The Last Battle of the Civil War
In 1865, a military tribunal convicted Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Was he guilty?
Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
ONE FRIDAY THIS PAST NOVEMBER, without much to-do, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the case of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. The court's reasoning, what I could make of it, seemed highly technical. "Appellant's insurmountable problem is that his claim is not arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute in question," the judges wrote. The ruling was rendered unanimously, and bloodlessly--though bloodlessness, in my opinion, is an odd tone to adopt in a case so heartfelt and long-lived as Dr. Mudd's. Having died in 1883, the doctor is no longer around to defend himself, and the case is showing its age, too, having begun with Mudd's conviction, 137 years ago, of aiding John Wilkes Booth in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln.
In a brief item the next day, the New York Times noted the ruling's definitive quality, and issued, Times-like, a definitive ruling of its own: The court's decision, the paper said, "effectively ended the decades-long campaign of the descendants of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd to clear his name."
That didn't strike me as quite right either. Americans are famous for their disdain of history, as our history bears out, but no American has yet summoned the power to kill the case of Samuel Mudd. It has rattled around, in one form or another, in the courts and elsewhere, since the end of the Civil War. His family has worked hard to keep the case alive. This most recent attempt was the handiwork of Dr. Mudd's grandson, Dr. Richard D. Mudd, more commonly known among the family as Dr. Dick. He died this spring, Dr. Dick did, at the age of 101. He had spent most of his life, from the early 1920s onward, arguing his grandfather's innocence in newspapers and courtrooms, on radio and television, in film documentaries and before congressional committees. The family's work would not cease, he often said, until justice was done--until the same federal government that had convicted his grandfather admitted its mistake, and certified that this good man had had nothing to do with the most consequential crime in American history.
With Dr. Dick's death, the family duty has fallen to his son Tom. When I heard about the court's decision I called him up.
"The Times says this will put an end to your efforts," I said.
"Oh for heaven's sakes," he said. "We've had lots of peaks and valleys. A door opens up, and we say 'At last! Justice will be done!' And then it slams shut. Well, this door just slammed shut. But another one will open up again--somewhere, sooner or later. This is a very long story."
THE STORY, as the Mudd family tells it, begins in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 15, 1865. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd lay sleeping in the back bedroom of his farmhouse in Charles County, Maryland, about twenty miles south of Washington, D.C., when he was awakened by two strangers clamoring at the front door. One of the men had a broken leg--the result, his companion said, of a tumble taken from his horse as they rode hard through the rain on their way to Washington. The men seemed unduly excited, and Dr. Mudd was a cautious man, but after some hesitation he helped the injured rider across the threshold into his front parlor, where he laid him up on a settee, and did his best to splint the leg.
Dr. Mudd took little note of the men's appearance: One was young and talkative, no more than 20, the other was older and wore whiskers. They slept the night in the upstairs guest room. After lunch the next day, while the older visitor rested in bed, Dr. Mudd and the young man canvassed the neighborhood for a carriage that could carry them the rest of the way to the capital. Without luck, the young man returned to the farm to gather up his friend and take their chances with their exhausted horses. Dr. Mudd rode on another four miles or so, to the nearby village of Bryantown, to visit patients and run errands.
He found the village in high panic, swarming with federal troops. A soldier told Mudd the president was dead, shot by a man named Booth the night before. Mudd returned to the farm in the late afternoon. By the time he got home the strangers were gone--or perhaps they were just leaving; the two accounts that Dr. Mudd later gave are unclear. But once they were gone he grew suspicious. The next morning, after church, he asked a cousin headed into town to tell the authorities about his mysterious visitors.
That was Sunday, April 16. On Tuesday morning a party of soldiers arrived to question Dr. Mudd. Two days later they returned, then again the next day. On Saturday they arrived without warning to take him to Washington, where he was charged with aiding and abetting Booth in his escape.
Booth died a few days later, chased down to the Virginia peninsula across the Potomac, shot by federal troops as he hobbled on his broken leg through a burning tobacco barn. His co-conspirators were gathered up. Among them was David Herold, the young man who'd ridden with Booth to Mudd's house that night. Before a tribunal of federal officers, hastily assembled in Washington, all eight of the accused were convicted, on one charge or another, after a month-long trial. Five were sentenced to hang, and did so a week after the trial's close, on July 7. Mudd and three others received a sentence of life at hard labor. Quickly and quietly they were shipped to Ft. Jefferson, a malarial compound thrown up on the Dry Tortugas, at the tail end of a Florida archipelago.
