At 4 o'clock on a cloudy April morning two horsemen clattered up to the country home of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd in Charles County, Md., 30 mi. southeast of Washington. One's face was tight with pain and his left leg, booted and spurred, hung limp from the stirrup. The other, a chinless, watery-eyed youth, helped his companion dismount, hobble into the house. Dr. Mudd received them in his nightshirt. A kindly, cultured young physician, he was already well established in his country practice, well-liked and well-to-do. He set the hurt man's broken leg, put him to bed. At 2 o'clock that afternoon, despite the physician's protests, the strangers rode away. Short time later Dr. Mudd heard the awful news of President Lincoln's assassination. . . .
In 1846 the U. S. launched its victorious, land-grabbing war with Mexico. Feeling its imperial oats, the young nation decided to build a magnificent fortress, a Gibraltar of America. Chosen as a good site was a desolate coral reef 65 mi. off Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The reef, named Dry Tortugas by Ponce de Leon because it swarmed with turtles, consisted of ten keys-strung ten miles east & west. With tremendous enthusiasm and at tremendous cost the Government began to transport plaster, mortar, bricks from the North. Slowly on 25-acre Garden Key rose Fort Jeffersonbarracks for six companies, 18 sets of officers' quarters, a hospital, a chapelall surrounded by a huge wall jutting with bastions. It was a sight to swell every U. S. heart. But as time passed its Army builders began to ask: What use was the fortress? Finding no answer, they quietly left the great pile unmanned and unarmed, went about other business.
When the Civil War came, Congress spent $500.000 to garrison Fort Jefferson with 500 troops, more than 100 guns. For four years it stood stanch against the chance that the Confederacy might somehow build a strong navy or conclude an alliance with a potent naval power. Meantime time it served as a Federal penitentiary. At one time its shark-filled moat encircled more than 1,000 prisoners. In July 1865 it received, with a sentence of life imprisonment, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd of Maryland.
Twice the year before had Dr. Mudd talked briefly with John Wilkes Booth. But on the early morning of April 15, 1865 the actor-assassin, fresh from the Presidential box at Ford's Theatre, went to him in disguise under a false name, played his part so well that the country doctor never suspected his identity. Not until he heard the circumstances of Lincoln's death did Dr. Mudd grow suspicious, notify the authorities. For this service he was arrested as a conspirator. The whole land cried for quick, blind revenge. Booth might or might not have burned in the barn below Fredericksburg, Va. but Dr. Mudd and seven other persons accused of aiding the assassin were in jail. Hauled before Secretary of War Stanton's Military Commission, the eight were summarily dividedfour for Death, three for life imprisonment, one for six years.