The Dry Tortugas Prisoners

On April 7, 1866, the following article was published in the New York Herald. It provides an interesting  look at the condition and day to day existence of three of the Lincoln assassination conspirators imprisoned at Fort Jefferson: Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Edman Spangler.

The Dry Tortugas Prisoners

Health and Varied Employments of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators and Colonel Maramaduke, the Rebel Emissary to Burn Chicago – How They Look, Talk, Feel, and Behave, &c

Our Fortress Monroe Correspondence

Fortress Monroe, April 5, 1866.

The government transport steamer Eliza Hancox, Captain Shuter arrived here this morning from Galveston, Texas. She left Galveston on the 22d ult., and on the route, meeting with some rough but mainly favorable weather, stopped at Key West, Charleston and Morehead City. From here she expects to go to New York to be discharged from the government employ, though there is some talk of her being detained as quarantine steamer. She brings several discharged prisoners from the Dry Tortugas. By conversing with these prisoners I have obtained full particulars touching the present condition, health, and varied employments of the assassination conspirators against President Lincoln, now undergoing imprisonment there.

Dr. Mudd.

Dr. Mudd 4

Dr. Mudd, since his attempt to escape by concealing himself in the coal bunker of a steamer, has not been able to revive the confidence reposed in him previous to that time. He is still kept under close guard, and compelled to clean out bastions in the casemates of the fort, and do some of the most menial and degrading work required to be done. Instead of becoming reconciled to his lot, he grows more discontented and querulous. Never very robust, he is now but little better than a skeleton, and his growing emaciation shows how bitterly his spirit chafes under his imprisonment, and how deeply the iron pierces his soul. His constant prayer is for death, which alone can set him free. It is natural he should suffer more than his colleagues in crime. The most intelligent of them all, and in the associations and habits of his former life greatly lifted above them, he is so much the more the keenest sufferer now. But there is none to pity him. All keep aloof from him.

Arnold.

Sam Arnold's Mug Shot

Sam Arnold’s Mug Shot

Arnold is employed as clerk of Captain Van Reade, Post Adjutant. An uncommonly fine penman and accurate accountant – his profession will be remembered as that of a bookkeeper – and well behaved and modest and yielding in his demeanor, he grows in usefulness and popularity each day. A guard attends him to his meals, which are the same as the other prisoners, and at night he is in close custody. His behavior shows that he appreciates his position and that he does not, like Dr. Mudd, and intend to abuse the confidence placed in his and lose it. His health is good.

Spangler.

Spangler 1

Spangler is at work in the Quartermaster’s carpenter shop. Already he begins to count the years, months, and days remaining to complete his term of imprisonment. He is robust and jolly – a physical condition he attributes, however, – solely to his being innocent of any participancy in the dreadful crime charged against him.

Colonel Marmaduke

In striking contrast to the persons I have referred to is Colonel Marmaduke, found guilty of the noted conspiracy to free the prisoners at Camp Douglas and burn Chicago. He has charge of the post garden. In respect to manual labor, no royal gardener has an easier time. Like the lilies of the field, he toils not. His only business is to see that those under him work. He has the privilege of going outside the fort at any time between reveille and sunset. He does not evidently allow his prison life to interfere seriously with his health or spirits, for both are excellent. In the extent of freedom allowed him, he is very much given to putting on the airs of a fine gentleman and walks and struts about like one on the very best terms with himself and the world.

Number of Prisoners

When the Eliza Hancox left Key West there were at Fort Jefferson, or the Dry Tortugas, sixty-five white and ninety-five colored prisoners. Most are undergoing sentences of courts martial, and every day the number is being diminished through expiration of terms of imprisonment. Under the admirable and humane managements of Companies C, D, L and M, Fifth United States artillery, Brevet Brigadier General Hill commanding, doing garrison duty, there is nothing of which to complain, either on the part of prisoners or soldiers. The rations are of the best and abundant, and the prisoners’ quarters and barracks are kept clean and healthy. Officers, soldiers and prisoners enjoy unwonted good health.

There are two main things of note in this article. First, even though Dr. Mudd had enacted his failed escape attempt in September of 1865, the former prisoners interviewed in this piece recount Mudd still paying the price for it. The sorrowful description of Dr. Mudd’s condition was no doubt distressing to Mrs. Mudd as this column was published nationwide. Dr. Mudd also did not spare his wife the details of his degenerating condition in his letters home to her.

Second, this article has a great deal of unintended, and slightly ironic, foreshadowing. Clearly someone neglected to “knock on wood” after writing the final lines that Fort Jefferson was “clean and healthy” and that the “prisoners enjoy unwonted good health”. Dr. Mudd and Samuel Arnold, in their letters and later recollections would definitely disagree with those assertions. However, even if the Fort was clean and healthy at that time, by August of 1867, the exact opposite had become true with the Yellow Fever epidemic that infected 270 of the 400 people at Fort Jefferson and claimed 38 lives. One of the lost souls was conspirator Michael O’Laughlen, who is ironically absent from this article as well.

New Michael O'Laughlen Mugshot 3 Huntington Library

Poor O’Laughlen. He’s the conspirator we know the least about and he was already being overlooked a year before his early demise at that “healthy” prison with, “nothing of which to complain,” about.

References:

“The Dry Tortugas Prisoners” New York Herald, April 7, 1866

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Dry Tortugas Prisoners

  1. Eva E.L.

    Fascinating read, Dave! (Fascinating place, too.)

  2. Candace

    I have been to Ft Jefferson an amazing place.

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