Skip to main content

The Residue Of Assassination

July 2024
2min read

One hundred and fifteen years ago, on the evening of April 14, 1865, at Washington’s Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln and, with a leg broken after leaping from the presidential box to the stage, escaped on horseback. Early the next morning, he showed up at the Maryland home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a casual acquaintance. Dr. Mudd tended Booth’s leg and put him up for a few hours, after which the assassin disappeared (later to be tracked down and killed by federal troops).

A few days later, Dr. Mudd was arrested, taken to Washington, and incarcerated; on May 11, he was put on trial before a military tribunal, where it was charged that he did”… advise, encourage, receive, entertain, harbor and conceal, aid and assist… John Wilkes Booth, David E. Herold, Lewis Paine, John H. Surratt, Michael O’Laughlin, George A. Atzerodt, Mary E. Surratt, and Samuel Arnold, and their confederates, with knowledge of the murderous and traitorous conspiracy… and with the intent to aid, abet, and assist them in the execution thereof, and in escaping from justice after the murder of said Abraham Lincoln.…”

Mudd’s lawyer argued that of the accused conspirators Mudd had known only Booth, Atzerodt, and the Surratts, and these just barely; that he had taken no part in any assassination plans; that Booth had disguised himself and used a false name when he arrived at Mudd’s house with the broken leg; and finally that he did not even learn that Lincoln had been shot until Booth had gone.

To no avail: on June 30, Mudd was sentenced “to be imprisoned at hard labor for life…” and in mid-July was sent to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas to serve his time. In August and September, 1867, Mudd performed gallant service in treating fellow prisoners during an epidemic of yellow fever, and for his actions President Andrew Johnson gave him a full and unconditional pardon in February, 1869. Released, Mudd returned to his home, where he died in 1883.

Pardon, however, was not exoneration, and as reader Ann C. Pierce of Milan, Illinois, reminds us, for nearly a century the doctor’s family has been trying to clear his name, citing flimsy evidence, vague and contradictory witnesses, and, above all, the questionable legality of a civilian having been tried by a military court. Perhaps the most indefatigable family member has been the “conspirator’s” grandson, Dr. Richard Mudd of Saginaw, Michigan, who spent forty years and an estimated ninety thousand dollars in the effort. In any case, it finally paid off: On July 24, 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued a letter to Doctor Sam’s descendants (388 of them at latest count) that expressed belief in his innocence.

As a further note to this somber anniversary, we recall the well-publicized event of February 12, 1976, when Daniel J. Boorstin of the Library of Congress opened for the first time a box that had reposed in the library since 1937. In it were the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night that he died, a wonderfully ordinary collection of stuff that seemed to emphasize the simple humanity of the dead President; we reproduce the collection here. Less well-known is the fact that Lincoln’s opera glasses and beaver-skin top hat were picked up off the floor of the presidential box of Ford’s Theater after he was carried away. The items eventually ended up in the private collection of Roy P. Crocker, former president of the Lincoln Savings & Loan Association. Upon Mr. Crocker’s death, they were put up for sale at Manhattan’s Sotheby Parke Bernet auction rooms on November 28, 1979. The top hat went for ten thousand dollars, the opera glasses for twenty-four thousand dollars—both to Forbes magazine, which has placed them and other Lincolniana on public display in its Manhattan offices.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.