Suddenly fatherless, Mudd's family despaired. Union troops loitered about the farm for many months, scavenging food, menacing visitors, chasing off what few farmhands remained. Mrs. Mudd commenced a campaign on her husband's behalf--the same campaign that continues today. She pressed her case with politicians, journalists, and in time even the president. A month before leaving office, in disgrace himself and with nothing to lose, Andrew Johnson pardoned the surviving conspirators. Mudd was released after four years in jail, but his conviction stood unexpunged in the record, and no compensation was ever offered for the damage already done. He returned to his wife and four children and to his devastated farm, disgraced and penniless, in feeble health, a broken man. His medical practice declined, and he dabbled halfheartedly in politics, and then at the early age of 49 he died, having lived long enough to hear the phrase "His name is Mudd" become a commonplace pejorative among his countrymen, and pleading his innocence to the end.
"HE'S AN AMERICAN DREYFUS," a historian said to me a few years ago, when I began to nose around the case of Dr. Mudd. Even at the time the label struck me as overripe, but down the generations the Mudd family has embraced it, especially Dr. Dick: for it fits so well the Mudds' sense of naked injustice, of an uncauterized wound. Dr. Dick's lifelong efforts to keep the case alive approached a climax of sorts in 1992. With the ingenuity that sometimes comes to desperate men, he decided to file a claim before the Military Records Review Board, an obscure commission languishing in a cobwebby corner of the army bureaucracy. He asked it to instruct the secretary of the Army to "correct the military record" by overturning the tribunal's conviction of his grandfather.
Unexpectedly, not to say miraculously, the board agreed with Dr. Dick. The secretary of the Army, however, did not. The jurisdictional tug of war between the board and the secretary brought Samuel Mudd's case once again to various federal courts, where it had already bounced around during the nineteenth century. Dr. Dick was technically the plaintiff in the case (a role Tom later assumed, following Dick's death), but no one doubted that it was his grandfather who was again on trial. Through a decade of appeals and remands and dilatory pleadings, the case wound its way at last to Courtroom 20 of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where on a sunny morning this past September, the judges sat to hear oral arguments.
The hearing did not go well, and to most of us who gathered there--including a dozen direct descendants of Sam Mudd, and another dozen friends, neighbors, and buffs--this fall's final ruling could not have come as a shock. Mudds, however, are not easily discouraged, as you may already have noticed. On the phone Tom Mudd spoke to me idly of appealing the decision to a higher panel of the appellate court, and then to the Supreme Court, of course, before he alighted on what really troubled him.
"You saw in the court's opinion where someone quotes that phrase, about the 'ravages of history'? This to them is an abstraction. But it's not abstract! Did the judges stop to ask, Who was hurt by the 'ravages of history'? Dr. Mudd was hurt. My family was hurt.
"But as my dad always said, and this is much more important, the cause of justice has been hurt. The conscience of the country has been hurt.
"So you ask, will this put an end to our efforts? No. I'm sorry, but this is bigger than our family."
AFTER PUTTING A BULLET into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head, John Wilkes Booth, a showboat even in homicide, took a theatrical leap from the presidential box at Ford's Theater. His bootspur snagged on bunting draped from the balustrade, and when he hit the floor, sidewise, his ankle snapped. He hobbled to a horse at the stage door and lashed it south, to the Navy Yard Bridge at the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River. A federal picket, enjoying the relaxed security that had come a few days before with Appomattox, asked his name. Booth announced himself with a flourish and was waved across. A mile or so into Maryland he met up as planned with Herold, and together they rode ten miles to a tavern at a crossroads called Surratsville, where a package of whiskey and guns had been stashed. In the moonless dark, pelted by rain, they rode another twelve miles, to the farmhouse of Dr. Mudd.
Maryland was with the Union in the Civil War, but like many border states it partakes more of the spirit of the South than of the North, and this is nowhere more evident than in the claw-shaped region that dangles below Washington, much of which lies farther south than Richmond itself. Even today southern Maryland does not buzz with entrepreneurial vigor. The wildfire of Washington sprawl has largely passed it by. Surratt's Tavern, now a museum, squats among office parks and convenience stores, but go further south on Brandywine Road, into Charles County, as Booth did, and before long the "townehome communities" thin out and you can see the country pretty much as he would have known it.
The farmhouse rests alone on a little rise a quarter mile back from the road. It's a museum now, too, but altogether unique along the well-traveled circuit of Civil War sights in the capital area. This is owing partly to its physical remoteness, several miles off the hard road, but other reasons enter in as well. It is privately run, staffed by direct and collateral descendants of Dr. Mudd, and by their friends and neighbors. Mudds still live on the farm across the road, and on the farms to the west and north. The museum keeps odd hours. The first time I came upon it, nearly fifteen years ago, it was closed, as it usually is; it opens for four and a half hours a day, three days a week, during some months of the year but not others.
A FEW MONTHS after my first unsuccessful visit, in 1988, I drove out there a second time, and was greeted at the screen door by an elderly woman in a linen bonnet. As she moved through the doorway the hem of her calico dress swayed around her ankles.
"How nice you could stop for a visit," she said, in a soft drawl. "Are you feeling all right this morning?"
When I told her I was, she said: "Good, because the doctor is not in at the moment."
She took me over the threshold that Booth had crossed. The curtains were drawn, but to my left, in the shade of the parlor, I saw the settee.
"My name is Louise Arehart," she said. "And Dr. Mudd is my grandpa."
I was at the time a Civil War buff, though a buff of low wattage, generally. On my weekend swings through the capital's historic sites I had met overeager docents pretending to be everyone from Stonewall Jackson to Clara Barton, and their cheerful refusal to break character had long since lost its power to give me the creeps. I said to Mrs. Arehart, "No kidding," and it was several minutes before I realized she wasn't fooling. She really was Dr. Mudd's granddaughter.
She was born (I learned much later) in 1917 to Dr. Mudd's son Samuel Jr. She grew up on the farm. By the time she married and moved away, the property had passed to one of her brothers, who seemed, as some Mudds do, indifferent to the family's legacy and the house's significance. Over the years the paint flaked off the shingles, and inside the floorboards swelled and buckled.
Sometime in the 1960s, at her house in La Plata a few miles from the farm, Mrs. Arehart began having trouble with a ghost. At odd moments she heard him knock at the door when no one was there. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and strange echoes in the hall. More than once she glimpsed him as he passed through the dining room or the kitchen garden. He wore a vest and old-fashioned blouse with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
Before too long, "she realized that the man was no stranger to her--he was her grandfather." (I'm quoting here from the book "Ghosts and Haunted Houses of Maryland.") And it didn't take her long to read his intent. "Dr. Mudd had returned in order to prompt someone to save the farmhouse."
Mrs. Arehart--who died just last spring, a few months before Dr. Dick--was by all accounts a strong-willed woman. She persuaded her brother to give up the house. With the help of Dr. Dick, her first cousin, she persuaded the federal government to list it on the National Register of Historic Places. She persuaded the Maryland Land Trust to buy the house and the surrounding ten acres, and then she persuaded the trust to turn it over to her. With money collected from relatives and friends, she founded the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society to oversee the property's restoration. It opened to the public in 1983.
The house's uniqueness was apparent as Mrs. Arehart led me from room to room. It lacked the professional sheen the U.S. Park Service routinely lacquers over the historic houses it controls; there were none of the over-produced set pieces and pristine exhibits, no piped-in sound effects or muted light shows. The house smelled of age. The gift shop was a tumbledown room in the back, with a handful of books, cloth dolls, and postcards stacked on makeshift shelves; Mrs. Arehart didn't trust electronic cash registers and used a metal box to keep her change. The most moving artifact in the house was the settee, which had been passed down through the family and given to Mrs. Arehart by Dr. Dick. Otherwise she had stuffed the house with family heirlooms dating from days long after Dr. Samuel Mudd had died: photographs of children and grandchildren, framed certificates and awards, turn-of-the-century sheet music, her mother's dinner china.
The docents were ladies from the neighborhood, whose own ancestors had been the friends and patients of Dr. Mudd. What they lacked in Park Service showmanship they made up for in family tendentiousness. In Dr. Mudd's house, a visitor heard Dr. Mudd's story as Dr. Mudd's family had told it for more than a century. Mrs. Arehart herself spoke of him with such vivid intimacy that you could easily see her, a toddler dangling on the old man's knee, listening intently as he recalled the long-ago night when the two strangers came to the door and changed the world forever. It was only later, when you did the math, that you realized he had been dead thirty years before she was born.
"We know now that Mr. Booth was wearing a false beard," Mrs. Arehart told me, leading me past the parlor, "as Grandpa said."
I knew the story of the beard; its ancient whiskers interweave to form the crux of the case. Without it Dr. Mudd's version of events becomes unsustainable. For it turns out that on that April night, when the commotion at the front door roused him from sleep, Dr. Mudd already knew John Wilkes Booth.
UNFORTUNATELY FOR MUDD, he let drop this vital fact only during his third interview with investigators, as they prepared to take him to Washington, and to jail. Within a day or two of Lincoln's murder, investigators had already learned that Booth was well familiar with Charles County. He had traveled there several times in the months leading up to the assassination. He was a famous man even then, and his good looks and theatrical air stirred interest wherever he went. At least twice, and probably more often, he attended church in Bryantown, as the celebrity guest of local Confederate sympathizers.
Dr. Mudd told investigators that one Sunday after services he had been introduced to Booth, who said he was looking to buy a horse. Mudd found him a bay in the neighborhood, then brought him home for supper and to spend the night in the upstairs bedroom, before the actor returned to Washington with the horse the next day. This inconsequential encounter, Mudd reckoned, took place in October 1864.
But why was Booth in Charles County in the first place? There are several possible answers. Back in Washington he had told friends he wanted to invest in farm property after the war. Almost certainly, however, he was enlisting recruits for what he called, with characteristic inaccuracy, a "grand and glorious scheme."
He hatched his idea sometime in the summer of 1864. He would kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, where the president would be held as a hostage till the North resolved the war in the Confederacy's favor. Charles County offered the smoothest avenue of escape from Washington to the south. All fall and for much of the winter Booth elaborated his plan. He trolled the streets of Washington and the swamps of Charles County for collaborators, gathering about himself a motley of drunks, rovers, and part-time Confederate spies.
By April 1865, however, events had overwhelmed Booth's fantasy. Richmond fell and the cause was lost. The kidnap plot turned to murder.
THE BEARD, Mrs. Arehart said--as Mudds have for more than a century--the beard explained why her grandfather didn't recognize the stranger at the door. And as I heard her tell it in the house itself, climbing the creaky stairs that Booth had climbed and gripping the banister he had used to steady himself, the story struck me as plausible, almost.
I protested as kindly as I could.
Booth was in the house for twelve hours after the murder, I said. He'd spent the night here, had supper here, only months before. Wouldn't the doctor have recognized him at some point?
Mrs. Arehart looked stricken.
"You need to think about this very carefully," she said. "The man was an actor. Deception was his stock in trade. He was a master of make-up. Fooling people into thinking he was someone else is what Mr. Booth did for a living."
And yet . . . there was even more for investigators to learn about Dr. Mudd and Mr. Booth. After the doctor was arrested, they discovered that he and the actor had met on still another occasion. It was only a chance meeting, Mudd later explained, along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, shortly before Christmas 1864. Inadvertent or not, it was a fateful encounter. As they chatted on the street amid the scrum of holiday shoppers, Mudd introduced Booth to John Surratt, whose family owned the tavern in Surrattsville. Surratt became Booth's chief accomplice in assembling manpower for the kidnapping plan.
For investigators, the discovery of the Surratt meeting confirmed every suspicion about Dr. Mudd.
As Mrs. Arehart told the story, however, awkward facts and implausible coincidences faded to nothing; they were overwhelmed, or rendered somehow insignificant, by the breadth of the family's subsequent suffering.
At the end of my tour--I seemed to be the only visitor that afternoon--we stood in the yard behind the house. Mrs. Arehart pointed to a field sloping away in the distance.
"There was a beautiful orchard there once, Grandmother always said. The soldiers came and took him away that spring morning and he didn't come back for four years. And the orchard just died away. But the soldiers stayed. They took everything. 'They took everything but the birds in the trees,' Grandmother said. She had four children to feed."
She gazed out to where the orchard once stood. I worried she might cry.
"Well," she said, brightening suddenly, "you might want to visit our gift shop." And with a little clap of her weathered hands, the tour was over.
She followed me back into the house.
"You asked about the beard," she said. My apostasy rankled her. "Please recall this visit transpired by lamplight. We know Mr. Booth kept his face turned to the wall. This is clear from both Grandmother's account and from Grandpa. And of course Mr. Booth wore a shawl."
She lifted both palms to her chin.
"Pulled up like this. Across his face."
I DON'T HAVE any hard data on this, of course, but other buffs I've talked to agree with me: Most people who've heard of Dr. Mudd seem to accept the family's version of events--that harrowing story of a gentle country doctor who responded in the dead of night to a stranger's plea, and who saw his kindness repaid by a vengeful government and a hysterical public with prison, penury, a ruined reputation, a life sunk in disgrace. His descendants, and Dr. Dick especially, have worked hard to fix this story in the public imagination.
Dr. Dick's first great success came in 1927, when he convinced the most influential magazine of the day, the Saturday Evening Post, to run an outraged account of Dr. Mudd's imprisonment. From then to now, popular interest has stayed at a steady simmer. By Dr. Dick's own accounting, there have been more than a dozen dramatizations on radio and television, and at least as many documentary specials. In 1936, the great moviemaker John Ford directed "The Prisoner of Shark Island," a soupy rendering of "The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd," a biographical sketch written by Dr. Mudd's daughter Nettie, which was pretty soupy to begin with. ("Here," Nettie wrote of antebellum farm life in Charles County, "may have been seen more than a hundred slaves, who made the evenings merry with song, and who would say of their white friends, after they passed from earth, 'God bless my old Marse and Miss; I hope dey is in heaven.'")
"I remember Aunt Nettie traveled out to Hollywood to be an adviser on the picture, and the family was so excited," Mary Mudd McHale, Dr. Dick's daughter, told me one morning last summer. We were sitting on her back porch in Prince George's County, ten miles up the road from the farm.
Mrs. McHale said: "With a big Hollywood movie, Dad thought here, finally, this will be the real turning point."
It wasn't--the movie was only a modest commercial success--but Dr. Dick soldiered on. "He was tireless," Mrs. McHale said, understating the case. For nearly 80 years he searched for that elusive final turning point. He swamped legislators with letters about his grandfather. He petitioned President Eisenhower for a plaque on Dr. Mudd's cell at Fort Jefferson, and under presidential pressure the Park Service eventually relented. He lobbied the Post Office for a Dr. Mudd stamp. When a new bridge opened across the Potomac in the 1940s, at the site where Booth had ridden into southern Maryland, he pleaded with Congress to name it after his grandfather--who was, after all, the man Booth was crossing the river to see. He compiled and published himself a family genealogy--"as a way of restoring family pride," Mrs. McHale said--that runs to 1,800 pages of agate type and weighs eleven pounds. From his home in Michigan, where he worked as a staff doctor for General Motors, he traveled constantly, with handmade flip charts and diagrams, to give his speech about the Mudd case to Rotary Clubs, elementary schools, chambers of commerce--any civic group that would pay expenses. He gave the first of these presentations in the mid-1920s, the last in 1997.
There has been no turning point, yet, and Dr. Mudd's conviction still stands, but at last count seven state legislatures have issued proclamations declaring his innocence; so has the American Medical Association. More than three dozen congressmen and senators have offered statements on his behalf, and most of these legislators, at one time or another, have lobbied the president to do the same. In 1979, President Carter released a letter expressing his "personal opinion" that the military tribunal's conviction of the doctor was illegitimate. Eight years later, Dr. Dick got a letter from another president.
"I have investigated the situation in regard to your grandfather, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd," Ronald Reagan wrote. "Believe me, I'm truly sorry I can do nothing to help you in your long crusade. In my efforts to help, I came to believe as you do that Dr. Samuel Mudd was indeed innocent of any wrongdoing."
Here, at least, was one old moviegoer who remembered "The Prisoner of Shark Island."
I asked Mrs. McHale about the source of Dr. Dick's energy, and she began telling me about his childhood. Dr. Dick was the son of Thomas Mudd. Thomas was 4 years old when the soldiers came to take his father. The family says Thomas Mudd lived a melancholy life that cast lingering shadows across the lives of his children.
"Thomas Mudd was the first of Dr. Mudd's children to leave Charles County," Mrs. McHale told me. "I think he felt he just had to get away from the farm, from that unhappiness, those memories. But he couldn't. He moved to Anacostia, up the road here. Dad told me the house was always dark when he was growing up. There was never any laughter. They never celebrated holidays or birthdays."
One time, in a barbershop in Anacostia, Thomas Mudd came across an engraving of the Lincoln conspirators hanging on the wall. Without a word he put his fist through it, then left the shop and never returned.
"Thomas Mudd never once mentioned Dr. Samuel Mudd or the trial to Dad or any of his other children," Mrs. McHale said. "But when he was a teenager, Dad came across Aunt Nettie's book. He saw the story of what happened to this family, and it suddenly made sense. It was clear to Dad that his own father's unhappiness--Thomas was an alcoholic and so on--all this was traced to what happened to Dr. Mudd."
Mrs. McHale swept the table in front of her with the flat of her hand, as though clearing crumbs.
"And Dad just vowed to set it right. He had to do it, for his father and his grandfather. It was his mission to remove this stain. How could setting a stranger's broken leg get a doctor thrown in prison and cause all this unhappiness? He just couldn't understand it. He wanted to see justice done. We still do."
PEOPLE ARE DRAWN to the story of Dr. Mudd's innocence for understandable reasons. It is far more compelling than the alternative, for one thing. If the government, after relatively sober deliberation, convicted Dr. Mudd with good cause and punished him justly, the story loses its grandeur and pathos. Edward Steers, author of two well-received books on the Lincoln assassination, told me he once asked a newspaper editor why his paper still ran occasional stories about the Mudd case, with the invariable assumption that the doctor had been railroaded.
"The editor said to me, 'An innocent Dr. Mudd--great story. A guilty Dr. Mudd--no story.'
"Liberals like Dr. Mudd because he's a victim," Steers said. "Conservatives like him because he's a victim of a ruthless big government."
Few qualified observers have ever bothered to make the opposite case. Dr. Dick, Mrs. Arehart, and Dr. Mudd's other defenders have had the field largely to themselves. Of the scores of books published about the assassination, no more than a handful have been written by competent and disinterested historians. The story of Lincoln's murder, the conspirators who brought it about, their flight, capture, and trial, has been left by default to be told by folklorists, mythmakers, and cranks.
They were busy before Lincoln's body was cold. An early, and popular, theory held that the assassination was the work of the pope. (Mudd, Surratt, and Surratt's mother, who hanged as a conspirator, were Roman Catholic, and the younger Surratt fled the country to Rome, where he joined the papal Zouaves. Coincidence?) Another theory fingered Lincoln's son Robert; and another, Lincoln's widow Mary Todd. Unchallenged frauds and forgeries have long clouded the public record. Before the century was out, several men had stepped forward boldly to reveal themselves as the real John Wilkes Booth--older, wiser, and still bearing singe marks from that fire in the tobacco barn. Some of these men received respectful treatment in books and the press, and made a nice living.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who oversaw the arrest of the conspirators and their trial, considered Booth and the others mere instruments of a much vaster conspiracy reaching back to Jefferson Davis--a theory that has been revived in recent years and earned, with appropriate adjustments, several non-lunatic adherents. In time, however, Stanton too became the object of conspiratorial speculators. In the 1930s, a retired chemist from Chicago named Otto Eisenschiml got the then-original idea of sifting through the physical evidence and actually reading the transcript of the military tribunal, which for sixty years had lain dusty and undisturbed in a cubby of the National Archives. He published his findings in 1937, in a dramatic work of popular history called "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" Eisenschiml said the evidence pointed in one direction: Stanton himself had ordered Lincoln's murder, framed the vain and dipsomaniacal Booth, and set up a sham trial for his hapless "co-conspirators," including the gentle country doctor from Charles County.
As a historian, Eisenschiml was a marvelous chemist, transmuting half-truths, scraps of random evidence, and outright fabrications into a seemingly suggestive case for Stanton's guilt. "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" became an international bestseller and easily the most influential book ever written about the assassination, spinning off an industry of amateur sleuths keen to elaborate Eisenschiml's thesis.
And then one day, shortly after World War II, a man named James O. Hall picked up a copy of "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?"
"I started to read it," he told me not long ago, "and I couldn't believe what I was reading. I thought, 'Good God, this is the worst criminal investigation I've ever heard of.' I couldn't believe the government could have been as incompetent as Eisenschiml said. So I thought I'd poke around a bit on my own."
Not counting his arrest, trial, and imprisonment, this was the worst thing that ever happened to Dr. Mudd and his family.
JAMES O. HALL HAD SPENT THE WAR as a criminal investigator in the European theater, policing allied forces. After mustering out, he took a job as an investigator for the Department of Labor, and pursued his fascination with Lincoln's murder in his off hours. When he retired, in the late 1960s, he devoted most of his time to reconstructing the military's original investigation.
Widowed for several years, Hall is 90 now and lives alone in a high-rise apartment in McLean, a Northern Virginia suburb. He gets around by wheelchair. But he still receives occasional visitors who know his reputation as (in Edward Steers's words) "the man who knows more about the assassination than anyone who has ever lived, including the conspirators themselves." The history writer Doris Kearns Goodwin, working on her own Lincoln book, dropped by not long ago, as did Michael Beschloss, another historian at Jim Lehrer U.
When I first rang him up last summer and told him I'd like to come see him, Hall said, "Let's just chat awhile," and after a few minutes I got the idea he was quizzing me.
"You know about the visit with Harbin at the Bryantown Inn, I suppose," he said.
I didn't, but I mumbled strategically.
"That was in December," he said. "Before the assassination."
"Why don't you do some more research," he said. "Then we can talk some more. I get reporters calling me about Dr. Mudd. I try to lay everything out for them. I show them what the evidence is. They never use it. They just want to show that Mudd was innocent, you see. It makes a better story for them, I suppose.
"Go down to the Surratt House," he said. "Poke around."
I did as I was told. The Surratt House has a small library and several cabinets full of miscellaneous files, along with microfilm of the trial transcript, which runs to many thousands of pages. I spent a couple afternoons down there reading through them and talking to Laurie Verge, the director of the museum. When I called Hall back, a few weeks later, I made a knowing reference to discrepancies between the first statement Mudd gave to authorities and the second. I mentioned, offhandedly, the Harbin visit to the Bryantown Inn.
"Come on over after lunch tomorrow," he said.
Hall keeps an office in a spare bedroom, and the day I visited him it was flooded in midday sunlight. Running the length of one wall is a line of metal cabinets containing his files--fifty years of original research into every figure even remotely associated with the murder or its aftermath. For Hall, Dr. Mudd has always been a figure of special interest.
"I don't know that I ever believed completely that Dr. Mudd was innocent," he told me. "But so many people thought he was set up, and I was open to the idea. The men who questioned him after the assassination were amateurs. They didn't ask a lot of questions they should have asked. I thought, well, all right, I'll ask them myself.
"And you know what? He was in it up to his eyeballs."
THE CASE AGAINST DR. MUDD, as a buff can piece it together today, has been obscured by the actual evidence the military presented against him in a sweltering courtroom during the spring and summer of 1865. All in all, Hall told me, the military investigators did a "pretty good" job in their inquiry, given the public's bloodlust and the demands pressing in on them to bring conspirators, any conspirators, to justice. The dragnet they cast was vast and indiscriminate; in the days after the murder, more than 300 suspects were taken into custody. And they acted quickly in assembling the tribunal, perhaps hastily.
At the trial, Dr. Mudd cut a conspicuous figure, well-dressed and self-composed, aloof in manner and distant in appearance from the slouching ragamuffins who were his supposed co-conspirators. None of the accused testified on his own behalf, in keeping with established criminal procedures of the time. And the witnesses who did testify against Mudd performed unevenly. One witness for the prosecution, who said he had seen the doctor with the conspirators in Washington that spring, admitted on cross-examination that he himself was "bordering on insanity." Two others, former slaves on the Mudd farm, were effectively discredited by multiple witnesses for the defense, and another undermined his own testimony by misremembering a crucial date.
The unreliability of these witnesses made it more difficult to establish what the military intended to prove: that Dr. Mudd was an active member of the Confederate underground in Charles County and had been involved in Booth's plot to kidnap Lincoln; that he had recognized Booth in treating his leg early that Saturday morning, and had known by midday following that Booth was Lincoln's assassin; that despite this knowledge he had helped the assassin and his accomplice Herold evade the federal troops on their way to the Potomac and to the safehouses of Virginia; that he had delayed reporting Booth's visit, and had lied to the officers about essential details when he did report it.
The nine men on the tribunal voted unanimously to convict Mudd; five voted to hang him, too, falling a single vote short of the two-thirds necessary for the death penalty. From his own written statements, given days apart in the week following Booth's visit, Mudd was self-evidently deceptive. He changed his story in critical ways--about when the two visitors had left his property Saturday afternoon (or was it evening?), about how much time he had spent with the man with the broken leg. He lied about how many times he had met Booth before the assassination. He said the two men had left his farm traveling west, toward the Washington road, which put the search party off their scent; investigators later learned the fugitives had traveled east and then south in an arc around the troops at Bryantown. And then, of course, there's the beard.
"A concoction!" Hall told me, leaning forward in his wheelchair, spitting the word out. After fifty years of thinking about it, he's still riled by the beard.
"That's the first tip investigators had that Dr. Mudd was lying," he said. "A false beard! Good God. Nearly a dozen people saw Booth after the assassination. He didn't try to hide his identity from any of them. He identified himself to the soldier at the Navy Yard Bridge, for heaven's sake. And then he put on the beard just for Dr. Mudd?
"That beard was invented for Dr. Mudd's benefit, not for Booth's. He had to invent it to get himself off the hook."
NOTWITHSTANDING the implausibility of Mudd's own version of events, and even discounting for the unreliable witnesses, the evidence presented at trial against Mudd for aiding and abetting Booth is spotty and entirely circumstantial--good enough for a military tribunal in wartime, maybe, but inadequate in a court of law under modern criminal procedure. From this distance, however, the point seems dryly academic. Did prosecutors present evidence in court to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Mudd was guilty? is an interesting question, and the answer to it is no. An even more interesting question is: Was he guilty? And the answer, pretty much unavoidably, is yes. We know this now, thanks to evidence collected by James O. Hall.
Hall doesn't believe that Mudd knew of Lincoln's assassination in advance--it's unclear, in fact, how many of the kidnap conspirators did, since the idea of murder seems to have seized Booth only a few hours before he acted on it. But Hall's evidence does show that Mudd, like many landowners in his county, was an ardent secessionist, a member of the loose network of Confederate operatives and sympathizers active there, and an early recruit into Booth's kidnapping plot.
"The family like to say that if Booth hadn't broken his leg in the fall at Ford's Theater, the detectives never would have heard of Dr. Mudd," Hall said. "I'm sure you've heard them say that over and over. But it's not true."
Hall discovered that investigators first heard of Dr. Mudd in the early hours after the assassination, even before they had tracked Booth to Charles County. A letter found in a search of the assassin's hotel room led detectives to Samuel Arnold, a friend of Booth's living in Baltimore. They interviewed him there Saturday afternoon, even as Booth dozed in Dr. Mudd's upstairs bedroom, sixty miles to the south. Arnold told the detectives that in mid-1864 the actor had traveled to Montreal, a nesting place for Southern diplomats, exiles, and spies. There he met with agents of the Confederate secret service, and returned to Washington bearing letters of introduction to two Charles County doctors who might aid him in his work. One of the two doctors, Arnold told detectives, was named Mudd.
Even more significant is a confession, long thought to be lost, given shortly after the assassination by one of Booth's acknowledged accomplices, George Atzerodt. In the 1970s a young researcher associated with the Surratt House found the document among some family papers. She turned it over to Hall, who was able to authenticate it.
"I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it," Atzerodt said in the confession. "Booth sent liquor and provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond [after the planned kidnapping], about two weeks before the murder, to Dr. Mudd's."
Stitching together a detailed time line from trial testimony, old hotel records, and miscellaneous accounts, Hall has established that Booth and Mudd met at least three times before the assassination, rather than on the single occasion Mudd originally admitted to. After his trial and sentencing, by all accounts overcome with despair, Mudd told two federal officers, in separate conversations, that the Christmas encounter with Booth in Washington was not by chance but by appointment. The purpose seems to have been to introduce Booth to Mudd's acquaintance Surratt, which brought into the kidnap plot Booth's most important recruit.
Sitting in his wheelchair beside his desk, Hall went through the evidence patiently and methodically. He asked me to fetch folders from the file cabinets and arrange them on the desk. From the bulging stacks he handed me weathered Xerox copies of ancient letters he'd collected, old Photostats of newspaper clippings he'd found long ago.
"Here's the meeting at the Bryantown Inn," he said, holding out a smudged slip of paper. It was a newspaper account of an interview with a Confederate spy named Thomas Harbin, clipped from the Cincinnati Enquirer, dated 1892. The interview had been conducted, and later published, by the journalist George Alfred Townsend, one of the earliest and most reputable of Civil War researchers, who tracked Harbin down shortly before the old spy's death.
Harbin ran contraband goods and organized underground mail routes throughout Maryland and Virginia for most of the war. On April 16, not long after Booth left Mudd's house, Harbin helped guide the assassin through the swamps of southern Maryland and across the Potomac. Later he slipped through the dragnet himself, saving his own life. How Harbin had come to know Booth was, for a long while, unclear to assassination buffs; but in this newspaper account the journalist Townsend provided an answer.
"Harbin gave me all the particulars concerning Booth," Townsend wrote in his Enquirer article. "He told me that at the [Bryantown] tavern that Sunday [in December 1864], it was Dr. Mudd who introduced him to Booth, who wanted some private conversations. Booth then outlined a scheme for seizing Abraham Lincoln and delivering him up in Virginia."
BEING A RECRUITER for the kidnap plot would have been enough to convict Mudd at the wartime tribunal. But did he recognize Booth at his doorstep, in the rain and the dark that Saturday morning? Only four people could ever have answered the question to a certainty. At the time of the trial, Booth was dead and Herold never spoke on the matter; and Dr. Mudd and his wife, of course, had both denied it. Years later, however, long after his pardon, the doctor spoke more freely.
One of Hall's most significant finds is also a testament to his tirelessness. In trying to reconstruct the crime and its investigation, he made himself expert in genealogy.
"I didn't learn it because I was interested in genealogy," he told me. "I did it because it was a good way to find things that had been lost."
His method was to trace the family tree of every figure from the assassination, find any living descendants, and write them in hopes that among family heirlooms they might be holding something worthwhile.
This is what he did with Samuel Cox Jr., who had been a neighbor and acquaintance of Dr. Mudd's, and a local Southern agitator. In the early 1970s Hall found a Cox great-grandson living in upstate New York.
"I wrote him," Hall told me, "and I said, 'Do you have anything that might be interesting to someone looking into the assassination?' And he said, 'Oh, I do believe I do!'"
Hall pointed to a book on the shelf behind his desk. I brought it down for him. The book was a biography of Booth, published in 1892. Samuel Cox Jr. had filled the margins of the book with his own notes, more than a century ago. Next to a page that mentions Dr. Mudd, Cox had written:
"In 1877, after Dr. Samuel A. Mudd's return from Dry Tortugas, and when he and myself were canvassing this county as the Democratic candidates for the legislature, he told me he knew Booth but casually." In his marginalia Cox offered a long and convoluted account of his talks with Mudd, but as I read through it the upshot was clear: Mudd said he recognized Booth that April night, and that the doctor had been shocked, early the next afternoon, to learn of the assassination, and of the assassin's identity. When he realized what Booth had done, Mudd returned to the farm and ordered him off his property, even as he assured him that he wouldn't turn him over to the federal troops.
Trying to re-create Mudd's state of mind as it must have been in those moments when he learned what his houseguest had done, you can feel a chill. Samuel Mudd was, as the family likes to say, just a country doctor, and probably scared to death; a father of four children, who had desultorily offered help in a kidnap scheme cooked up by a famous actor, in hopes perhaps of ending the war, and who suddenly, on a steamy Saturday afternoon, discovered himself implicated in the murder of a president. This is not the coldblooded conspirator the military tribunal strained to find guilty. But neither is he a man without fault, maliciously wronged and railroaded by a ruthless government--the image that his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren have clung to, so tenaciously, for so long.
I handed the book back to Hall. He said: "I remember a friend of mine saying to Dr. Richard Mudd once--this was privately. He said, 'Dr. Dick, your grandfather was a proud Confederate. He thought he was serving his country, and he got mixed up in something that turned out horrible. That's nothing to be ashamed of, necessarily. Why don't you all just admit it?'"
"And what did Dr. Dick say?" I asked.
"Oh we never got an answer out of him," Hall said. "There wasn't much he could say, I guess."
Hall reached out and ran a hand over the folders piled across his desk. "I understand it, I suppose," he said. "This was such a big thing in their lives. What could they say?"
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist with Bloomberg News.