Orestes A. Brownson, a Catholic convert, was the greatest Catholic writer of mid-Nineteenth Century America. He published Brownson’s Quarterly Journal, an influential and popular magazine which examined the political, cultural and literary scene of the America of its time. One hundred and fifty years ago one of his subscribers sat down and wrote him a letter. Dr. Samuel Mudd was an unknown figure at the time, but just over three years hence all of America would know his name as the physician who treated the assassin John Wilkes Booth after he had slain President Lincoln. Mudd was arrested in the aftermath of the assassination. Mudd claimed to be completely innocent. However, at his trial evidence was presented that established that Mudd had contacts with Booth in late 1864. What they talked about is lost to history. Evidence by Mudd’s former slaves helped establish that Mudd had been part of the conspiracy. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, escaping the death penalty by a single vote.
Mudd was held for four years at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1867 the prison doctor died and Mudd volunteered to take his place. His efforts helped stem the outbreak and the soldiers at the fort wrote a petition to President Johnson asking for clemency for Mudd: He 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. Due to this, and the ceaseless efforts of his defense attorney Thomas W. Ewing, Jr. who was influential with the Johnson administration, on February 8, 1869 Johnson pardoned Mudd. Since Mudd’s release there have been continuing efforts to clear his name. In 1992 my former Congressman, Republican Thomas Ewing, co-sponsored with Steny Hoyer, Democrat Maryland, House bill 1885 to overturn the conviction of Mudd. The bill failed in committee.