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  • Ken Perrotte

'Leaveth All Hopes Behind' - Visiting Florida's Remote Fort Jefferson and the Story of Dr. Mudd

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

"Fort Jefferson from the air" aerial photo by NPS
"Fort Jefferson from the air" by NPS

Dry Tortugas, Fla – “Whoso Entereth Here Leaveth All Hopes Behind.” Although the warning over the gates at Florida’s Fort Jefferson in 1865 was gleaned from Milton’s Paradise Lost, the isolated Civil War prison’s most famous -- or infamous -- inmate, Dr. Samuel Mudd, never abandoned hope that he would someday escape or receive reprieve from his fate. Mudd was sentenced to life at hard labor as a co-conspirator in the April 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Dr Mudd portrait
Dr. Mudd

Assassin John Wilkes Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage at Ford’s Theater after firing the fatal shot. Traveling with accomplice David Herold, Booth went to Mudd’s Charles County, Maryland, home where the physician set the broken leg, fed the men and provided them nearly 12 hours of rest. Although multiple pieces of evidence showed that Mudd had met Booth on at least three occasions, sharing drinks with him, the physician claimed to not recognize Booth when he administered aid.

The military court trying the case found him guilty in the conspiracy. Mudd narrowly escaped the noose that swung Herold, Mary Surratt and two others. He was sentenced to life at hard labor under the blistering tropical sun of the Dry Tortugas, a small cluster of seven sand and coral islands 68 miles from Key West.

Three co-conspirators were also sentenced to Fort Jefferson. Michael O’Laughlin, who had the failed assignment to kill Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was also sentenced to life at hard labor. Samuel B. Arnold admitted to planning to kidnap Lincoln, but said he knew nothing of a plot to kill him. Arnold was sentenced to life. Edman Spangler, a carpenter and scene shifter at Ford’s Theater, was convicted of helping Booth gain access to Lincoln’s box at the theater, inhibiting potential aid to the mortally wounded president and helping Booth get away. He received six years at hard labor.

Fort Jefferson entrance

Remote Fort Jefferson Wasn't Built as a Prison

Fort Jefferson, their place of incarceration, wasn’t always a prison. It was only designated one in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. A place where the Union sent soldiers convicted of desertion and a host of other offenses, it was the American counterpart to Devil’s Island.

Originally conceived as a strategic control point for the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean, Fort Jefferson represented a monumental effort for the United States. Its strategic value had been known to pirates, such as Jean Lafitte, for centuries prior. To city dweller recruits and northern farm boys serving in the Union military, Fort Jefferson likely represented the gates of hell as much as it did for prisoners. There was no escaping your work mates and recreation opportunities were limited. Soldiers collected and made things out of moss, shells, and other raw materials. They put on plays, charging admission, with the proceeds used to buy fresh limes and lime juice in Key West to prevent scurvy.

The Tortugas (the Turtles), so named by Ponce de Leon in 1513 for the large number of sea turtles around the islands, came into United States’ possession in 1803. “Dry” was added to the Tortugas name to indicate to mariners that no fresh water was available on the islands.

Construction of the fortress on 10-acre Garden Key commenced in 1846. German and Irish immigrants, as well as slaves, provided the labor. At the time of its design, it was considered an engineering marvel. French architectural techniques are prevalent. More than 2,000 arches are used -- archways better able to absorb energy, making the fort more resistant to cannon fire. More than 16 million bricks are used in the three-tiered, hexagonal structure, making it the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere and second largest in the world, exceeded only by the Great Wall of China. A striking difference in the color of bricks is evident toward the top of the massive walls. The color change marks the start of the Civil War. Most of the lower part of the fort is made from light brown stones cut in southern states. The deep red bricks at the top were hauled from New York after the start of the war. The gateway to the fort is formed from imposing blocks of granite quarried in Vermont.

