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His name is Mudd, and he's proud of it

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Even if his name wasn't Mudd, even if he hadn't spent more than seven decades obsessed by that skeleton rattling around in the family closet, Richard Mudd would be a pretty remarkable fellow. At 91, he's updating the two volume, 1,800-page Mudd family biography he first published 40 years ago. He's planning to lead a tour of history buffs to a remote Florida island this summer. A retired industrial physician and air force flight surgeon, he still conducts medical exams for pilots, actively serves on a variety of medical review boards and community organizations _ and drives himself around this central Michigan auto manufacturing center to do it all.

Not that he has not slowed down a bit. Last year he had to give up handball after a bout with pneumonia. Still, he starts most days with an exercise regimen of 25 sit-ups and a half hour or so on the treadmill or stationary bike.

But back to that skeleton, which is at the heart of Richard Mudd's overarching passion. It belongs to Mudd's grandfather, Samuel Mudd, an obscure civil war-era doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, as Booth fled the nation's capital in April 1865. He was later convicted by a military commission for conspiracy in the assassination.

Richard Mudd insists his grandfather was merely a victim of circumstances, a doctor who did nothing more than treat an ailing man who showed up at his door. Convinced that Samuel Mudd was railroaded by hysterical Union forces desperate for scapegoats, the grandson has crusaded his entire adult life to rewrite history and exonerate "Dr. Sam."

Now, after 72 years, he could be on the verge of attaining that goal since the Pentagon has finally agreed to review the case. A decision could be at least a year off, but Richard Mudd is already ecstatic. "I don't know whether my blood pressure will stand it," he glowed. "I will be in high heaven. I don't think the (review) board can do anything else but (clear Samuel Mudd.)"

It's been a lonely and frustrating struggle for Richard Mudd, a lifelong over-achiever who began researching his grandfather's case while simultaneously earning degrees in both history and medicine at Georgetown University.

Over the years, he's collected tens of thousands of books and documents, turning his basement into a mini-research library on not just the Mudd case but all aspects of the Civil War. He's given hundreds of lectures and slide shows, gotten schools and monuments dedicated to Samuel Mudd and cajoled resolutions of support for his cause out of several state legislatures.

He has also enlisted the support of congressmen, senators and even Presidents Carter and Reagan, though both leaders concluded that even they were powerless under the Constitution to overturn a criminal conviction.

"He is very proud of the Mudd family and I think he does not like the fact that the Mudd's have to live with this black mark on their name," explained 50-year-old Thomas Mudd, one of Richard's seven children.

Still, it all seemed like tilting at windmills. Then, last year the Pentagon _ under prodding from another sympathetic politician, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. _ relented and agreed to let an Army administrative appeals panel review the case and posthumously change the outcome if it determined that Samuel Mudd had gotten a raw deal.