Less than 10 minutes from my house in Maryland is the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a stately placed secured on a wide swath of farmland. If you’re up on your American Civil War history, you’ll recognize Dr. Mudd as the man who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. After the president was killed during a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., Booth fled and sought treatment on Mudd’s plantation.
Did I lose you there? A little too textbook-y for you?
Don’t worry — I understand. Growing up in Southern Maryland, an area ripe with historical markers on almost every corner, I learned to tune out many of the facts that came flying at me from every angle. But what with my dad now a licensed D.C. tour guide and my mom and boyfriend quite interested in history, I’ve grown to appreciate it in new ways. Especially since it’s all right here.
The Dr. Mudd House stands a bit off the road in Waldorf, Md., which happens to be my hometown. For one weekend in December, Mudd’s former residence opens to the general public adorned for a Victorian Christmas — looking the way it would have in, say, 1865. Though many of the pieces in Dr. Mudd’s home are replicas, members of the Mudd family are still very active in its upkeep and the house does boast a few original pieces that have been returned to the two-story home.
It was approximately seventy five billion degrees below zero on Sunday, but my parents and I trudged to the estate and braved the whipping wind to check out the house. As it goes with anything that’s easily accessible to you, I hadn’t visited the Dr. Mudd House in many years. Driving to College Park, D.C. or Virginia? Sure. All the time. But down the street to see a historic home? Not so much.
Though we couldn’t take photos inside the house, I snapped some on the outlying property. Wreaths hung in the windows, complemented by flickering candles; swathes of evergreen hung in doorways, near the full Christmas tree decorated simply in the corner of the drawing room. Docents were on hand to give us a history of the house, the family (nine children!), the time John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, spent in Southern Maryland.
Climbing the narrow stairs to see the bedrooms where Mudd’s children once slept, a kind woman in a giant hoop skirt and other period-appropriate wear greeted us. And with the wave of a hand, she indicated a large bed just to the left of the doorway.
I stared at the bed. I looked back at the woman. I stared at the bed. I looked back at the woman . . .
“But this isn’t the real bed?” my mother prompted, eying the polished wood frame.
No, the docent explained. The actual furniture is not original to the room. But this space in this room in this very corner of the world? Well, yes — this is where John Wilkes Booth slept.
It was amazing to think about — and amazing to see. Living in 2010 and driving my Toyota anywhere in the world I’d like to go, I never think about how a man rode horseback (with a broken leg!) from downtown Washington to our little corner of Charles County, where he sought medical treatment before continuing his run from authorities — all of whom were seeking the man who killed their beloved president.
Accounts differ as to whether Dr. Mudd was directly involved in the conspiracy or merely a doctor who did as he’d been trained: to assist a patient. Far, far more intelligent people have debated this for more than a century, but the facts are as follows: after Booth’s death, Mudd was charged with conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln and found guilty, though he was sentenced only to life imprisonment (four other accomplices in the plot were hanged, including Mary Surratt — the first woman executed by the U.S. government. And a distant cousin of mine). After less than four years in prison, Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and returned to his family in Maryland.
You see little of that history in the present-day Mudd home, however. The family itself upholds, of course, that Mudd was innocent of any involvement in the Lincoln assassination plot and simply a doctor helping Booth, a patient in need. Historians believe Booth and Mudd were acquaintances but, despite his conviction, not all believe he was directly involved in the murder plot.
What do I believe? I have no idea. Despite the fact that I’ve read up on this countless times in high school and college, I’m not wise enough to contribute anything new to the conversation. But I do know something with total certainty: the Dr. Mudd House is cool — in the way that all old, historic homes are cool. It’s crazy to imagine the nine Mudd siblings crowded into the home’s rooms or John Wilkes Booth seated in the spacious living room (and yes, that sofa is the original one).
At Christmastime, the home takes on a very regal air — and I loved tip-toeing across the creaking wooden floors and imagining life as it would have been in 1865. Almost 150 years later, I’m a 25-year-old woman who grew up down the street from this place, this time in history — and living a life unfathomably different than those of the girls who once ducked in and out of these rooms.
That’s what makes it so fun to visit historical places — the thinking; the remembering. Placing myself within a context. Enjoying the moment.
And, if you believe some folks, dodging ghosts. I’ll steer clear at nighttime, just to be safe.