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The Most Infamous House Guest in U.S. History

The Most Infamous House Guest in U.S. History

Several times a year my family and I drive past an historical marker on Route 301 in Maryland indicating the turnoff to “The Dr. Samuel Mudd House.” Each time I suggest we stop and each time I am met with a tortured chorus of “NOOOOO!” Last Saturday I was driving the route by myself with no spouse, child, dog, or cat and decided this was my chance.

For those of you asking “Dr. Who?” I begin with a short history lesson. Samuel Mudd was a country doctor in Maryland in April of 1865 when two men stopped at his house in the middle of the night asking treatment for one of the men who had broken his leg. No one disputes the story this far.

The house is five miles off of Route 301 and sits by itself on pristine farm land. A pretty young woman in period dress greeted me. This woman was not just dressed in the fashion of 1865; she looked like she belonged to 1865. At any moment I expected to see her face in one of the sepia-tinted Civil War era portraits hanging on the walls….cue the spooky music.

The house is very much the same as it was on that fateful morning when John Wilkes Booth arrived seeking medical attention. That’s because the house, and its substantial acreage, remained in the Mudd family until a nonprofit organization was formed to take control of it in 1980. While there have been some updates—such as indoor plumbing, central air, and heat—much is original to the house as it was built in 1857.

The tour started with a recounting of how Dr. Samuel Mudd, who lived with his wife and four small children, was awakened before dawn by someone pounding on the front door. On his front porch was a man asking help for his traveling companion who had broken his leg. Dr. Mudd allowed them in and did a cursory physical exam on the living room sofa. That sofa is still there in the same spot.

The two men carried Booth upstairs to a room and laid him on a bed. Dr. Mudd cut the boot off the swollen leg and proceeded to set the bone. Once that was done Dr. Mudd left the patient to rest and heal. When daylight came, Dr. Mudd and Booth’s companion headed into town. Not sure why. When Booth’s companion saw union troops nosing around town, he turned around and went BACK to the farmhouse. Dr. Mudd proceeded into town and discovered that Abraham Lincoln had been shot and John Wilkes Booth was almost definitely the culprit. Here’s the weird part. Instead of alerting the solders to the killer in his guest room, or hot footing it back to his house and family, Dr. Mudd hung out in town for almost 12 hours!

Eventually the dragnet for Booth spread to the Mudd House. Booth was long gone, but his discarded boot was found. They knew it was his boot because his name was written inside it. Despite his protestations of innocence and claiming he was merely helping an unknown traveler, Dr. Mudd was arrested and his wife and children put under house arrest. Dr. Mudd was tried with the rest of the conspirators and sentenced to life in prison on a penal island off Florida.

For more than a hundred years the Mudd family tried to clear his name. But guess what? While Dr. Mudd was not in on the assassination attempt, he did know Booth and was privy to an earlier Lincoln kidnapping plot. That’s the reason he let those guys into his house in the middle of the night. As the docent put it, “John Wilkes Booth was the matinee idol of his time. It would be like George Clooney stopping at your house. You’d probably recognize him.” My apologies to George Clooney. Dr. Mudd spent the next few years in prison making beautiful handicrafts (many of which are in the house) until he volunteered to help with a Yellow Fever epidemic and was pardoned for his efforts.

In the meantime, Mrs. Mudd ran the farm and apparently did a damn fine job of it. When Dr. Mudd was pardoned he came back to the house, fathered five more children, and spent the remainder of his life the way he started his career in the first place, as a country doctor.

There were a lot of fascinating details about domestic life during the Civil War. I learned the origins of sayings like: “Sleep tight,” “Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” and “Hitting the hay.” I also learned the finer points about the use of chamber pots. It’s a little different than you might think.

But in the midst of all the recent confederate statue debate, here’s what I really appreciated about this experience. It was based on the facts, there was no sugar-coating what happened, and it was interesting as hell! The docents didn’t defend Mudd or try to explain his thought process. They simply told a compelling and true story based on solid research that has an important place in our Nation’s history. I asked if they’d gotten any negative feedback since the Charlottesville Riot. The Made-for-a-Stephen-King-Novel-tour-guide said there had been none. She suspects they are under the radar. That may be part of it….how many of you asked, “Who is Dr. Mudd?” I would like to think they’re not getting any negative feedback because they respect history and the telling of it as honestly as possible.

