The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd (1980)



Director:     Paul Wendkos. 

Starring:     Dennis Weaver (Dr. Samuel A. Mudd),  Susan Sullivan (Frances Mudd),  Richard Dysart (Edwin Stanton),  Michael McGuire (Capt. Murdock),  Nigel Davenport (Col. George Grenfell),  Arthur Hill (Gen. Thomas Ewing),  Mary Nell Santacroce (Ellen Stanton),  Larry Larson (Riggins Thorpe),  Teddy Milford (Andrew Mudd, age 6),  Clarence Thomas (Nathaniel),  Angela Tully (Sissy Mudd, age 4),  Ryan Grady (Thomas Mudd, age 3),  Panos Eli Karatassos (Sam Jr., age 1),  Bill Gribble (Tyler / John Wilkes Booth),  Luke Halpin (Tyson / David Herold). 

Dr. Mudd accused of helping John Wilkes Booth assassinate President Lincoln

Made for TV movie


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

April 15, 1865, Southern Maryland, the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd.  The headlines in the newspaper says that President Lincoln urges postwar unity.  At night there is a banging on the door of the Mudd house.  Dr. Mudd gets out of bed to get the door.  He opens it and two men are standing there.  One man explains that the man with him has broken his leg.  The doctor has the man lay the patient on a bed.  The man says that their names are Mr. Tyson and Mr. Tyler.  Mudd examines the leg and tells Tyson that he will be able to set the leg.  He asks Tyson how they came to find him.  Tyson answers that they stopped at another house to ask for a doctor. 

On Easter morning Mudd's three older children wake him.  (His wife and he have a male infant also.)  He tells Tyson that the patient should stay down at least for another day.  But Tyson says that they have to leave.  Dr. Mudd has to excuse himself because he has to run an errand.  He leaves behind the two men and his wife Frances.  Dr. Mudd comes to a military checkpoint.  The soldiers are examining a black man's wagon.  Mudd learns that Lincoln has been killed and they think the killer is headed toward Virginia.  The doctor is concerned and decides to turn around and ride home. 

At the home Booth writes in his journal.  Mrs. Mudd brings him a wash basin and a razor for Booth to shave and she surprises him.  She sees that Booth is wearing a fake beard.  Booth gives her some money to pay for her husband's efforts on his behalf.  Frances is a little scared of the two strange men, especially Booth, who has a kind of the radical, wild-eyed look of the abolitionist John Brown.  Before he leaves, Booth tells Frances to remember that she is a southerner.  The two men ride off just before Mudd arrives home moments later.  Frances cries to her husband that the two men frightened her.  She also mentions that the one with the broken leg was wearing a fake beard.  The doctor tells his wife that President Lincoln has been killed.  They are both thinking that the strangers could be involved in the murder of the president.  Mudd tells his wife he must go to Bryantown to notify the soldiers about the strangers.  An officer interrogates Mudd and asks him how he had come to know Booth.  Mudd says that Booth had come to the family church saying that he wanted to buy some land.  The officer tells Mudd that actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln.  Mudd says that he only met Booth that one time. 

Back home with his wife, Booth tells her that he saw Booth just before going to Washington D.C. for Christmas shopping.  He said that he wanted to buy some land, so Mudd went back with him to his room.  There were two other men in the room.  He was afraid to tell the soldiers about the second meeting with Booth. 

Mrs. Mudd finds the boot that her husband had to cut off Booth's left leg.  It has the name of Booth written on the top inside of the boot.  The interrogating officer and some soldiers call at the Mudd House.  The officer says that Dr. Mudd will be going to Washington with him.  He tells the wife that her husband will be back in a couple of days. 

Old Capital Prison, Washington, D.C.  Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, speaks with Dr. Mudd.  He tells him that in the street people are crying.  They are mourning their great loss and are angry and desperate for vengeance.  He also says that there was a conspiracy to kill Lincoln.  He comments to Dr. Mudd:  "You are a southerner."  Dr. Mudd replies:  "I was for the union in the war."  He asks Mudd if Booth mentioned any names of men that might be conspirators.  No is the answer.  He then asks Mudd if he knew the other gentleman with Booth, David E. Herold.  No.  Stanton wants to know why Mudd didn't recognize Booth and why did Booth come to his house.  Mudd tries to explain what happened with a simple summary:  a man came to him with a broken leg and he set it. 

