Saturday, May 11, 2013

Life Is Not Always Fair: Dr. Samuel Mudd

Life is not always fair.

Dr. Samuel Mudd was awakened by knocking on his Maryland farmhouse front door around 4:00 a.m. Saturday, April 15, 1865. Feeling a little ill, Dr. Mudd asked his wife Sarah if she would get up and go see who it was. Sarah told her husband she was frightened because of the hour and the persistent knocking, so Dr. Mudd hauled himself out of bed, cinched his nightgown and went to greet his unexpected guest. Dr. Mudd found two men on his front porch, one injured, supported by a friend. The uninjured man did all the speaking and said that his injured friend, whom he called Tyson, had broken his leg when his horse had stumbled and fallen. "Could you set my friend's leg?"

Dr. Mudd looked closely at the injured man. He had a full set of whiskers, and his neck and lower jaw were covered by a shawl. Dr. Mudd could hear moaning. Dr. Mudd told the two men to come into the house. The Dr. used a living room couch to set the broken tibia bone. Then, after payment of $25.00, Dr. Mudd told the men they could use the spare bedroom upstairs and get a few hours of rest before they continued their journey. After thanking Dr. Mudd for his services, the friend helped Tyson upstairs and put him to bed. Dr. Mudd saw the men again late in the afternoon of the next day, when he gave them directions on how to navigate a local swamp as they continued their journey. It was only after the men were gone and Dr. Mudd heard that the President of the United States had been assassinated that Dr. Mudd became suspicious. He voluntarily reported to the Union soldiers in Bryantown that he had opened his home to two strangers, one of whom needed medical attention.

Two days later detectives from the War Department came to Dr. Mudd's home to interview him. Dr. Mudd and his wife told them everything they knew. The detectives left. Three days later, the detectives came back and asked Dr. Mudd if he would come with them to Bryantown to meet with their superior. They assured Sarah Mudd that her husband would quickly return. When Dr. Mudd walked out the door that Friday morning, April 21, 1865 his wife could not have known that she would not see her husband again for four years. He was arrested, imprisoned, tried and convicted for conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. His crime? He treated the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man identified to him as "Tyson." Dr. Mudd came within one vote of a military tribunal of being hung, but instead he was sentenced to life in prison at a place called Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West.

Rachelle and I were at the Dry Tortugas this past Thursday. After researching Dr. Mudd's life for
years, there was an eerie feeling standing in the very place where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned from 1865 to 1869.  When he arrived at the prison, Dr. Mudd's four children were between the ages of six months and seven years. Dr. Mudd missed his family terribly. It is hard to imagine all that he endured. He had to wear a ball and chain around his ankle (ordered by the War Department). He was tasked with hard labor, sweeping the floor of Fort Jefferson's bastion of all sand and dirt every day. His jail cell was infested by mosquitos and bed bugs, and it was plagued with perpetual dampness. Two months into Mudd's imprisonment, the commandant of the prison gave Mudd a copy of Les Miserables, believing as did many that Dr. Mudd was innocent of complicity in Lincoln's murder. What carried Dr. Mudd through those dark days was an abiding faith in God's providence and His grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Eventually, mostly due to Dr. Mudd's heroic efforts in battling to save lives of officers (and their dependents), soldiers and prisoners from the deadly effects of Yellow Fever, President Andrew Andrew Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd. When Samuel Mudd arrived back at his Maryland farm in the spring of 1869, he found his children grown, his wife destitute, his farm destroyed, and his career ruined.

Life is not always fair.

Nearly a century before Dr. Mudd was arrested for conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States, Thomas Lincoln and his brother Mordecai Lincoln were working in the Kentucky fields with their father Abraham Lincoln (not the President). Suddenly, an Indian hiding in the nearby woods shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. Mordecai ran to the house to get a gun, while young Thomas Lincoln knelt beside his fallen father. As Mordecai returned to the field, he saw an Indian sneaking up behind his brother Thomas, raising a hatchet ready to scalp Thomas Lincoln. Mordecai Lincoln shot and killed the Indian, saving his brother's life. Thomas Lincoln would later name the son born to him in 1809 Abraham Lincoln--yes, that Abraham Lincoln, the man who would become the nation's 16th President. Abraham grew up hearing the story how his uncle Mordecai had saved his father's life.

Uncle Mordecai Lincoln and his wife Aunt Mary were always very close to President Lincoln, and in fact, aunt Mary was called "Abraham Lincoln's favorite relative." The maiden name of the President's favorite relative was Mudd.  That's right, she was born Mary Mudd. Mary was the first cousin (two generations removed) of the man who would eventually be charged with conspiracy to murder President Abraham Lincoln. How do you go from being in a family beloved by the President to a man guilty of plotting to kill the President? You don't. Dr. Mudd was innocent of all charges.

Life is not always fair.

A couple of years ago I spent a few hours in a Mexico jail. I have researched Dr. Mudd's life for years, and I distinctly remember sitting in that Mexican jail, reflecting on Dr. Mudd's four year imprisonment. One of the great blessings of being familiar with the stories of other people is the added depth to one's perspective on life. The best antidote against self-absorption is reading about others. Next time you begin to feel sorry for yourself because someone lied about you, or that something was taken from you, or that somehow your character has been falsely sullied, remember Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Life is not always fair.


Rex Ray said...

AH! Now I know the full story of hearing “Your name is Mudd.”

I felt a tiny little bit like Mudd last Sunday when I attend a college awards ceremony for story writing. (I had written the one you said I had a gift of telling stories.) Bronze, silver, and gold were given in three age groups. I’d been notified I was a gold winner, and thought I was first place. But I learned many gold, silver, and bronze awards were in each group. The winner of each group read their stories. I listened to the story that beat mine, and you can imagine how predious I was. :)

The person had won the $100 prize several times before. Her story was about their senior high school trip to Colorado in a bob-tail truck. The most exciting event was a girl using a pan several times for motion-sickness.

Yesterday, I talk to a man I hadn’t seen in ten years. I asked if he’d ever heard the trick my dad played on his uncle. He said no, so I told how dad and some boys put a straw-man on his porch on a dark night. They hid after knocking on the door. The uncle became angry when the straw-man wouldn’t talk.

“You will talk to me when I come back!”
Instead of shooting, he whacked him in the head and broke the stock off his shotgun on the porch post.

The man told me, “Just a minute. I want to show you something.”
He came back with a double-barrel with the stock held in place with plates, screws, and wire. “Now I know what happened after 90 years.”

Wade Burleson said...

That, Rex, is hilarious! Sermon material for me!

cbscott said...

I have read a great number of your posts, Wade. As you know, we have been at diametric opposition on many issues. However, I make it an effort to be fair to the best of my ability. And yes, at times (too many), I do fail in my efforts.

Let me state here today, that this is an excellent post reflecting the realities of life. For I too have spent some time reflecting upon the tragic events in the life of Dr. Mudd. You are right. "Life is not always fair."

I think that the knowledge that life is not always fair is a good thing for believers. I think it drives us to be increasingly dependent on the Christ for all things and gives us a greater longing for His appearing. In other words, even the unfairness of this life is not in vain in the life of a Christ follower.

Thank's for this good post and may your wife experience a grand Mothers' Day from the hands of her family.

Wade Burleson said...

Thank you, C.B. Blessings to you today as well.

Anonymous said...


Great post, thanks for sharing this!

Do you have some must read biographies you would suggest?

Wade Burleson said...

Nate Oliver,

Mudd is a good place to start. Of course, Lincoln is great - as well as Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oliver Cromwell!

Rex Ray said...


Good to know you’re still around. Enjoyed your comment. You’re the only commenter on Wade’s blog that’s ever called me and at a time I was pretty low.

Once, Wade made a prediction that a certain woman would become President, and I replied if that happened to ‘beam me up Scottie’. But now, how I wish he’d been right!

Yes, life is not always fair…it’s the first year our children didn’t have a Mothers’ Day.