On my way home Monday, I passed another sign that read, “The End of the Road for an Assassin.” This of course is where John Wilkes Booth was finally trapped and died. I didn’t stop here because, like most historical figures, I think Booth’s journey was much more interesting than his end.

Thank you for visiting.


A Hostess Who Doesn’t Like to Hug?!

A Hostess Who Doesn’t Like to Hug?!

I am apparently the only human being left in the United States of America who doesn’t like to press her body against complete strangers. You can add semi-strangers, most co-workers, and people I don’t like
to that list. This can make hosting and being hosted awkward at times.

Here’s the scenario. You’re introduced to someone in a social situation and offer your hand. Before you can say, “Get the hell away from me!” the person has pulled you into a bear hug with the oft heard phrase “I’M A HUGGER!” Well guess what? I’m NOT A HUGGER SO DON’T DO IT! I find someone I don’t know taking that kind of intimate physical liberty with me extremely off putting. But what’s a person to do? It all happens so fast. I suppose I could jump back and say, “Sorry, having a nasty flare up,” but not say what I’ve got. Then offer them a lovely snack I’ve made.

And what message does all this stranger hugging send to our kids? We spend every teachable moment telling them people they don’t know are horrible beasts who would kidnap them at the drop of a hat. Then parents demand their children hug and/or kiss perfect strangers on first reference. Words like “Aunt Beatrice” or “Uncle Chuck” don’t mean squat to a toddler. Just once I’d like to hear a little fellow say, “If you like that creepy old lady so much, YOU hug her!”

I have instituted a new tradition with my little friends. When the inevitable instruction to “Give Aunt Kiki a hug” comes, I explain to the parents that I’m against forced hugging. After I’ve gotten to know the little person—and if they’re not covered in some bodily fluid or God awful rash—I give them the choice of a handshake or a hug. I was extremely gratified last Thanksgiving when one of my favorite 5-year- old guests said he’d like both.

Now before you start calling me “cold” or “stand offish” (like my relatives do), I want you to know that I enjoy hugging as much as the next guy. But I consider it a physically intimate gesture best saved for loved ones. Is that really so bad?

Any way. I would seriously like to hear what my readers think and some suggestions from you experienced hosts and hostesses.

Thank you for visiting.


The Barbeque and Other Social Conundrums

The Barbeque and Other Social Conundrums

I recently attended the birthday party of a neighbor held outside on their lawn. The set up was perfect; tables and chairs under a large tent that provided some much-needed shade. The meal was catered by a barbeque outfit, the kind that pulls right onto the venue with a big old cooker that looks like a huge black barrel on its side. They provided appetizers, main dishes, fixins’, and sides. Delicious! A gorgeous dessert table was set up just inside the kitchen of the 1790’s era home. I felt like I was on the set of Steel Magnolias.

The host and hostess were extremely gracious and managed to make each of the guests feel welcome and comfortable. This was quite a feat considering attendees ranged from close relatives and friends to church members to new neighbors. There was also a wide range of ages from about 18-months-old to over 80. Most of these folks were delightful and I’d like to think I’ve made some new friends. I also learned a lot about my new neighborhood. For instance, did you know there is an insurance designation called an “attractive nuisance?” This is something on your property, like…oh I don’t know…say an old mill on a stream that is no longer functional but adds to the beauty and ambiance of the neighborhood. Cool huh?

Whenever I go to an event like this, or any party or celebration, I am always left with the question, “What is the individual guest’s responsibility in terms of socializing?” Is it enough to simply show up, or is there an obligation to interact with other guests including those you don’t know?