Remote Jefferson had Its Problems

Fort Jefferson was designed to hold 1,500 soldiers. It is surrounded by a moat, which may seem odd since it occupies most of the tiny island and is already surrounded by miles of water. Rumors spread about the moat being filled with sharks, a falsehood, but one never dissuaded by the Army since a little enemy fear of sharks could only help in battle. Rumors aside, the moat was also a key design feature, providing a barrier against the powerful storms that frequently blew in. Waves washing over the land would be first buffered and then greatly dissipated in the moat, saving the walls from nature’s fury.

The moat was also the fort’s sewage system. A board structure with several holes cut in it was extended over the moat. The soldiers could grab their copy of the latest news from the Civil War, head out over the moat, and do their business. When the tides came and went, the waste flowed out with it. Freshwater was always a problem at Fort Jefferson. Cisterns were built into the foundation to collect rainwater, but saltwater leaks often contaminated it. Steam condensers were later used to distill seawater.

Other designs that seemed to render the fort invincible created problems. The openings from which the fort would train its guns on enemy ships were covered with massive iron shutters called Totten embrasures. What cannon shot could not dent, salt air and water quickly rusted and the iron swelled in the tropical environment.

The massive garrison was never fired upon in anger and was only confronted once during the early days of the Civil War. One Confederate ship, the Wyandotte, sailed in and delivered a message demanding surrender of the fort. The commander sent a soldier back in a rowboat with a note that essentially stated, “Leave or I’ll blow you out of the water.” The ship sailed away. An enormous bluff succeeded for, at that time, Fort Jefferson had not a single cannon in place. Two months later, they had 62 guns at the ready, although the post was designed for more than 450.

Dr. Mudd's Cell
Dr. Mudd's cell - NPS photo
Prolific Letter Writer in Prison

Mudd was assigned work responsibilities, as were most prisoners. His letters to his wife Sarah Frances, whom he called Frank, alluded to his work in the dispensary. It seems he was escaping the strenuous hard labor to which he was sentenced and that many fellow prisoners, some shackled with ball and chain, endured. A prolific letter writer while in prison, he regularly addressed efforts to coordinate various appeals by attorneys and associates working to gain his freedom.

Disheartened by his predicament and lack of quick progress in gaining reprieve, Mudd awaited the arrival of every ship hoping it would bring news of his deliverance. On Sept. 25, 1865, he attempted a daring escape aboard one of those ships, the transport Thomas A. Scott, hiding under a plank in the lower hold with the assistance of a young crewman. He was found during a search before the ship sailed. The Fort Jefferson commander issued the stern edict that Dr. Mudd “be placed at hard labor and...hereafter when any boat arrives, he will be put in the dungeon and kept there until it departs.”

Mudd’s skill as a physician ultimately proved his savior. Yellow Fever was a tropical scourge. Transmitted by the bite of infected Tiger Mosquitos, its victims were frequently dead within three days. In August 1867, Capt. George Crabbe brought the fever to Fort Jefferson following a visit to Havana. Mosquitos at Fort Jefferson bit him and became carriers, spreading death in droves, with the post surgeon among the first to succumb.

The interior of the fort was an incredibly oppressive place in 1867. The Totten shutters usually remained closed and air flow through the interior was minimal. The sick sometimes were expected to still work. Mudd, volunteering to treat ailing soldiers and prisoners, devised a three-part program consisting of increased fresh air flow, increased water rations, and extensive rest for the ill. Some reports speak of Mudd also contracting the fever.

Fort interior - NPS photo
An opppressive environment - the fort interior - NPS photo

Mudd’s program showed results and many men survived, crediting the doctor with saving them. By December 1867, the epidemic was over and Mudd was back in chains. However, 299 soldiers of the fort, so moved by his care for them during the epidemic, petitioned for clemency and release of the doctor. On Feb. 8, 1869, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd. An immediate War Department memo to Fort Jefferson directed that Mudd be released from confinement and allowed to move freely about the fort until he could be returned to the mainland. He returned to his home near Bryantown, Maryland, on March 20. He died of pneumonia Jan. 10, 1883, a few days after turning age 50. O’Laughlin died during the epidemic. Spangler, who was also pardoned in 1869, worked in Baltimore until 1873, then went to live at Mudd’s farm until his death two years later.

