Dr. Mudd and the "Colored" Witnesses

By Steers, Edward, Jr. | Civil War History, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Dr. Mudd and the "Colored" Witnesses


Steers, Edward, Jr., Civil War History


THE MILITARY TRIAL of the eight defendants charged with the murder of Abraham Lincoln lasted for seven weeks from May 10 to June 30, 1865. It resulted in guilty verdicts for all eight defendants. Four were sentenced to hang, three to life in prison, and one to six years in prison. Among those sentenced to life in prison was Samuel Alexander Mudd, the physician from southern Maryland who had harbored John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold immediately after Lincoln was shot. Mudd was convicted of conspiring with Booth to murder Abraham Lincoln and of aiding and abetting Booth's escape. In establishing its case against Mudd, the government argued that he was a Confederate sympathizer who actively aided the Confederate cause from 1861 through 1865. An important part of the government's case against Mudd came from the testimony of several black witnesses who were former slaves of the Mudd family.

While the testimony of the Mudd slaves played a key role in convicting Mudd, it soon faded from subsequent accounts of the trial and plays no part in our current image of the physician. Mudd survived the harsh judgment of his conviction and imprisonment to become a cause celebre and an American folk hero. Viewed today as an innocent victim of injustice, he has come to be seen as a simple country doctor caught in the hysteria of the time, who suffered for no other reason than following his Hippocratic oath in rendering medical aid to a needy stranger. A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives, a civil suit is before the Federal Court for the District of Columbia, and a request sits on President Clinton's desk, all seeking to set aside the findings of the military court that convicted Mudd and expunge the record of his trial. In addition, a proposal calling for a commemorative stamp honoring Dr. Mudd is before the Postmaster General's Citizen Advisory Committee.

In contrast to these efforts in support of Dr. Mudd, the testimony of his former slaves paints a far different picture of the Charles County, Maryland, physician than the public has come to accept. They presented the dark side of the slave-owning owning aristocracy of the era, and the deep Confederate sympathies of the region. The Mudd family was one of the largest slave-owning families in Charles County, owning eighty-nine slaves at the outbreak of the war.(1) As with many aspects of African American history, the story told by some of these slaves became submerged and all but forgotten in the dramatic events surrounding Lincoln's murder. Several major works devoted to Mudd and the assassination of Lincoln mention the testimony of these black witnesses without critique, dismiss it as embroidered, cover it in a single sentence, or completely ignore it.(2) This is unfortunate because the observations of these witnesses offer insight into the people and events of the time.

As with all witnesses, their testimony should be subjected to rigorous analysis and, where possible, corroboration sought before accepting or rejecting the witnesses claims. Such corroboration has recently been found among the records of the provost marshal of the District of Columbia and is presented here for the first time.

During the trial the prosecution and defense attorneys called three hundred sixty-six witnesses. Among these were twenty-nine black individuals who had been slaves. Of these twenty-nine witnesses, nineteen gave testimony relevant to the case of Mudd. Of this group, eleven testified for the prosecution and eight for the defense. Five of the eleven prosecution witnesses had been slaves once owned by Mudd. Only one of the former slaves used by the defense had been owned by the doctor, and two had worked for him only after their emancipation. The testimony of these nineteen black witnesses assessed Mudd's disloyalty and his behavior as a slave owner.

Prosecution and defense attorneys stressed strikingly different characteristics of the defendant. …

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