I was trained up to be an active participant in social situations regardless of my reason for being there or my mood at the time. This includes making conversation with people and being an active listener. It was part of what a friend of mine calls “Home learning,” and is right up there with saying please and thank
you. I don’t care how old you are or why you attended, I think it’s actively impolite to sit around at a social function looking overtly bored or spending all your time communicating with people who aren’t there. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a sparkling conversationalist all the time. Lord knows I would fall waaaay short of that goal. I’m talking about really basic stuff like introducing yourself, putting a damn smile on your face, asking appropriate questions, and at least faking interest in the answers. Here are some examples:
“How do you know our hosts?”
“Are you from out of town or local?”
“This barbeque is really good. Are you a fan of the Virginia or North Carolina variety?”
“I see you’re wearing a UVA tie, my condolences.”
It’s not that difficult. Even if you’re shy or socially awkward you can at least try to look pleasant and approachable and teach your children to do the same.

But perhaps I’ve got it all wrong? Do we owe our hosts anything more than our presence? Do we have an obligation to instill some basic social skills in our children and make sure they get some practice before we release them into the wild? Thoughts?

Thank you for visiting.


Photo attribution:

Visiting the New Baby…Istiqbal

Visiting the New Baby…Istiqbal

When a child is born in Kuwai the extended family traditionally hosts a party called an Istiqbal. I must assume Istiqbals vary with income, health of child, and other factors. I can only speak definitively to those celebrations I attended.

Often an Istiqbal is held within two days of the baby’s birth in the hospital and it’s a BDD (Big Damn Deal). This is a catered event held in open-house style over a three to four hour time period. The mother is dressed up in a fancy peignoir (something Lana Turner, Doris Day, or Anette Funicello might wear in a movie) with full makeup and hair, tucked into a great big fancy hospital bed with a lacey coverlet. Servers pass fancy chocolates, finger sandwiches, and beverages among the dozens of guests wandering around the room, cooing at the baby, congratulating the extended family, and catching up with one another. The father and immediate family members form sort of a reception line to greet folks and receive congratulations. How is this achieved in a hospital room you may ask?

This particular hospital had maternity suites that resemble something you’d find at an MGM Grand, but bigger and fancier. If the family needs more room for an Istiqbal, or wants a more formal venue, this hospital has a grand hall which I wandered into by mistake when it was not in use. It’s a reception hall with the fancy bed at one end, chairs lining the walls, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors, and all other manner of ritzy stuff. I was relieved to hear the actual birth is still a private affair.

When this tradition was first described to me I was horrified. It sounded cruel to put a new mother through such a fuss shortly after giving birth. But the new moms I met explained that it’s actually really nice for a number of reasons. In most cases, everything is done for you by your family members or the hospital staff. All you have to do is lie in bed, look nice, and take compliments on your beautiful new baby. If you need to excuse yourself for the myriad reasons a new mom might, there is an adjoining room in which to do so. It is understood that well-wishers will visit the new baby only during the Istqbal and not at other times during the hospital stay or when mother and baby come home. This relieves the new mom of “pop in visits” and having to entertain multiple times over a period of weeks or months. Once I looked at it this way, it made more sense.

I was fortunate to attend two of these celebrations during my visit. One was at the hospital and one was at a private home. I must say, the hospital party seemed like a lot less work for the new mom and her family.

In general, the birth of a child in Kuwait seemed more like an occasion for multi-generational celebration and less like a medical procedure than it does in the States. I liked that. But I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with all those people pawing my newborn and giving me unsolicited advice. If there is unsolicited advice to be given, I refer to be the giver not the receiver. Also I would look ridiculous in a fluffy peignoir.

This is my last post about my trip to Kuwait and I thank my hosts and hostess, all three generations, from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you for taking the journey with me,


Photo credit

My Visit to Kuwait, from KFC to Covering

I am ashamed to say that before I visited Kuwait, I had some preconceived notions that seem incredibly ignorant to me now. Much of this naiveté stems from my previous notion that the “Middle East” was a fairly homogeneous place. I thought Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait were all pretty alike in terms of customs and culture. Turns out, much like the different countries of Europe and even regions of the United States, there are marked differences among the individual nations.

