Q. A History Channel program on the Lincoln assassination mentioned a Dr. Samuel Mudd, who spent some time behind bars for his part in the conspiracy. Is that where the expression “his name is mud” comes from?
— H.G., of Belleville
A. I’m afraid your name also will be mud if you pass on this bit of popular nonsense to your friends as truth.
The name of the doctor has nothing to do with the popular expression that has become an earthy way of saying a person’s reputation has become discredited. As a matter of fact, by the time Mudd was released from prison, many were revering him rather than dragging his name through the dirt. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It’s not hard to see how this urban legend might have arisen. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and then broke his leg during his escape attempt. Some say his spur snagged on a flag when he leapt from the president’s box to the stage at Ford’s Theatre. Other eyewitnesses said his escape from the theater was too fast for a man who had broken his left fibula. Instead, at least one historian says Booth’s horse tripped and fell on him sometime as he fled into the night.
Whatever the real story, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold wound up at Mudd’s house in southern Maryland at about 4 in the morning. There, Mudd cut off Booth’s boot, reduced the fracture and splinted the leg. During the next 12 or so hours that Booth stayed with him, Mudd also arranged for a carpenter to make Booth a pair of crutches and gave him new footwear. For this house-call-in-reverse, Booth reportedly paid Mudd $25 in greenbacks. (That’s $367 in today’s money by one calculation.)
The crucial question, of course, is: What did Mudd know and when did he know it? According to George Atzerodt, another co-conspirator, Mudd knew of Booth’s plan well in advance of the shooting. In a statement given while he was in federal custody on May 1, Atzerodt testified, “I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors and provisions for the trip ... about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd’s.”
Yet even if Mudd didn’t know about the assassination when Booth arrived, many historians said he would have found out the next day when he ran errands in Bryantown. Still, Mudd told nobody until Easter Sunday, when he finally asked his second cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify the 13th New York Cavalry, which was stationed in Bryantown. By that time, Booth was on the lam again, which is why Mudd was arrested on April 26 and charged with conspiracy.
Wasting little time, President Andrew Johnson quickly formed a nine-man military commission for a trial of the cabal that started exactly two weeks later. The prosecution offered witnesses who said Mudd had shot one of his slaves in the leg and threatened to send others to Richmond, Va., to assist in the construction of Confederate defenses. It also argued that Mudd had been a member of a Confederate communications distribution agency and had sheltered Confederate soldiers on his plantation long before Booth rode in.
In Mudd’s defense, Rep. Frederick Stone, D.-Md., and Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. presented Mudd as a loyal citizen and Union stalwart, describing him as “a deeply religious man, devoted to family and a kind master to his slaves,” according to “Dr. Mudd and the Colored Witnesses” by Edward Steers. It did little to convince the jury. On June 29, Mudd was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He had missed hanging with four of the other conspirators on July 7 by a 5-4 vote to spare him.
Days later, Mudd arrived at Fort Jefferson, which is about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla. The fort housed Union Army deserters and held about 600 prisoners when Mudd and the other three co-conspirators who had been spared arrived. He was placed in an open-air gun room directly above the sally port, the fort’s main entrance. Fearing the coming change in control at the fort to the 82nd U.S. Colored Infantry, the former slaveholder tried to escape in September and was recaptured.
Two years later, Mudd began to rehabilitate his soiled name. When yellow fever broke out and the prison’s doctor died, Mudd agreed to take over the medical duties. He became such a Florence Nightingale that by October 1867, the fort’s soldiers wrote to President Johnson, “(Mudd) inspired the hopeless with courage and by his constant presence in the midst of danger and infection. (Many) doubtless owe their lives to the care and treatment they received at his hands.”
Thanks to notes like these and the work of Ewing, an influential presence in the Johnson administration, Mudd was pardoned on Feb. 8, 1869. He was released a month later to return to his Maryland home, where he fathered his ninth child in 1878 before dying of pneumonia in 1883 at age 49. He was buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bryantown — the same church in which he reportedly had once met with John Wilkes Booth.
A century later, Dr. Richard Mudd, Samuel’s grandson, tried to get the rest of the stain cleaned from his grandfather’s name, but died in 2002 without success. President Jimmy Carter wrote him that he had no authority to set aside the conviction and Ronald Reagan said that while he was convinced Mudd was innocent, there was nothing he could do, either. Congressional bills and other legal maneuvers died as well.
So it’s little wonder that people might still connect the common “his name is mud” expression with the doctor. Even in the 2007 film “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” actor Nicolas Cage as the lead character, Ben Gates, promotes this misconception. But as it turns out, the phrase already was in print in 1823 — a decade before Samuel Mudd even was born — as people continued to expand on the literal meaning of mud as a mix of water and earthy matter.
As early as the 1500s, the word was used to describe things that were worthless or polluting. By 1703, “Hell Upon Earth,” an account of London’s lowlife, defined mud as “a fool or thick-skulled fellow.” Hence, in 1823, John Badcock in “Slang — A Dictionary of the Turf” wrote: “Mud — a stupid, twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration.” Similarly, to “throw mud” (make questionable accusations) dates to 1762 while mud became a synonym for opium as early as 1922 and for coffee in 1925.
So, here’s mud in your eye.
Anyone familiar with English literature likely has heard of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. But who was their only brother — and how was he named?
Answer to Thursday’s trivia: Actor Herschel Bernardi stole the spotlight on Broadway, starred in several notable movies (“Irma La Douce,” etc.) and earned an Emmy nomination as Lt. Jacoby on the TV series “Peter Gunn.” But until he died of a heart attack in his sleep in 1986, he also was the original voice of StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant. He also is remembered for asking the rhetorical question, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? The world may never know.”
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.