Dr. Samuel Mudd’s Tea and Coffee Set

Dr. Samuel Mudd's family tea and coffee service, made by James Dixon and Sons between 1842 and 1851.

Dr. Samuel Mudd’s family tea and coffee service, made by James Dixon and Sons between 1842 and 1851.

“Your name is mud” has long been used as a way to insult another person whose actions don’t meet with general approval.  I have encountered this phrase a great deal over the last six months, as I have given lab tours and shown visitors the work conservators at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab have been doing on the tea and coffee set of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was a Charles County physician who provided medical assistance to gunman John Wilkes Booth after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  After being convicted of conspiracy in 1865, Mudd spent almost four years at a military prison in the Dry Tortugas.  It has become a common myth that the “your name is mud” insult sprang up in reference to Samuel Mudd’s actions on that fateful April night in 1865.  After about the twentieth visitor had let me know about Mudd’s

Dr. Samuel Mudd.  Image http://rogerjnorton.com/sam3.jpg

Dr. Samuel Mudd. Image http://rogerjnorton.com/sam3.jpg

connection with the insult, I decided to look into the veracity of this claim.  It turns out that this phrase was first used in an English publication in 1823—many decades before Lincoln’s assassination (OED 2007)—and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with Dr. Mudd! We’ve had the good fortune to have the Mudd tea and coffee set at the MAC Lab for the last six months, where it underwent surface cleaning and stabilization of some deteriorating components (Lukezic 2014).  It has been a great favorite on lab tours, but will soon be returning to Fort Jefferson. A great deal has been written about Mudd and whether he was actually complicit in the assassination. I am certainly not qualified to offer an opinion in this regard, so this essay focuses on Mudd’s time at Fort Jefferson. It was there that the story of his beverage service, and our role in conserving it, took shape.

Fort Jefferson, initially built on Garden Key to protect shipping lanes, began use as a military prison during the Civil War (Plunkett 2013).  Mudd became its most famous prisoner.  Mudd, along with three other men convicted of conspiracy in the assassination, were given prison sentences and arrived at Fort Jefferson in the summer of 1865.  Several months later, Mudd stowed away on a departing ship in an ultimately unsuccessful escape attempt.  It is possible, as a former slaveholder and for his role in aiding John Wilkes Booth, that Mudd was afraid of reprisals from the 82nd United States Colored Infantry, which had just been assigned control of the fort.  Mudd’s punishment for his escape attempt was confinement in chains for two days, followed by a period of hard labor and internment in the fort’s “dungeon” (Taylor 2012). In the summer of 1867, a yellow fever epidemic struck the prison.  Among the first victims of the epidemic was Dr. J. Sim Smith, the prison’s physician (Summers 2014). Mudd, too, was afflicted with the disease during the three month epidemic, but was instrumental in the care of almost three hundred prisoners, staff and soldiers who contracted yellow fever. Only 38 individuals succumbed to the fever, most likely due in no small part to his medical attentions. During his bout with yellow fever, Dr. Mudd received care from the lighthouse keeper’s wife. To express his gratitude, Dr. Mudd gifted his family tea and coffee set to her (Lukezic 2014). It eventually came under the ownership of the National Park Service. Mudd’s actions during the yellow fever epidemic ultimately earned him a presidential pardon from his life sentence.  He was released from prison in March of 1869 and returned to his farm near Waldorf, Maryland.  He continued to practice medicine until his death in 1883 from pneumonia.

Today, Fort Jefferson is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park and is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.  Visitors to the fort can see Mudd’s prison cell and, within a few months, the fully restored tea and coffee set!


Lukezic, Francis. 2014. Some Objects Lead an Interesting Life: A Tale of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s Tea and Coffee Service.  Curator’s Choice, October 2014.  http://www.jefpat.org/CuratorsChoiceArchive/2014CuratorsChoice/Oct2014-SomeObjectsLeadAnInterestingLife-ATaleOfDr.Samue%20MuddsTeaAndCoffeeService.html.  Website accessed 12-18-2014.

OED 2007. Oxford English Dictionary.

Plunkett, Dennis.  2013.  Dr. Samuel Mudd.  Website accessed 12-15-2014 at http://www.drytortugasinfo.com/dr-samuel-mudd/.

Summers, Robert.  2014.  Dr. Samuel Mudd, Prisoner and Physician.  Circulating Now.  Website accessed 12-11-2014.

Taylor, Dave. 2012.  The Escape Attempt of Dr. Mudd.  BoothieBarn, Discovering the Conspiracy.  Website accessed 12-18-2014. http://boothiebarn.com/2012/03/12/the-escape-attempt-of-dr-mudd/.


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