With this in mind, here are some of differences and similarities between Kuwait and the U.S. that struck me.


Kuwait City is overrun with fast food joints. McDonalds, KFC, and Wendy’s are ubiquitous. One of my grandson’s first words was “Starbucks.” There are also some obvious knock offs like “Slim Chickens,” the name of which I found hilarious! Can you imagine giving a fast food restaurant in the U.S. a name that implies anything other than humongous portions?

Shopping malls are extremely popular in Kuwait and look just like those in the U.S. with many of the same stores which include Ikea and Sears. Because of the intense heat, indoor malls remain extremely popular and my hosts ran into several acquaintances even on short excursions.

Private vehicles are the main mode of transportation.


Kuwait is a dry country. Alcohol is illegal much like street drugs are illegal in the U.S. This lowered our restaurant tabs and heightened my attention to the food. Kuwaitis are proud of their traditional cuisine and rightly so, it is delicious. Some clever entrepreneur should start a “Kuwaiti Fried KaBob” franchise in the U.S. I’d be first in line. In compliance with the dietary laws of Islam, pork is not served in Kuwait. While I like bacon and ham as much as the next guy, I didn’t miss it.

The malls, and other indoor areas I visited, are spotless. When you leave a table it is cleaned immediately. There is no trash on the floors and the rest rooms are immaculate.

All the bathrooms I used had toilet paper along with a squirter thingy attached to the wall next to the toilet. It looks and operates like the sprayer on a kitchen faucet. I trust that I do not have to explain its use. However, I will share that it’s hard not to flood your hosts’ bathroom floor while learning to use the apparatus. Luckily things dry quickly in Kuwait.

There are five calls to prayer every day with additional religious obligations during the observance of Ramadan. These calls are chanted by a single male voice over some sort of PA system that can be heard by everyone inside or outside. Much like living near a train track, after a while I got used to it as normal background noise.

Car seats for children are not regularly used in Kuwait. In fact, many consider holding an infant in your arms the only safe way to transport a baby. They view strapping a child into a seat beyond your reach and line of vision as tantamount to neglectful parenting. Kuwaitis often tut tut westerners who practice what they view as a counterintuitive and ill-advised safety precaution. It was hard not to gawk at the older kids running amok in cars; climbing over seats, wrestling with siblings, sitting on their parents’ laps, or wedged between a seat and a window.

Kuwait City has feral cats much like many American cities have squirrels, and they are treated in much the same way. Some people consider it a kindness to feed and water them, while others view them as a filthy nuisance. I’m told that nonprofit efforts to address the feral cat population with shelters or catch- and-release programs have been unsuccessful.

Now for the elephant in the electronic room…covering. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not an expert on Islam so I will not attempt to explain the religious, political, or historical ramifications of covering. But here’s what I learned as a visitor. Many people assume that all women are required to cover themselves to some extent anywhere in the Middle East. While I cannot speak to other countries, this is NOT true in Kuwait. I am told that to some extent, covering by female Muslims is a choice that depends on a number of factors including family traditions. It is not expected of visitors or women who are not Muslim. Those who cover do so in all public places and at private events where men who are not first-degree family will be in attendance.

There are degrees of covering which traditionally begins with puberty but can be adopted at any time. Many women cover their hair only. There are also a large number of women who cover their hair and street clothing. These garments are as varied in style as any genre of clothing. There are women who cover everything but their eyes. Then there are women who cover completely, from head to toe, mainly in black fabric, with varying degrees of ornamentation. This includes their faces, hands, and shoes. I saw complete covering only a handful of times during my visit.

I attended an all-female party in Kuwait, what we would call a baby shower except the baby had already arrived. When a male member of the hostess’s family arrived unexpectedly at the front door, he was shoed to another entrance so as not to embarrass those ladies who cover. It was at that point I realized I would not recognize many of the women at this party if I encountered them in public.

In general, all adult females, regardless of religion, dress more modestly in Kuwait than they do in the States. While you see women in yoga pants and tight jeans, you don’t see bare legs and tummies, tight tops, or cleavage.

Thank you for visiting.


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