A Plaque for Dr. Mudd

In the former cell of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd and the other Lincoln assassination conspirators in Fort Jefferson, there is a memorial plaque in honor of its most famous inmate:

The memorial was erected in March of 1961, and many newspapers of the day contained an Associated Press article regarding its dedication and the history of Dr. Mudd.

“In ceremonies yesterday at Key West – because Dry Tortugas was too inaccessible – the U.S. government dedicated a plaque to the memory of Dr. Mudd. The plaque itself is out on the Tortugas at Ft. Jefferson, a poorly preserved crumble of 40 million bricks which in Mudd’s day was a formidable federal penitentiary.”

Of those referenced in the newspaper article was a Saginaw, Michigan resident named Dr. Richard Dyer Mudd.  Dr. Richard Mudd was Dr. Samuel Mudd’s grandson and lifelong proponent of his innocence.  Dr. Richard Mudd stated that the plaque was:

“A tacit admission, at last, that my grandfather was convicted unjustly, that he did not conspire to kill the 16th President nor knowingly aid the man who did.”

The fact is though, while the government was willing to place a memorial to a doctor who bravely administered to many sick soldiers and inmates at the assumed risk of his own life, they were not comfortable declaring that Dr. Mudd was wrongfully imprisoned.  In fact, it took several years to get Dr. Mudd this memorial, and even then it was not what Dr. Richard Mudd truly hoped for.

The first attempt that I’ve been able to find regarding a public memorial for Dr. Mudd was in February of 1936, during the second session of the 74th Congress.   A West Virginian Representative named Jennings Randolph introduced House Joint Resolution 496 on February 24th.  It can be assumed that the catalyst for Rep. Randolph’s bill was the new movie, “The Prisoner of Shark Island”.  The film had its debut in New York on February 12th, 1936 and was released nationwide on February 28th.  Publicity about the movie was in many newspapers and each reiterated the popular view of Dr. Mudd’s complete innocence.

H. J. Res. 496 called for the “erection of a memorial to Dr. Samuel A. Mudd”.  It was first sent to the House’s Committee on Public Lands.  The Committee, in turn, contacted the Department of the Interior to gain their perspective on the idea.  On April 16th, the Department of the Interior sent back a letter in favor of the memorial stating, “The proposal to place a tablet to the memory of Dr. Mudd on the ruins of Fort Jefferson appears to have merit in view of the outstanding services performed at Fort Jefferson by this member of the medical profession.”  In addition, the Secretary of the Interior hoped that this tablet would, “increase the historical interest of old Fort Jefferson.”  With the blessing of the Department of the Interior (given the understanding that the House would set aside the funds to complete the memorial and not the DoI) the Committee on Public Lands reported back on the bill favorably on May 28th, 1936.

While it appeared that many in Congress were in favor of this memorial to Dr. Mudd, one outside group, “The Society for Correct Civil War Information” was not.  In one of their bulletins they wrote:

“This Resolution was so obviously a farcical gesture that we were remise in not listing it as one of the disloyal bills.  We erred in thinking that no member of the United States Congress would for one moment tolerate the idea of erecting a memorial to one of the conspirators against the life of Abraham Lincoln… If such a resolution passes the Congress, giving approval to assassination, the next logical step is a monument to John Wilkes Booth!”

While alarmist and hyperbolic in this edition, the Society for Correct Civil War Information did devote articles in a few other bulletins fighting against the popular belief that Dr. Mudd was a completely innocent country doctor.

When the bill was finally called to question on June 15th, 1936, Representative Thomas Jenkins of Ohio asked the resolution to be passed over without prejudice:

Five days later was the last day of the 74th Congress.  H. J. Res. 496 died.

The next year, during the 75th Congress, Representative Randolph of West Virginia was at it again.  He introduced H. J. Res. 87 again calling for the “erection of a memorial to Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd”.  The bill was, once again, sent to the Committee on Public Lands.  As before, The Society for Correct Civil War Information was on the offensive over this measure:

“H. J. R. 87 provides for the erection of a memorial to Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, and is similar to H. J. R. 496 in the last Congress. H. J. R. 87, introduced by Jennings Randolph (Congressional Record, p. 105), contains the same misstatement that “in recognition of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd’s innocence of the charges which resulted in his life imprisonment he was given a complete and unconditional pardon by President Andrew Johnson.” In the September (1936) bulletin we cite the text of President Johnson’s pardon of Dr. Mudd which concludes: “And whereas, upon consideration and examination of the record of said trial and conviction an of the evidence given at said trial I am satisfied that the guilt found by the said Judgment against Samuel A. Mudd was of the 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,” and President Johnson further states “And whereas, in other respects the evidence imputing such guilty sympathy or purpose of aid in defeat of Justice, leaves room for uncertainty as to the true measure and nature of the complicity of the said Samuel A. Mudd in the attempted escape of said assassins.” The foregoing excerpts from President Johnson’s pardon show that he knew Dr. Mudd to be an accessory after the fact in harboring Booth and Herold, and it was on this specification and charge that he was found guilty. See Volume 121, page 699. Therefore to state that President Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd because he was innocent of the charges that led to his Imprisonment and to seek a memorial to Dr. Mudd on that account is a conclusion and a purpose not justified by facts, and H. J. R. 496 was therefore properly stopped in Congress, for Dr. Mudd was not innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.”

This time, Representative Randolph’s bill never made it out of the Committee of Public Lands.  Again, the measure died.

Let’s fast forward now to 1959 and the 86th Congress.  Though The Prisoner of Shark Island is no longer on the minds of the American public, Dr. Richard D. Mudd has been working tirelessly to clear his grandfather’s name.  He entices his congressman, Representative Alvin Bentley of Michigan’s 8th district, to propose House Joint Resolution 80 entitled, “Providing for the erection of a memorial tablet at Garden Key, FLA., in honor of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd”.  Dr. Richard Mudd was 35 when the first few attempts to honor his grandfather failed, and this time he was determined to push it through.  In addition to Rep. Bentley of Michigan, Mudd instilled the help of Representative Dante Fascell of Florida.  Fort Jefferson was in Rep. Fascell’s district.  Fascell proposed a practically identical bill to Rep. Bentley’s, House  Joint Resolution 433.  Dr. Richard Mudd was doubling his odds at getting a memorial to his grandfather.

Rep. Bentley’s bill (H. J. R. 80) was sent to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.  They contacted the Department of the Interior and received a very similar letter to the one received by the 1936 Congressmen:

“Although the providing of memorial treatment through markers, monuments, and scripture, is often inconsistent with this Department’s practice of administering historical areas in such a way as to preserve the historic scene, we do not feel the proposed tablet would be objectionable at Fort Jefferson.  We would point out, however, that a visitor center is being planned for the Fort Jefferson National Monument and that the entire history of the fort, including Dr. Mudd’s, will be told.”

With the approval of the Department of the Interior, the Committee reported favorably on H. J. R. 80… with one amendment.

Bentley’s original bill contained a long preamble declaring the many ways in which Dr. Mudd was innocent, falsely tried, and imprisoned.  Dr. Richard Mudd hoped the passing of this bill would set the precedent he desired to have his grandfather’s record officially expunged.  However, the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs was not willing to set this precedent and therefore eliminated the entire preamble and changed the phrase in the resolution from “imprisoned for a crime which he did not commit” to just “imprisoned”.  The following shows their changes:

On August 31st, 1959 the amended bill was called to question.  There was no debate but Rep. Bentley used the time to reiterate his feelings about Dr. Mudd’s innocence, even though all declarations to the same had been removed from the bill:

From here, the bill reached the Senate where Senator Philip Hart of Michigan (another of Dr. Richard Mudd’s congressmen) also displayed his sympathies towards his constituent:

The bill, having passed the House and Senate was turned over to the President for final signature and approval.  On September 21st, 1959, President Einsenhower signed the bill into law.  Dr. Mudd got his memorial at last.

Dr. Richard Dyer Mudd had hoped that these efforts in the Congress would be his grandfather’s vindication.  In the newspaper article quoted at the beginning of this post, he called the memorial a “tacit admission” of his grandfather’s “unjust” conviction and innocence in “knowingly” aiding the man who killed the President.   This was not the case, however.  The Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs struck out the text, “covering controversial matters of history about which the committee has no expert knowledge and on which it does not wish to pass judgment.”  In the end, the committee succinctly summarized the reason for this memorial as being solely:

“A recognition of Dr. Mudd’s meritorious professional service as an imprisoned physician during the yellow fever epidemic of 1867.”

References:
The Congressional Records of 74th and 86th Congresses available online through Archive.org
Bulletins of The Society for Correct Civil War Information
1936 Report of the Committee on Public Lands
1959 Report of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs

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3 thoughts on “A Plaque for Dr. Mudd

  1. Rich Smyth

    Very interesting story Dave. Unlike the Dr., I visited Ft. Jefferson under different circumstances. It is a beautiful place; history and nature combined.

  2. Richard Sloan sent in this wonderful picture of him and Dr. Richard Mudd in front of the plaque:

  3. Pingback: Views of Fort Jefferson | BoothieBarn

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