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The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)
Directed by John Ford

Life, as the old saying goes, often imitates art, but more often than not it proves more interesting, especially if your name has become synonymous with a bad reputation. That’s certainly the case with Dr. Samuel Mudd, perhaps one of history’s most famous victims of circumstance. Fated to be forever entangled in the web of conspiracy that culminated in the death of Abraham Lincoln, Mudd set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth when the assassin appeared on his doorstep in the early morning darkness of April 15, 1865, hours after shooting the president at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Booth would be killed about a week later by a Federal cavalry posse, and Mudd was arrested a few days after that. The assassin’s boot, cut off by the doctor in order to set the broken bone in Booth’s foot, was discovered in Mudd’s Southern Maryland home. He was charged as a conspirator in the plot to kill Lincoln and hustled off to Washington to stand trial.

Protesting his innocence to the last, Mudd was condemned to be hanged by a nine-member military tribunal, but at the last moment his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was transported in shackles, along with three other conspirators, to America’s own Devil’s Island—the maximum security military prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

In 1936, 20th Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck teamed writer Nunnally Johnson with veteran director John Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon to produce The Prisoner of Shark Island, a brooding, expressionistic film whose title is drawn from the shark-infested moat that encircled the hulking fortress.

Although the film takes liberties with the history, Ford’s cinematic mastery shines during the conspirators’ trial and sentencing scenes. Seen from the point of view of Mudd’s wife, Peggy (Gloria Stuart), we share her anxiety and dread as she tries to find out her husband’s fate.

Mudd is played with earnest innocence by Warner Baxter, