Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Mudd of History

Am now reading James L. Swanson's "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer," the meticulously researched and juicily detailed account of John Wilkes Booth's every movement immediately prior to and following the April 14, 1865, shooting of President Lincoln at Ford's Theater. Swanson has triangulated everyone's movements and actions from "letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents." It couldn't be more thorough, and it's as unput-downable as any thriller.

Reading about Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who set Booth's broken leg early on the morning of April 15, I was surprised to learn that he was not a random stranger onto whose farm Booth blundered in the dead of night. Not only did Mudd already know Booth rather well, but Mudd also had joined Booth late in 1864 in a fantastic plot to kidnap President Lincoln and transport him south to the Confederate capitol in Richmond, Va.

Mudd was very much a part of the philosophical environment in Charles County, Md., at that time. That part of southern Maryland gave Abraham Lincoln a total of just six votes in the election of 1860, out of 1,197 votes cast. Mudd himself was "anti-Union, antiblack, and the owner of up to eleven slaves before emancipation freed them."

That being said, Mudd was evidently wholly innocent of any involvement in the successful plot to kill the president some six months after Booth had wanted to kidnap him. Mudd did, however, on April 15, 1865, and during the days following after he learned what Booth had done, conceal this knowledge from the authorities. And for that he was severely punished.

All of this brought back memories of an old 1936 movie I had seen as a farmkid in Texas, "The Prisoner of Shark Island," a total whitewash of Mudd's motives which conveniently also erased all of Mudd's prior involvement with John Wilkes Booth. The character of Dr. Samuel Mudd in that Hollywood movie was victim of Union tyranny, pure and simple. He's railroaded into a military trial for his life, barely escapes death by hanging, and is instead sentenced to a fate virtually worse than death, long confinement in the notorious prison on the Dry Tortugas. In other words, it was the perfect movie to stir the anti-government passions of a Southern pre-teen of that day. Which it did.

Having just finished Ulysses S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs," I already knew that the general was in Washington on the day of the assassination -- which came just five days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox -- and was actually supposed to accompany the president to Ford's Theater that night. That double appearance of the president and the Union's great general was known all over Washington that day, as the Ford Theater management put out handbills advertising the fact. But the general and Mrs. Grant changed their plans at the last minute.

John Wilkes Booth was not crazy. He was politically motivated. And he gathered a sizable group of co-conspirators around him who shared his radical anti-Union, pro-slavery views.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article JW

It's been years since I've read any serious articles about Booth, Mudd and the 'conspiracy'. I do seem to recall that, at Mudd's trial, there was testimony about several meetings that Mudd and Booth had up to a few months before the assassination.

Mudd may have admitted to these meetings at some point in the investigation or trial - after he had initially denied them early in the investigation.

I already have too many books on my "next" list to get back into this area, but I hope you will keep us posted on any further readings you may do on the topic.