Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)



Director:  John Ford.

Starring:     Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd),  Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd),  Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer),  Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson),  O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre),  Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson),  Francis Ford (Cpl. O'Toole),  John McGuire (Lt. Lovett),  Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth),  Douglas Wood (Gen. Ewing),  John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin),  Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd),  Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper),  Ernest Whitman ('Buck' Milford),  Paul Fix (David Herold).

Story of fate of the doctor who treats the leg wound of President Lincoln's assassin.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the film. 

"The years have at last removed the shadow which rested upon the name of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland, and the nation which once condemned him now acknowledges the injustice it visited on one of the most unselfish and courageous men in American history."  George L. Radcliffe, U.S. Senator, Maryland.  

April 9, 1865.  There is band playing and bonfires are burning.  A large group make their way over to the White House.  They ask for a speech from Mr. Lincoln.  Lincoln says that he cannot at this time.  He has to have time to think about a speech.  Anything he says or writes is subject to misinterpretation.  He says he can offer them this.  He says he is expropriating a tune from the southerners since the north has won the war.  He asks that the band play the tune "Dixie".   

April 14, 1865.  Ford's Theatre.  The play is "Our American Cousin".   Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln are in one of the theatre boxes.  The actor John Wilkes Booth shoots the President.  He jumps from the box to the stage and in the process catches his leg on the flag bunting.  He crashes onto the stage and breaks his leg.  He gets up and says in Latin:  "Thus always to tyrants."  Booth is assisted in getting away by David Herold.

Booth on horseback is in agony.  The bone is ramming through his skin.  The two men stop at the house of a slave named Buck (who works for Dr. Mudd).  Buck tells them to go around the bend and they will see Dr. Samuel Mudd's house.  Mudd is sleeping in a rocking chair waiting for an expected child birth when a knock on the door awakens his wife Peggy.  She wakes her husband and he grabs his medical bag ready to go tend to Buck's wife, who already has twelve children. 

He sees the two riders.  Booth is brought into the living room.  The doctor has to cut off and remove Booth's boot to examine the leg.  He says that Booth has a bad transverse fraction.  He should be down for an entire week.  But Booth says they are in a hurry.  The doctor gives him a prescription for a sedative and off the two men go.  Dr. Mudd says to Peggy that the man is a "queer of of snake".  He changes his mind, however, when instead of receiving $2 dollars for the treatment, he receive $50 dollars from the men.  A little later a little black boy comes to tell Dr. Mudd it's time for the delivery. 

The US Cavalry arrives at a blacksmith shop.  The blacksmith had reported a horse and buggy stolen.  They ask which way the two men went and he tells them up that road where Dr. Mudd lives.  The lieutenant says to arrest the blacksmith.  Lt. Lovell comes to ask Dr. Mudd if he has seen the two men.  Mudd's father-in-law, Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer, 4th Virginia Cavalry, Confederate States Army is there, but not the doctor.  They want to know if the Colonel knows Booth.  He does not. 

The sergeant goes over to Mudd's little daughter Martha.  She is giving her dolly a ride on Booth's boot.  The sergeant examines the boot and finds the word Booth burned into it.  The words John and Wilkes have been scratched out.  (That's all the time Booth had to scratch out the name before the doctor came back into the room.)    The sergeant shows the boot to the lieutenant and the lieutenant tells the colonel that he will sit and wait for Dr. Mudd. 

Dr. Mudd comes home and wants to know what's the meaning of all these cavalry men being here.  The lieutenant tells him that he is under arrest for conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. 

"Killed while resisting arrest in Virginia, John Wilkes Booth left responsibility for his mad crime to fall on eight strangely assorted suspects.  The innocent as well as the guilty face an angry and heart-broken people."

A mob wants to hang the conspirators.  Erickson, the Assistant Secretary of War, says the suspects will be "court-martialed".  He talks to the military judges.  Erickson says that the federal union is on the verge of hysteria.  They have to take action and fast.  Erickson urges them to pay no attention to the legal rules and don't trouble themselves about the concept of "reasonable doubt".  The eight hooded prisoners are brought out.  Included are David E. Herold, Lewis Payne, George A. Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Mrs. Mary E. Surratt and Dr. Samuel A. Mudd.  Their hoods are removed.  General Ewing is going to be Dr. Mudd's counsel. 

Atzerodt is the first to be tried and convicted.  Notice is placed of his conviction on a bulletin board, May 12, 1865.  Dr. Mudd and the others are marched back to their cells with their hoods on.  Peggy, Martha and the Colonel are all there to talk with Dr. Mudd but they are not allowed to speak to him. 

Dr. Mudd is tried.  A bunch of witnesses testify against him and his character.  Dr. Mudd demands to speak, even after being told not to speak.  He tells the judges that he is innocent.  Erickson tells the court to ignore the remarks of the prisoner.  June 30, 1865 his case is disposed of and the notice posted on the bulletin board. 

