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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.


Memorial Day…An Activity for House Guests

Memorial Day…An Activity for House Guests

I live near Richmond, Virginia and when folks come to visit I always suggest they visit Hollywood Cemetery. I often get the following reaction, “Ugh! Why would I want to spend time visiting a depressing cemetery?!”

Well here’s why…you dolt!

I have been to many “famous” cemeteries and none of them hold a candle to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. First of all it has a breathtaking location right on the James River filled with gorgeous trees, landscaping, and architecture. Many of the monuments and headstones are works of art, including a cast iron Newfoundland Dog that guards the grave of his little girl who died 150 years ago. There are numerous tours, ghost walks, and other guided activities. If nothing else, it’s a lovely walk and good exercise.

Then, there’s the history. Stay with me here.

Hollywood Cemetery is the final resting place of two presidents. Three, if you count Jefferson Davis. It’s also called the “Arlington of the South” because many of the confederate dead are buried here. A huge stone pyramid was erected in their honor. According to Time and Date, Hollywood Cemetery was a big part of the impetus for what we now celebrate as Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day started as an event to honor Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. It was inspired by the way people in the Southern states honored their dead. After World War I, it was extended to include all men and women who died in any war or military action.”

With controversy raging in the southern states about statues of confederate leaders, it’s the ideal time to understand how Hollywood Cemetery provides a profound lesson in war and its aftermath. That lesson is written on the tombstones of the men who gave their lives to the losing side. The epitaphs struggle to justify and make sense of such sacrifice and it hits you right in the gut when you read them. I get the same feeling when I visit the Vietnam War Memorial in DC.

I don’t think we should glorify the Confederacy, or any government that promoted or condoned the marginalization of human beings, but to bury the Confederacy along with its dead is a mistake. Hollywood Cemetery shows, in a visceral and poignant way, the pain left behind when anyone dies fighting a war, regardless of their uniform. Hollywood Cemetery is the epicenter of that concept and, in the broad scheme of things, every bit as important as Arlington in our Nation’s story. Just an aside…Arlington was built on the site of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s former home.

So this Memorial Day as you grill hot dogs and hamburgers, I hope you’ll take just a moment to remember that it all started with tributes to the losers of the American Civil War. While you’re at it, explain that irony to your guests, kids, and the grandkids. Maybe even take them to a cemetery where war dead are buried.

Thank you for visiting.


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