Although Dr. Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, a Gulf of Mexico fortress 68 miles west of Key West, scores of his descendants are still trying to prove his innocence.
That’s why 80 of them descended on the fort recently — on the 150th anniversary of Dr. Mudd’s July 24, 1865, arrival at the isolated outpost.
Wearing colorful key-lime-green “Free Dr. Mudd” T-shirts, they toured Fort Jefferson, a former Union military prison in remote Dry Tortugas National Park, and even viewed one of the cells where Samuel Mudd spent four years.
“We are still in irons,” Dr. Mudd wrote in December 1865, “compelled to wash down six bastions of the Fort daily. However, we are allowed to purchase articles of food, etc.”
Dr. Mudd was convicted and imprisoned after treating the broken leg of Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth. But his great-grandson Tom Mudd, who spearheaded the family journey to Fort Jefferson, believes the doctor was unaware of Booth’s crime when he splinted his leg.
“History is not cut in stone,” said Tom Mudd during the visit to the iconic fort. “History is flexible, it’s pliable — and we sincerely believe that Dr. Samuel Mudd was innocent. That’s why we’re here today.”
The Mudd family arrived at the Tortugas by excursion ferry, as do many visitors to the pristine national park. After vast vistas of blue water, they saw the Dry Tortugas appear low against the horizon.
The seven undeveloped islands were named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) by explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. They soon became known as “Dry Tortugas” because they had no fresh water.
The massive 19th-century Fort Jefferson stands on Garden Key, an island hardly larger than its exterior walls — and entering it is like stepping 150 years back in time.
The fort’s construction was begun after American leaders realized that fortifying the Tortugas was essential to control navigation in the Gulf of Mexico. But just a few years after serving as a Civil War-era Union prison, it was abandoned by the Army.
In 1908, the area was designated a wildlife refuge. Named Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, it was proclaimed Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992 to protect its environmental richness.
Samuel Mudd left Fort Jefferson, called the Gibraltar of the Gulf and believed to be one of the largest masonry structures in the Western Hemisphere, after being granted a pardon in 1869 — primarily because of the medical work he did in stemming the spread of a yellow fever outbreak at the fort. But his conviction was never overturned.
Tom Mudd, his father Richard Mudd and other family members have spent nearly 100 years trying to clear their ancestor’s name without success.
“The real champion of the Mudd family was my father, Dr. Richard D. Mudd,” said Tom Mudd. “Dad was 102 years old when he said, ‘Tom, we’re never going to win this judicially, but in the court of public opinion, we can keep trying — and as long as there is a Mudd alive, we’re going to continue.’”