Posts Tagged With: Fort Jefferson

Gifts from Fort Jefferson

A few weeks ago, I posted a thank you note that Edman Spangler wrote while incarcerated at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas.  In it, he mentioned several items he was sending along to John T. Ford as tokens of his appreciation.  Spangler also included other carpentry items created by the conspirators and asked for them to be passed along to their respective families.  Though undated, I deduced that the note must have been written in mid 1867, during the John Surratt trial but before Michael O’Laughlen’s death.  Today, I stumbled across a related newspaper article that seems to agree with that conclusion:

Gifts from Fort Jefferson articleWhile it is unknown if any of the items contained in this package exist today, there are several items on display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum made by Dr. Mudd (with assumed guidance from Edman Spangler) while he was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson:

Jewelry box 2

Cribbage board

Decorative table

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Arriving at Fort Jefferson

The Richmond Whig newspaper carried this article on August 4, 1865 covering the arrival of the Lincoln assassination conspirators to their prison of Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas:

What surprised me the most about this article is the claim that, upon reaching the island, the prisoners were relieved at finding it, “not so bad a place as they had supposed,” as it had a “fine sea breeze” and was a “very healthy” place.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Early in his memoirs, Sam Arnold accurately describes the Fort thusly:

“Without exception, it was the most horrible place the eye of man ever rested upon, where day after day, the miserable existence was being dragged out, intermixed with sickness, bodily suffering, want and pinching hunger…”

It would have been a fallacy to think that Fort Jefferson was “healthy”  in any sense of the word.  Scurvy, malnutrition, diarrhea, and diseases like yellow fever ran rampant.  The sick were oftentimes quarantined and only aided by a handful of doctors and nurses.  No one enjoyed life on Fort Jefferson.  Especially not Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, or Michael O’Laughlen.

Soldiers in quarantine on Fort Jefferson 1899

References:
Richmond Whig, 8/4/1865
Memoirs of the Lincoln Conspirators by Michael Kauffman
Fort Jefferson Historical Structures Report

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Conspirator Canes

Prison life at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas was a miserable affair.  From the food, to the weather, to the living conditions, it’s hard to imagine that anyone stationed there, guard or prisoner, found the now tropical paradise hospitable.  All those that sailed to the island fort became prisoners.  It appears that when the lives of the inhabitants were not in danger from disease or malnutrition, extreme boredom prevailed. The Lincoln assassination conspirators Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen fought against this boredom.  The assigned duties given to the men helped in some ways.  Dr. Mudd, while a trained surgeon who would be a nurse in the hospital and an emergency replacement during the Yellow Fever epidemic, spent a considerable amount of time with Edman Spangler in the carpentry shop on the island.  Through three and a half years, he honed his carpentry skills and created several beautiful items that are currently on display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum in Waldorf, MD.  One set of items that Dr. Mudd became effective at creating were canes.

In addition to these two canes on display at the Mudd house, the good Dr. also created a cane for his cousin Henry A. Clarke.  When Dr. Mudd was struggling to find an attorney willing to take his case during the conspiracy trial, he reached out to his cousin Henry Clarke who owned a Washington coal company.  On May 10th, Col. Henry Burnett sent a letter to Clarke asking if he would be Mudd’s counsel.  Clarke responded back truthfully that he was not an attorney but would be happy to help Dr. Mudd in securing counsel.  By the time Clarke had responded, Dr. Mudd had already secured Thomas Ewing and Frederick Stone for his defense.

The cane Dr. Mudd made for Henry Clarke made its way to Antiques Roadshow a few years ago, and the appraisal for it can be watched here.

Dr. Mudd was not the only conspirator to make canes for family and friends.  His own mentor in the carpentry world, Edman Spangler, also created canes from the wood at Fort Jefferson:

The canes, cribbage boards, shell decorated boxes, and other feats of craftsmanship were all therapeutic ways for Dr. Mudd to feel productive.  Had it not been for these minor, but important, outlets of purposefulness, the Lincoln assassination conspirators could easily have  succumbed to insanity.

References:
The Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Research site by Robert Summers
The Evidence by Steers and Edwards
Genealogybank.com

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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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The Escape Attempt of Dr. Mudd

This engraving from Harper’s Weekly shows a fanciful depiction of Dr. Mudd’s real life escape attempt from Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas.