Peggy finally gets to see her husband.  She kisses him and cries.  He doesn't even know the verdict for his case.  It's guilty.  Dr. Mudd says this has been like a nightmare.  Peggy sees the nooses hanging from the gallows.  To be hanged are David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt and Mrs. Mary E. Surratt.  The sentence is carried out.

Dr. Mudd is sentenced to life in prison on the Dry Tortugas.  It is located just west of Key West.  "In 1865 America had its own Devil's Island, a bit of burning white hell in the Gulf of Mexico, called the Dry Tortugas, where life imprisonment was an ironic term for slow death."  The men are brought onto the island via a ship.  The guards already know that Dr. Mudd is among the prisoners.  When Mudd has to deal with sadistic Sgt. Rankin, the man tells Mudd that he has been waiting for him.  He hits and knocks down Dr. Mudd.  He shouts to everyone:  "The man who killed Abe Lincoln, the greatest man who ever lived."  Being taken to his cell, Dr. Mudd is surprised to see Buck from home acting as a prison guasrd.  He greets him, but Buck only says to him:  "Move on, white man!"

Mudd reads by candlelight.  Buck comes over to his cell and gets his attention.  He says that he couldn't say anything to him before and Dr. Mudd understands.  Buck says that Mrs. Mudd told him to get on down to the Dry Tortugas.  Buck gives him some soap to help ward off the mosquitoes.  When Buck leaves, Dr. Mudd writes Peggy a letter. 

Peggy holds a meeting with Gen. Ewing, her father, and Judge Maiben of the district court.  The judge has read the trial transcript of the case for Dr. Mudd and has concluded it was a travesty of justice.  Peggy wants to file a civil case in Key West.  Peggy says she wants her husband's freedom and exoneration.  If they can get Mudd to Key West, the judge can have a writ of habeas corpus there served on him.  Then they can move him back to Maryland, reopen his case and get a new trial.  The judge leaves.  He doesn't want to know how they are going to get the good doctor out of prison. 

Gen. Ewing listens to the escape plan.  The Colonel says that he will get 5,000 of his old brigade, get a war ship and blast the prison in order to get Mudd out of there.  The General says he will have no part of this violent scheme and he leaves. 

Buck gets a letter addressed to him from Peggy.  It is to be given to Dr. Mudd.   The letter says that the family is now in Key West.  They have hired a boat.  It will have two riding lights so he will be able to recognize their ship.  Buck will arrange to be the guard on the bridge over the moat on the night of the escape.  Buck's activity makes Sgt. Rankin very curious.  He goes to check on Mudd.  He sees the prisoner staring out the window.  (The boat with the two riding lights is there.)  Rankin demands to know what Mudd is looking at.  Mudd answers the outside.  Rankin does a brief check of the cell and then leaves.  Mudd cracks open his soap bar and inside is a file. 

Sgt. Rankin decides to check on the special prisoner again.  But first he orders Buck to be arrested.  The sergeant discovers that Mudd is not in his cell.   He tells the guards and adds that he doesn't want Dr. Mudd brought back alive.  The sergeant hides himself in the hopes that he himself can shoot Mudd when he comes by.  But Mudd is not coming his way. He climbs up a wall and goes over to the cannon.  Buck is placed under arrest.  Mudd lowers himself down by a rope.  He calls out for Buck and the guard shoots at him. Rankin orders many of the guards to come to the moat bridge and kill Mudd.  They fire and fire but miss and miss.  Rankin now stops the men.  He takes careful aim and fires.  He wounds Mudd.  Mudd falls into the moat.  Mudd surprises everyone when they see him swimming toward the escape ship. 

The warden tells Rankin to take out two boat and go after Rankin.  He also tells Rankin that he wants the man brought back alive.  Mudd makes it to the ship and they take him aboard.  He gets to see Peggy and the Colonel.  Peggy says he is going to have a new trial.  Their hopes are dashed, however, when they hear firing.  Rankin is on the boat and he takes Mudd back to prison. This time Mudd is thrown into a metal box buried in the ground.  Buck is already in the hold. 

Peggy has to tell Martha that her dad won't be coming home just now.  She also has to tell her that Grandpa is dead (probably killed on the ship by Rankin and his men). 

The prison doctor is very upset.  He has 1,000 sick men on his hands and the supply ship refuses to put in.  The doctor is frustrated because he does not know what causes yellow fever and there is no cure for it.  He is on his way to the commandant when he becomes very weak and says he has to go back and lay down.  The black soldiers are watching him intently figuring that he has yellow fever too.  The doctor asks for their help, but the men won't even go near him.  Doc gets so weak that he falls to the ground. 

Instead of putting into port, the men on the ship put the supplies on a raft and launch it toward the prison.   The warden decides to talk with Dr. Mudd.  He tells the doctor that he wants and needs his help.  Dr. Mudd asks why he should care?  The warden says he's right to not want to help, but he is desperate.  There are 3,000 men and about a third are already sick.  He adds:  "We're all trapped her together."  What about Dr. MacIntyre?  He is down with the fever.  Mudd thinks a little longer, but decides he will work with the sick.  Out of the hold he brings Buck with him. 

The regular doctor has died.  The black soldiers, fearing the fever, are holed up in their barracks threatening to shoot anyone trying to get them out of there.  Dr. Mudd is determined to talk with them, even if he is shot and killed.  He warns the men that they all could hang because they mutinied.  The doctor assures them that only he and his helper will have to treat the yellow fever patients.  And if the men come out now, he will make sure they are given leniency.  The blacks all agree to help the doctor (as long as they are not too close to the infected) and they pour out of the barracks. 

One of the first things the doctor orders is to bust out the windows of the infirmary and get some fresh air into the room.  A hurricane is approaching and it will drive the mosquitoes out of the building.  Looking at the condition of the men, Mudd finds Rankin among the sick.  Rankin says in so many words that he will accept no help from Dr. Mudd. 

Mudd is exasperated.  He is about out of all supplies and medicines and he wants the supplies on the supply ship.  In the driving rain he goes up to the gun crews and tells them to man a cannon.  The men notice that Mudd is sick too and they tell him he should go to the infirmary.  But Mudd desperately wants those supplies.  He has the communications man signal the ship that if they don't come into port, they will fire on the ship.  The ship signals it is not putting into port.  Mudd has the men fire a warning shot.  The signal man reports that they are putting out to sea.  So Mudd tells the men to fire on the ship itself.  The first shot hits the mast.  Now the ship starts heading into port. 

Dr. Mudd is in the infirmary.  A delegation headed by the warden comes to see him.  Mudd tells them that it looks like he's going to live.  The warden tells him that they are sending a petition to the President of the United States.  The letter accompanying the petition says they are asking for executive clemency for Dr. Mudd as a reward for his heroism above and beyond the call of duty.  A now healthy Sgt. Rankin comes up and says he would like to be the first to sign the petition.  He shakes the doctor's hand and the doctor lets him be the first. 

Peggy gets the house ready.  Daddy is coming home to them, she tells Martha.  On a wagon with Buck, Dr. Mudd is let off in front of his house.  Buck travels down farther to see his family.  Martha runs out to greet her daddy.  Then Peggy greets him.  Buck has a great big smile on his face when he sees his entire big family stretched across the road waiting for him.  


Probably the best of the movies about Dr. Samuel Mudd, wrongly accused being a conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln.  The film overlooks that Mudd did know Booth and just concentrates on his innocence.  He is convicted in an unfair "court-martial" by military judges and is given life in prison.  The next half deals with the various attempts to free the innocent man from prison on the Dry Tortugas.   Warner Baxter is good as Dr. Mudd.  Claude Gillingwater as Colonel Jeremiah Milford Dyer provides some good comic relief.

 Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


1833  -- born Samuel Alexander Mudd, December 20, on a large plantation in Charles County, Maryland, the son of Henry Lowe Mudd and his wife, Sarah Ann Reeves.

1847-1848  --  at age 14 attends St. John's College in Frederick, Maryland for 2 years; later completes his college degree at Georgetown College in Washington, D.C.

1854  --  continues his medical studies at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

1856  -- graduates from University of Maryland and returns home to practice medicine.

1857  --  marries Sarah Frances Dyer, his childhood sweetheart.

1858  --  the couples first child, Andrew.

1859  --  now live on a farm of their own, five miles north of Bryantown, Maryland, and 30 miles south of Washington, D.C.

1860 --  second child, Lillian Augusta ("Nettie") born.

1862  --  another son.

1864  -- another son.

November 13, 1864  --  meets John Wilkes Booth at St. Mary's Church near Bryantown, Maryland.

December 18, 1864 --  a second meeting with Booth at the Bryantown Tavern.

December 23, 1864  -- a third meeting, this time in front of Booth's hotel (the National Hotel) in Washington, D.C. Booth wants Dr. Mudd to introduce him to the Confederate courier, John Surratt. They accidentally run into Louis Weichmann and John Surratt and the men go up to Booth's hotel room for a drink. What they discussed is not known.  

April 15 -- Booth, with a broken leg escaping after shooting Lincoln, and David Herold, another conspirer, arrive at Dr. Mudd's place at approximately 4:00 in the morning. Mudd sets, splints, and bandages the broken leg. Dr. Mudd later claims he did not recognize Booth.  The visitors stay for about 12 houses at his house.

Dr. Mudd is arrested and charged with conspiracy and with harboring Booth and Herold during their escape. Testimony at trial relates that he treated his slaves badly. Booth had sent liquor and provisions to Dr. Mudd's home two weeks prior to the assassination. Mudd found guilty and is sentenced to life imprisonment.

Serves his prison sentence at Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas about 70 miles from Key West. When yellow fever breaks out on the island, Mudd becomes a leader in aiding the sick. Michael O'Laughlen, a Booth co-conspirator, dies in the epidemic. All non- commissioned officers and soldiers on the island sign a petition to the government in support of Dr. Mudd.

1869  -- President Andrew Johnson pardons Mudd (after he serves a little less than 4 years).

He partially regains his medical practice.

1883 --  dies of pneumonia or pleurisy at the age of 49.


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