Stanton talks with  military judge Holt.  Holt tells Stanton that he thinks that trying civilians in a military court is probably not legal.  Stanton doesn't seem to care.

News arrives that Booth has been shot and killed.  They also found Booth's diary.  Stanton is given the diary.  Judge Advocate Holt tells Stanton that the press wants to know why there hasn't been an arrest yet.  Stanton tells him to tell the press that he has already made an arrest.  Dr. Mudd is placed in handcuffs.  He starts screaming in his defense:  "This is a mistake!"  The soldiers put a hood over Mudd's head and throw him in jail.  Yankee soldiers descend on the Mudd farm and burn the fields.  Mrs. Mudd asks to know where is her husband.  "In a cell to be hung for murdering the president" says the soldier in charge. 

Mrs. Mudd tries to get lawyer Makin (spelling?) to take her husband's case, but he can't because it would harm his reputation too much.  As Mrs. Mudd leaves, the lawyer says to retired General Thomas Ewing:  "Trash like that doesn't deserve a lawyer."  This upsets Ewing and he talks to the lawyer about the importance of not violating the rights of the defendant.   Ewing finds Mrs. Mudd  in a church.  He explains that he is a lawyer and believes in truth.  He would be willing to take her husband's case.  Mrs. Mudd accepts his offer. 

Lawyer Ewing visits Dr. Mudd in jail.  Mudd cannot see because his hood was on him all the time.  Ewing tells him that his children are staying with his brother-in-law.  Mudd asks how long he has been in jail and Ewing says it has been thirteen days.  His wife is not allowed to see him and they won't allow her to testify on his behalf. 

Mudd is brought into court handcuffed and with the hood on his head.  The prosecutor charges Mudd with advising, encouraging, harboring and concealing Booth as well as helping him to escape.  Mudd pleads:  "I am innocent."  When Ewing gets to speak he questions the legality of trying a civilian in a military court.  The officer in charge of the group of nine military judges tells Ewing that the question of legality is not his concern.  Ewing then protests bringing his client in to court shackled and hooded.  This does not protect the presumption of innocence of his client.  The military doesn't care. 

Witness after witness is brought into court to lie or exaggerate the facts in their testimony.  For instance, one man claims he saw the doctor marking something on a piece of paper for Booth and says he thinks it was a map for Booth.  This is accepted despite the fact that the witness never saw what was written on the piece of paper.  A Mr. Thomas lies and says that Dr. Mudd told him how angry he was about the South losing the war and how terrible President Lincoln is.  Dr. Mudd stands up and shouts:  "That's a lie.  Tell the truth."

Talking with Mrs. Mudd, Ewing learns that there is in existence a diary that Booth kept.  When Ewing sees Stanton again he asks him where is the diary.  Stanton pretends that there is no such diary.  At the trial Ewing brings in some witnesses of his own, one of whom tells the court that Mr. Thomas wanted a $10,000 share of the reward for convicting Dr. Mudd and that he believes Thomas would even invent the needed evidence in order to get the money.  Summing up the case for the defense, Ewing says that there is a huge array of false testimony presented against Dr. Mudd, but that in all of the documents presented in court, there was no mention of Dr. Mudd. 

The verdict of the judges is that Dr. Mudd is guilty.  He will be imprisoned at hard labor for the duration of his lifetime.  Ewing talks to Mudd and tries to buoy his spirits.  He says that Frances has not given up hope.  And Ewing himself is getting a writ of habeas-corpus to get a civil (a legal) trial for Mudd.  Frances finally gets to visit her husband but is given only one minute.  She breaks down and shouts:  "Damn you all, damn you all to hell!" 

Ewing confronts Stanton wanting to know where they are sending his client.  Stanton replies that he is sending him to a place where Ewing will not be able to get him out with his habeas-corpus

Fort Jefferson Prison, Dry Tortugas, Gulf of Mexico.  Dr. Mudd and the prisoners with him are told to do as they are told and they will survive.  One of the prisoners panics and jumps in the water in the moat to escape.  The warden tells all the prisoners to watch.   A shark gets the man. 

Two inmates grab Mudd to talk with him.  Mudd is afraid of what they are going to do to him, but it turns out that the men are southerners and they want to help the man who helped Booth kill Lincoln.  They give Mudd a number of letters from his wife.  (Mudd is shocked because the staff told him he had not received any letters.)  The good doctor tells the southerners that he is innocent of the charges he was convicted on.  This only serves to madden the southerners and they say that they will not help him anymore.

A soldier guard sympathetic to Dr. Mudd gives him a cup of water surreptitiously.  The warden sees Mudd with the cup and punishes the doctor by making him carry a cannon ball on his back for a full twenty-four hours.  If he stops walking he will get a bullet in the back of the head. 

Mrs. Mudd talks to Mrs. Stanton in the latter's carriage about her husband's case.  Mrs. Stanton is reluctant to talk saying that it has taken her husband several months to put the trial behind him.  Mrs. Mudd says that many senators tell her that they believe her husband to be innocent, but urge her to be patient and wait for a better mood in the country.  Mr. Stanton approaches the carriage and asks to be introduced to the woman with his wife.  When he learns the woman is Mrs. Mudd he says he has heard about her already.  The publicity about Dr. Mudd has been so bad that a new expression is created:  "Your name is mud."  Mrs. Mudd leaves.  His wife asks Secretary Stanton if the man (Mudd) is guilty.  Stanton replies:  "The man is guilty." 

Dr. Mudd gets a cell mate, George Granville, a man of the world.  He loves to tell stories of his exploits in conflicts such as the Sepoy Rebellion in India and the Crimean War in Turkey, as well as the American Civil War.  He fought for the south serving with Morgan's raiders, George Wheeler's cavalry and Robert E. Lee.  He tries to cheer up the depressed Mudd telling him that "You must prepare for the possibility of escape.  It keeps you alive, rouses your spirits."  He even has Mudd exercising with him. 

The warden has Granville take care of his garden.  But the rebel Granville pulls out the carrots and replants them with the orange part sticking up in the air.  This infuriates the warden and he nearly kills Granville by having him repeatedly thrown in the moat with a rope around him.  Granville tells the warden:  "Captain, if it's your intention to murder me, please do it in a more respectable way."  From his window, Mudd shouts "Murderers!  Murderers!" 

Granville is dumped back in Mudd's cell.  His shoulder has been dislocated but he is still alive.  The soldier friendly to Dr. Mudd brings the doctor a shirt out of which to make a sling for Granville, some fresh fruit and a bottle of brandy.  Mudd asks the soldier why does he do these risky things.  The soldier explains that he hates the place because Captain Murdock is a very unfair and unjust warden.  He also read about Dr. Mudd's trial.  He comments:  "It made me ashamed."  The soldier also gives Dr. Mudd a newspaper with the headline:  "Booth's diary found with eighteen pages missing".

Mudd with the help of Granville decides to escape.  He is able to sneak out a note to his wife (hidden in a Christmas present) telling her to wait for him in Key West.  In Key West the hope is that Mudd will be able to get a writ of habeas-corpus.  At home Frances receives a letter that in a convoluted way refers to the secret message in the present and she figures out what her husband is trying to tell her.  The note says that he is escaping and to bring Ewing with the writ.  In prison Mudd climbs down a rope made of braided seaweed to the ground and then he hides himself on the ship heading to Key West.  Unfortunately for Mudd, on his climb down the rope and unbeknownst to him he dropped an item that fell into the moat and then floated by the guards.  A guard retrieves it and takes it to warden Murdock.  Murdock and the guards start searching the ship.  A guard finds Mudd when he sticks his bayonet through a grate and wounds Mudd in the leg.  Mudd is now thrown into solitary confinement.  Murdoch taunts the poor man with:  "Once the door closes, it will never open again." 

Frances, not knowing what happened to her husband, is afraid that he is dead.  Ewing arrives with the good news that her husband is alive. 

Months later.  An epidemic of yellow fever ravages the inmates and guards at the prison.  Sixteen soldiers have already died.  The Dry Tortugas are officially quarantined.  All discipline breaks down and now it's every man for himself.  Granville and the friendly guard get into Mudd's cell to check on him.  They are happy to find that he's still alive.  The two friends want Mudd to leave on a small boat that they have acquired.  But once Mudd sees the many men suffering with yellow fever and not receiving any medical attention (the prison doctor died of yellow fever), he decides that he must stay to help save as many patients as possible.  Granville is disappointed, but decides he will be the doctor's nurse and work with the men.  Everyone in the prison is afraid.  Men have very painful burning sensations in their stomachs.  And the men don't have enough to eat.  Murdock is hoarding food and he won't leave his room or let anyone in to see him.  He is afraid of getting the disease.  Since Murdoch is not coming out, the doctor and Granville bust into the storehouse full of food. 

Mudd starts preparing a mixture of medicines in an attempt to have something to give to the patients to fight the illness.  He then begins giving the medicine to some of the patients.  But then Mudd collapses.  He has got the fever.  His body shakes with the chills.  After a number of days, one of the first patients given the medicine recovers from the illness.  And later Mudd himself starts to recover.  In fact, he is well enough to stop four men from using the escape boat to try to get off the little island.  He explains to them that everyone is quarantined and must stay on the island.  He also tells the would-be escapees that the treatment is working.  The men comply. 

It is terribly hot in the prison so Granville and Mudd use some gunpowder to blow a hole in the prison wall to provide a big open window to bring in fresh air.  Murdock is very sick with the illness.  In spite of his distaste for the man, Mudd takes care of Murdock personally.  Murdock recovers.  Murdock shows Mudd a letter of commendation signed by all the inmates and guards saying that Dr. Mudd had saved the lives of countless men by his actions.  They ask for clemency for the good doctor.  Murdock also signs the document.  He says:  "I pay my debts, Mudd!"  He has been called to Washington, DC to account for the many deaths at the prison and will petition the government on Mudd's behalf. 

As the epidemic ends, Granville sails away on a raft he built headed for Cuba.  Mudd thanks him and says:  "I owe you my life."

Five weeks later.  A new detachment of soldiers arrives.  The black sergeant demands to know why the prisoners are not in their cells.  Mudd explains his personal situation to the impatient soldier.  The sergeant listens and then tells Mudd that Captain Murdock is dead.  His ship went down two days before it was scheduled to reach Washington.  Captain Slater is now in charge.  Mudd is absolutely crushed.  He writes a "last" letter to his wife telling her that she must consider him dead and make for herself and their children the best life possible.  Mrs. Mudd, however, hasn't given up hope.  She stands outside the Whitehouse fence staring at the window of President Andrew Johnson's office.  The President notices her and asks his aide who is she.  She is Mrs. Mudd and she wants to see you is the answer.  Johnson asks to have her brought in to see him.  He adds:  "The president has a guilty conscience." 

In the office the President explains to Mrs. Mudd that politically it is too controversial for him to pardon her husband right now.  (The president is going through impeachment.)  But Frances makes an emotional appeal to the president to do the right thing regardless of the possible negative consequences. 

The door to Dr. Mudd's cell is opened wide and Frances is let in to the cell to see her husband.  At first she is shocked at how bad he looks, but she quickly recovers to tell her husband: "The president pardoned you.  I've come to take you home.  It's over.  You're free. You're going home."  Dr. Mudd finds it hard to take in at first, but also quickly recovers. 

Dr. Mudd was in prison for three years, seven months and twelve days on America's Devil's Island.  110 years later, President Jimmy Carter exonerated the good doctor of all guilt in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  


Good movie.  The doctor was railroaded into prison thanks largely to the ill-will of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the spirit of hysteria following the assassination of President Lincoln.  The movie tells the story of the many travails of Dr. Mudd to try to keep himself from going to jail and later how he tried to get himself out of prison.  The movie in part is a warning about how the government rushes to judgment in times of political hysteria and can ignore the basic rights of citizens accused of committing the crime that caused the hysteria, throwing innocent people into prison.  The story is also one of loyalty and devotion as Mrs. Mudd never gave up the hope of freeing her husband.    Dennis Weaver as Dr. Samuel A. Mudd and Susan Sullivan as Frances Mudd both gave excellent performances. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

See Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)


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