Southern Maryland’s proximity to Washington, DC, means the region has a front row seat for history. What happens there is happening in our backyard; we can almost see it from our porches.
But occasionally, history makes a stop in Southern Maryland, and that’s what it did the night of April 14, 1865.
That Friday night – which happened to be Good Friday that year – John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. An actor and Confederate sympathizer, Booth had originally planned with his co-conspirators to kidnap Lincoln, but historians theorize his plan turned darker when Lincoln spoke of giving some African American men the right to vote. The plan also included murdering Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson; neither of those attempts were successful.
Familiar with the theater, Ford stole into Lincoln’s box and shot him while the play was underway. He scuffled with others in the box, and jumped 12 feet from the box to the stage. Even though he was injured in the fall, he made his escape and left the city on horseback.
One of the first stops Booth made was a tavern and hotel in Clinton owned by Mary Surratt, the mother of one of his co-conspirators, John Surratt Jr. Earlier, he had asked her to deliver a package to her tavern (she lived in DC at that time) and to ask that weapons and ammunition he had stored there be ready for pickup later in the evening. Mary Surratt complied and completed these tasks. (She was convicted for conspiracy to assassinate the president and executed a few months later. Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States government.)
Next, Booth and another conspirator, David Herold, stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd in Waldorf. The doctor assessed Booth’s leg, determined it was broken, and applied a splint. He also made a pair of crutches for booth. Herold and Booth rested at Dr. Mudd’s house for a few hours before continuing on to the home of Samuel Cox in Bel Alton in southern Charles County. They hid in the Zekiah Swamp area of Charles County for five days until they could cross the Potomac River into Virginia. Booth was later killed by Union soldiers at the Virginia tobacco farm where he was hiding.
Dr. Mudd was arrested and imprisoned following the assassination. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, narrowly missing hanging by one vote. In 1869, Dr. Mudd was one of the people pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. Whether he is culpable in the crime remains controversial. Many people, including Mudd’s grandson Richard, maintained Dr. Mudd’s innocence. More than a century after the assassination, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan sent letters to Richard Mudd agreeing that Dr. Mudd was not involved in the conspiracy and did not commit a crime. Other historians claim that Dr. Mudd knew Booth in advance and introduced him to Confederate agents who could help him.
The two of the buildings Booth visited on his flight through Southern Maryland are open today as museums. Both tell the story of their role in history as well as explaining what life was like for its residents during this period in history. A third building is still standing, but not open to the public.
Dr. Mudd House: Dr. Mudd’s plantation home, St. Catharine, is in Waldorf. It is open seasonally for tours and events. Visitors can see the home and hear stories of its inhabitants. The home hosts an annual Christmas event every December. For more information, visit http://drmudd.org/.
Surratt House Museum: Mary Surratt’s tavern is in Clinton. It is now a museum that chronicles the history of mid-19th century American life and the building’s role in the Lincoln assassination. For more information, visit http://www.surrattmuseum.org/.
Rich Hill: The home of Col. Samuel Cox, who assisted Booth and Herold on their flight to Virginia, is not open to the public, but it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Friends of Rich Hill is currently raising money to preserve and restore Rich Hill. For more information, visit https://richhillfriends.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/groups/498770306968462/.
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