This web site presents our research about the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who was arrested for aiding John Wilkes Booth after Booth assassinated president Abraham Lincoln in 1865. President Johnson's pardon below neatly summarizes the consensus view of historians today that Dr. Mudd was innocent of having anything to do with the assassination of president Lincoln, but guilty of helping Booth avoid capture afterwards.
I am satisfied that the guilt found by the said judgment against Samuel A. Mudd was of receiving, entertaining, harboring, and concealing John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold, with the intent to aid, abet and assist them in escaping from justice after the assassination of the late President of the United States, and not of any other or greater participation or complicity in said abominable crime.
- President Andrew Johnson, 1869 pardon of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd.
Dr. Mudd was narrowly convicted of conspiracy by the 5-4 (Guilty-Not Guilty) vote of a military court, and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Fort Jefferson military prison, located on a remote island in the Gulf of Mexico. A switch of one vote from Guilty to Not Guilty (4-5) would have freed Dr. Mudd, but a switch of one vote from Not Guilty to Guilty (6-3) would have sent him to the gallows. The rules of a military court at the time were quite different from those of a civilian court. If he had been tried by a civilian court, which required a unanimous verdict, Dr. Mudd would have been freed.
Towards the end of the trial, General Lew Wallace, one of the nine military jurors, wrote to his wife:
“The trial is not yet over; but I say to myself, certainly it can’t endure beyond this week, and do all I can to be patient. Jno Bingham, on the side of the government, speaks tomorrow, and then the Com. votes ‘guilty or not guilty.’ I have passed a few words with my associate members, and think we can agree in a couple of hours at farthest. Three, if not four, of the eight will be acquitted – that is, they would be, if we voted to day. What affect Bingham will have remains to be seen.”
The three he thought would be acquitted were most likely Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen. None of these had anything to do with the assassination. The fourth he thought might be acquitted was most likely George Atzerodt, whom Booth had assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but did not do so.
The Civil War lasted almost exactly four years, from the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861 to the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865. About a year before the war ended, with the tide of war turning against the Confederacy, the 26-year-old actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth conceived a plan to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and carry him to the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia. He believed the Union government might then exchange a large number of captured Confederate soldiers for the president, or even force the Union government into discussions ending the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy.
Booth assembled a small number of co-conspirators to help with the kidnapping, but he was never able to execute his impractical plan. When General Lee surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, an enraged Booth determined to murder president Lincoln, and did so at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday evening, April 14, 1865. Booth broke his leg while fleeing from the theater, and sought medical help at Dr. Mudd's farm in Southern Maryland. Dr. Mudd treated Booth's broken leg, and allowed him to rest in his farm house for a few hours. Booth left the Mudd farm later that day, but a week and a half later he was cornered and killed by Union soldiers in Virginia.
Many people were arrested during the government’s investigation of the assassination, but ultimately only eight of these, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and Dr. Mudd, were tried by a 9-man Military Commission for being part of Booth’s conspiracy. When the trial was over on June 30th, all eight defendants were convicted. Herold, Atzerodt, Powell, and Surratt were executed by hanging. Dr. Mudd, Spangler, Arnold, and O’Laughlen were sent to Fort Jefferson.
President Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd, Spangler, and Arnold in 1869, a few days before he was replaced as president by Ulysses S. Grant. Michael O'Laughlen had died in a yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson in 1867. Johnson said he was pardoning Dr. Mudd in part because of his heroic work during the epidemic. Three hundred thirteen soldiers, 54 prisoners, and 20 civilians, a total of 387 people, were at the fort during the epidemic. Two hundred seventy of them contracted yellow fever. Thirty-eight died. Many of the survivors credited Dr. Mudd with their recovery. Near 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 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.
After his release from Fort Jefferson, Dr. Mudd returned home to his wife and children, redeemed in the eyes of many for his life-saving work at Fort Jefferson during the epidemic. He lived 14 more years, dying from pneumonia on January 10, 1883, the 5th birthday of his youngest daughter Mary Eleanor "Nettie" Mudd. In 1906, Nettie published The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd.