whatever is inside and that is not always orange juice." Thanks for a fresh object lesson.

Gerry Milligan

Rex Ray said...

“You are not alone in the false accusations and the loss of reputation.”

Thank you.

But it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect. :)

Garen Martens said...

I had heard of this man, but never knew the complete story. Thanks for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...


This was a new story to me until I read "Killing Lincoln" by O'Reilly. I read some other writings by Steers and he had much more to say about the plight of Dr. Booth. What a fascinating story it is.

Just a note: After much research I found out my Great Great Grandfather, Hinchman Engle, fought with the Ohio 143rd Vol Infantry in the Civil War. Okay, "fought" may be a stretch in this case. He and his older brother joined in early 1965 and were mustered out 6 months later. I don't think they saw any action, but he died a celebrated war hero in his small Iowa town.

Love the history, thanks for sharing,

Gregg Engle

Gregg Engle said...

I actually meant 1865 not 1965. 100 years can make a big difference in the facts.


Johnny D. said...

Very interesting, Wade. Like Garen, I had heard of Dr. Mudd, but did not know the full story.

Sounds like you did some reflecting while in the Keys.

B Nettles said...

If you like murder mysteries, Nevada Barr's Flashback is centered around Dry Tortugas with fictionalized letters from one of Dr. Mudd's guards.

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


Thanks for this post and your important concluding remarks.

Since you are a history buff and have mentioned Dr. Walter Reed, I thought I would share some trivia. There is a historical marker here in North Carolina that includes the following information:

"Walter Reed, as head of the United States Navy’s Yellow Fever Commission, was able to conclusively demonstrate that mosquitoes transmitted the deadly disease. He was also the first doctor to perform informed-consent experiments on human subjects. Reed was born September 13, 1851 in Virginia to Lemuel Sutton and Pharaba White Reed. His father was a Methodist pastor who took charge of a church in Harrellsville (Hertford County) in 1851. About a year later Reverend Reed moved his family to Murfreesboro so that he could lead a congregation there. Although the Reeds stayed in Murfreesboro only two years, they would return by 1874, at which time the family was living in the same house as before. The Reed house was across the street from that of Emily Lawrence, whom Walter Reed married in 1876."

In 1874 Reed was living in New York and must have come home to visit his parents who were living in Murfreesboro, NC. It appears he met and was smitten by Emily Lawrence while visiting.

Here is the link to a letter Walter Reed wrote to Emily from Brooklyn, NY on July 18, 1874.

I love this part of Reed's letter to Emily:

"If at the end of that time (3 or 4 years hence) I could find some fair damsel who was foolish enough to trust me, I think I would get - married, and settle down to sober work for the rest of my days in some small City where one could enjoy the advantages of a City & at the same time not feel as if lost.

For in what does life consist? what is its true philosophy?

Is it to win the applause of the rabble? or to pit no "high places"?

Do we not arrive nearer to true happiness in striving to accept what Divine Wisdom allots to us - doing all we can to assist our fellow-men in being happy, and submitting uncomplainingly to the will of Him who gave us breath and life?

Ever remembering that "he that humbleth himself, the same shall be exhalted".

But really the hour has grown very late, & here am I philosophizing! & what a dry "hash" (for I can find no other name to expression) I have [I] set before you! My first impulse is to tear it up & spare you so many details, but on second thought I refrain from so doing, and beg that you will accept it in the same spirit in which it was written.

I remain, with much

Walter Reed"

Finally, here is the home where Walter and Emily Reed lived (for a brief time) in Murfreesboro, NC after they were married.

Every time I drive past this house, which is just a few miles from our family farm, I have wanted to research this. Glad I finally did!

Wade Burleson said...


That, without doubt, is a very neat story. When Rachelle and I make it up to see your family and the farm, I would love to see the Reed home!

Thanks for sharing.


Anonymous said...

CBS Sunday Morning yesterday had an interesting feature on Fort Jefferson and Dr. Mudd. Thanks for this post. Great. Bricks for the fort were made in my hometown, maybe in my backyard.


Off The Cuff said...

I finally got around to reading this post. WOW! The phrase "Your name is Mudd" now has a brand new meaning for me.

Thanks, Wade.

Robin said...

This is totally off topic but what happened to the wartburg blog? Why has it been cancelled?

Ramesh said...

The Wartburg Watch appears to have some technical difficulties with their blog. My guess is they have attempted to do some changes and the blog user interface is messed up. I am sure they are working to resolve the issues.

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...

The Wartburg Watch is down, and we are experiencing some extremely serious problems according to our tech guy. We may have been hacked. We will be down all weekend. Our EChurch was ready to go. We will post it ASAP.

Eagle said...

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Mars Hill Seattle...

Some YRR hacker is stepping away from his computer in the shady
basement and he makes a phone call.

"Mission accomplished Pastor Driscoll...."

Wade Burleson said...


Have been out of town. Emailed you while on the road with my I-Pad. Hope you gals get up and going soon!

Wanda (Deb) Martin said...


Thanks for your concern. Sorry that we didn't get the EChurch up this weekend.

By divine providence God has provided a way for us to communicate on the internet despite our website being down. It will be temporary.

Early last week we received an e-mail from Sergius Martin-George, who has been following our blog for a while. He was coming through North Carolina and wanted to meet us. Dee and I met him for dinner on Friday (several hours after our website went down). We explained to him that something has happened to our blog, and now his website is the "Official Triage/Refugee site for The Wartburg Watch".

Thank you for allowing me to make this public service announcement. :-)

God is good!

Rex Ray said...

Off The Cuff,
Your statement: “The phrase "Your name is Mudd" now has a brand new meaning for me” just dawned on me that I also relate to your statement on the blog. :)