Family still defends famous ancestor who set broken leg of Lincoln's assassin

DRY TORTUGAS — Inside the six-sided brick fortress built on a remote island in the Keys, 50 people wearing matching yellow T-shirts that say “Free Dr. Mudd” crammed into the dark cell.

They are descendants — proud descendants — of Samuel A. Mudd, the full-time tobacco grower, part-time country doctor who was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson for his role in one of America’s most infamous crimes: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

It’s at least the eighth Mudd family excursion to the National Park that is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Key West. But this is the first in 19 years, and the first without Dr. Richard Mudd, who spent a lifetime petitioning presidents and Congress and battling the military and the courts to exonerate his grandfather, who died before he was born.

Richard Mudd kept up the effort until his death in 2002 at age 101. Legal recourse ended the next year when the family lawyer missed a filing deadline with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’re done,” said Thomas Mudd, who helped his father Richard in his efforts for exoneration. “Once you miss the Supreme Court filing deadline, you’d have to go back and start in the lower courts again. I don’t think there is any way we can get in.”

But Thomas Mudd said the family is far from done in defending Samuel Mudd. They believe Mudd wasn’t a conspirator, just a country doctor following his oath by setting the broken leg of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

“We’re here today to keep the story alive for our family,” said Thomas Mudd, a historian. “We want the younger family members to know that we come from a special kind of history.”

Samuel Mudd, who had nine kids before dying in 1883 at 49, now has about 800 descendants. Four generations, aged 6 months to 81 years, made the trip to Fort Jefferson. They came from seven states, with some meeting for the first time.

Mary McHale, a great-granddaughter of Samuel Mudd, made her first pilgrimage to the fort-turned-prison in 1947 with her father, Richard, and two brothers.

“I remember looking for sharks in the moat because of the 1936 movie The Prisoner of Shark Island,” McHale said. “It starred Warner Baxter as Dr. Mudd.”

John McHale, Mary’s son, said there definitely is some family resemblance to the man in the well-known black-and-white photo of Samuel Mudd.

McHale lifted his cap, saying: “The Mudd men have receding hairlines.”

He brought his wife and two young girls to the fort. Samantha McHale, 9, said she hasn’t been taught about Mudd in school yet, but does know about him from her family.

“Dr. Sam Mudd was the only person in the fort who knew about yellow fever, so he took over all the yellow fever stuff,” she said.

Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy 145 years ago and sentenced to life in prison — missing hanging by only one vote on the nine-person military tribunal.

But he served only four years at Fort Jefferson before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for his heroic work treating yellow fever patients after the fort’s doctor and nurses died during an outbreak.

Still, Mudd’s name remained mud. Richard Mudd always claimed Samuel Mudd’s innocence and also claimed he should never had been tried in a military tribunal since he was a civilian.

Along the way, he won some powerful allies, including presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and U.S. sens. Paul Simon, John Glenn and Joseph Biden.

“It was the sense of injustice,” said Stella Thelen, 64, one of Richard Mudd’s seven children. “He couldn’t understand why a doctor was imprisoned for setting the leg of someone.”

Historians have debated the role of Mudd, a seventh-generation slave owner, who had previously met Booth.

At 4 a.m., a few hours after Booth shot Lincoln in the head at Ford’s Theater in Washington, Booth and accomplice David Herold showed up at Mudd’s farmhouse about 30 miles away. At first, Mudd told investigators he didn’t recognize Booth, who was wearing a disguise.

Booth was killed 11 days later during the manhunt. Many of Mudd’s descendants believe Samuel Mudd was a scapegoat.

“It was a rush-to-judgment kind of thing,” Thelen said. “If you can imagine right after 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, how people were anxious to find a person or group to blame and punish them.”

Mudd and seven other accused co-conspirators were tried just 25 days after the assassination. Four were sentenced to death and four got life in prison.

The Mudd family’s legal battle made it all the way to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, the highest court before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2001, during the start of the hearing, Thomas Mudd said one of the judges stopped the proceeding.

“It was a shocker,” Thomas Mudd said. “We can’t hear this case because Dr. Mudd wasn’t in the military. So get this. He can be tried in a military court. He can be convicted in a military court. But he can’t appeal a military court conviction because he’s not in the military. That’s called a Catch 22.”

While the family can’t officially get Samuel Mudd exonerated, they can keep his memory alive through his descendants.

Conor McHale, Mary’s grandson, gives tours at the Samuel A. Mudd House Museum in Waldorf, Md.

Said Thomas Mudd: “My dad worked so hard to clear the Mudd name, and we’re just trying to carry on his tradition.”