When the sentences came in for the Lincoln assassination conspirators, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Edman Spangler, and Dr. Samuel Mudd all received imprisonment. Arnold and O’Laughlen were given life sentences for their involvement in plotting the kidnapping of the late President with John Wilkes Booth. Though the kidnapping never occurred, the law of conspiracy made them accountable for when the plot turned to assassination. Ned Spangler received a comparatively light sentence of 6 years for essentially being an acquaintance of Booth’s and helping to hold his horse. Dr. Mudd was also given a life sentence for aiding Booth during his escape by fixing his leg and for lying to investigators about his previous relationship with him. The four were shipped to Fort Jefferson, an isolated fort located on the Dry Tortugas islands off the coast of Florida, to carry out their terms.

Fort Jefferson CDV

The conspirators were not prepared for prison life at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas. The living conditions were harsh. Disease ran rampant with scurvy, dysentery, bone fever, diarrhea and other chronic problems being common among the inmates and guards. While Dr. Mudd and the other conspirators were treated as equally as the other prisoners upon their initial arrival, the pitiable conditions and rotting food was too much for the Maryland doctor. The real straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the upcoming change of personnel on the Fort. From the conspirators’ arrival in July until near the end of September, they were commanded over by the 110th and the 161st N. Y. Volunteers. Come September, the 161st N. Y. was being relieved by the 82nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Dr. Mudd was a former slave owner and held racial views that were a product of that. Further, as a conspirator in the Great Emancipator’s death, Dr. Mudd also feared retribution or mistreatment by the incoming soldiers. These factors, along with his being away from his family and the amenities of home, drove Dr. Mudd to orchestrate his escape from the his island prison.

In the brief two months the conspirators had been there, “thirty or forty” other prisoners successfully escaped according to Dr. Mudd’s writings. Most found freedom by hiding themselves on the steamer ships that brought supplies to the island. One steamer known to Mudd, the Thomas A. Scott, had previously visited the island and left with eight prisoners secreted upon it. To Mudd, this ship seemed to be the best method of escape.

The good doctor was clever to avoid any suspicion prior to engaging his plans. He did not tell anyone, not even his fellow conspirators, of his idea. Moreover, knowing that all of his mail was read by his captors before being transmitted, Dr. Mudd openly denounced the idea of escaping in a letter he sent to his wife just a couple weeks before he made the attempt:

“I have had several opportunities to make my escape, but knowing, or believing, it would show guilt, I have resolved to remain peaceable and quiet, and allow the Government the full exercise of its power, justice and clemency. Should I take French leave, it would amount to expatriation, which I don’t feel disposed to do at present.”

In preparation, Dr. Mudd made friends with a crew member on the Thomas A. Scott, Henry Kelly. Kelly was a young man of about 18 and, with the assumed promise of payment for his assistance, he agreed to help hide and care for Dr. Mudd during his escape. With an inside man aboard, Dr. Mudd’s plan was set.

Since Fort Jefferson was such an isolated prison, the inmates were granted greater liberties of freedom than would be found at other penitentiaries. When not tending to their assigned duties (at that time Mudd was a nurse in the prison hospital), the prisoners were allowed almost complete access to the island. They were expected to sleep within the walls of the fort, but they did not have a “bed check” as prisoners today would have. The only time considerable attention was given to prisoners exiting the fort, was on days when a ship was departing the island. On those days it was forbidden to leave the grounds of the fort until the ship had left.

Therefore, on the day before the Thos. A. Scott’s arrival, Dr. Mudd freely left the confines of the fort in the evening and slept outside of it, in a shed. The next morning, September 25th, he changed his clothing from prisoner garb into one of the suits he had brought with him. He then took advantage of the hustle and bustle of the crew removing supplies from the Scott and slipped his way down into the lower hold of the ship near the coal bunkers. Here he hid himself, under a platform between two cross beams.

Unfortunately for Dr. Mudd, he was too well known to the officers of the prison. Had he been a lowly thief or murderer, he may not have been recognized by the military storekeeper of the fort, a Mr. Jackson, who was overseeing the removal of supplies. As a Lincoln conspirator though, Mudd lacked the anonymity of a common criminal. Mr. Jackson immediately reported to the post commander that Dr. Mudd, “had gone below and had not come up again.”

A short search was then conducted aboard the Scott. While Dr. Mudd’s own accounts lack the details of his discovery, several newspaper articles reported that he was found after an officer was, “running his saber under an old box in the coal bunker” when “the cold steel coming into contact with the latter end of Dr. Mudd, made him cry out and come out.”