Failed Appeal to Overturn Conviction

Dr. Mudd’s case was in the news some 20 years ago as his grandson, Dr. Richard Mudd, of Michigan, worked to clear his grandfather. He sued, unsuccessfully, to have the Army overturn the conviction. According to a summary of the issue, presented by the Surratt House Museum, “In 1992, the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records questioned the jurisdiction of the military tribunal that tried Mudd and recommended the conviction be set aside. The Army disagreed and Mudd appealed.” The summary further reports that a federal judge dismissed two of Richard Mudd’s three counts. The judge did, however, direct the case back to the Secretary of the Army to address some of the legal points raised at the 1992 board hearing. Historians have claimed the issue is no big deal because President Andrew Johnson’s full pardon takes care of guilt and conviction issues. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear any further appeal on the issue.

Books on both side of the issue are available. The first, and older, of the “pro-Mudd” books, edited by his daughter Nettie Mudd, is called “The Life of Dr. Samuel Mudd.” The most recent, and seemingly most documented, “anti-Mudd” book is by Edward Steers, Jr. It is title, “His Name is Still Mudd.” A host of web sites on the internet address Mudd, Booth and the Lincoln Assassination. A simple word search of “Dr. Samuel Mudd” will put readers in touch with a variety of perspectives.

Mudd’s life outlasted that of Fort Jefferson as a military garrison. The fort was abandoned in 1874 after a hurricane severely damaged it. Pirates, looters and others plundered anything left. Militarily, the rifled cannon, designed years earlier, had already signaled the fort’s death knell. What had been impregnable became obsolete. Three hours of shelling from highly accurate Parrott cannons could punch a hole through the eight-foot-thick walls and severely damage the 15-foot-thick bastions at the corners.

Snorkelers near Fort Jefferson - NPS photo
Snorkelers near Fort Jefferson - NPS photo
Excellent Access Via High-Speed Ferries

Today, Garden Key and its masonry giant relic of bygone times blend paradise and history. Snorkelers flipper their way around the shallow waters and the living coral formations. Boats anchor in the shallow water adjacent to an area of sandy flats. One boat anchoring spot was used as the post’s cemetery until a powerful storm disinterred the pine boxes and remains resting there.

Always known for the incredible number and diversity of birds roosting on very nearby islands, campers on Garden Key say there is no alarm clock like the sounds of thousands of birds waking up at dawn. The spot has been a popular destination for bird watchers.

The park has many amenities for visitors like picnic tables - NPS photo
Many amenities for visitors - NPS photo

The Fort was proclaimed a national monument in 1935 and the area was designated Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992. It is said to be one of the least visited, most remote national parks in America. Access to the Dry Tortugas used to be difficult, with most people chartering boats or seaplanes. Today, ferries can haul more than 100 people at a time to the park. When we visited nearly 20 years ago, we took the then new Yankee Freedom II, a comfortable, high-speed catamaran that made the nearly 70-mile journey in about two and one-half hours. In addition to the well-narrated guided tour, they also provide breakfast, lunch and complimentary snorkeling equipment. Their toll-free number is 877-634-0939.

The ride aboard the catamaran back to Key West from Fort Jefferson had me thinking about what it must have been like more than 150 years ago, when the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson were destinations for the damned and their keepers -- and not just a tropical day trip for tourists venturing safely off the Key West beaten path. I wouldn’t be surprised if the saying, “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” somehow had its grounding in a previous resident of Fort Jefferson. -- Ken Perrotte

An exhibit by Mudd's cell
Sign near Mudd's cell - NPS photo


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