Dr. Mudd was immediately re-arrested and interrogated. A quick search was made on the Fort to locate O’Laughlen, Arnold and Spangler, but all three were found inside the walls and ignorant of Dr. Mudd’s actions. Upon the threat of being shot, Dr. Mudd informed on his would be confederate, Henry Kelly. Kelly was arrested and imprisoned as the Thomas A. Scott departed the island. According to Dr. Mudd, “they were so much rejoiced at finding me, they did not care to look much farther; the consequence was, the boat went off and carried away four other prisoners, who no doubt will make good their escape.”

In his own words, Dr. Mudd explained the punishments he faced for his actions: “For attempting to make my escape, I was put in the guard-house, with chains on hands and feet, and closely confined for two days. An order then came from the Major for me to be put to hard labor, wheeling sand. I was placed under a boss, who put me to cleaning old bricks. I worked hard all day, and came very near finishing one brick. The order also directs the Provost Marshal to have me closely confined on the arrival of every steamer and until she departs.”

Dr. Mudd wrote a letter to the commanding officer of the fort apologizing for his attempt to escape. While in this note he stated that, “before I was detected I had made up my mind to return if I could do so without being observed by the guards,” it is more likely that he was angry at failing in his attempt. In an October 18th letter to his wife, Dr. Mudd expressed his true feelings on the matter: “Do not view my act with dishonor. I am a prisoner under guard, not under a parole, and under no obligations to remain if I can successfully evade and free myself.”

One item that Dr. Mudd did seem to feel guilty about was his betrayal of Henry Kelly. In his note to the commander he took full responsibility for the attempt and stated that, while Kelly had promised to help him escape, he actually took no part in it. This did not seem to help Kelly’s case as he was being held just like Dr. Mudd until the commander figured out what to do with him. As a civilian, Kelly could have been transferred to the authorities in nearby Key West, or, as some newspapers reported, he could be forced to endure imprisonment right there in Fort Jefferson. While the commander of the Fort was waiting on instructions for Henry Kelly, he was briefly imprisoned with Mudd in the guardhouse. During that time, Kelly forgave Mudd for informing on him, and stated that the commander was “a fool to think they could hold him upon this island.” How true this would prove to be. Five days after Mudd’s escape attempt, Kelly was imprisoned in “the dungeon” with a thief named Smith. Though both were clad in wrist and ankle chains, the pair managed an exciting escape. Somehow Kelly and Smith freed themselves from their chains and broke out of the iron grated window in their cell. They then lowered themselves down by using the same chains. From there they robbed the civilian merchant on the island of $50, some clothing, and enough canned fruits and meats to last their journey. With supplies in tow, they stole a boat and made their escape onto the water. Dr. Mudd reflected, “The authorities are no doubt much disappointed and chagrined at this unexpected occurrence. I feel much relieved.”

While other prisoners would continue to make their escape from Fort Jefferson, Dr. Mudd never attempted to do so again. On October 18th, Dr. Mudd and the other Lincoln conspirators found themselves placed into “the dungeon” that Kelly had escaped from. The military had picked up on a rumor that a plot was being formed to free the conspirators. While the rumor had no substance, it still led to the men being confined to the most secure part of the fort. The living conditions for the men worsened considerably there, and they were not relieved of the squalor until the end of January, 1866. After that experience, it appears Dr. Mudd accepted the impossibility of his successful escape. While he still longed for home, he would not risk the punishment for another failed attempt. Moreover, he accepted his connection to the three other men that were imprisoned with him. Though they were strangers to him prior to the trial, they now shared the same fate, good or bad. For his own sake, and for theirs, Dr. Mudd would never try to escape again.

References:
The Assassin’s Doctor by Robert K. Summers
Mr. Summers’ book is the book on Dr. Mudd.  He also runs the best website on Dr. Mudd.  His book was the prime source for information on the doctor’s escape.
Mudd, N. (1906). The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Washington: Neale Publishing Company.
(1865, October 9). Details of Dr. Mudd’s Attempted Escape. New York Herald-Tribune.
(1865, October 12). Attempted Escape of Dr. Mudd. Providence Evening Press.
More thanks go to Robert K. Summers. In addition to his wonderful book and unparalleled Mudd website, Mr. Summers visited the National Archives on the author’s behalf looking for more information about Mudd’s escape.

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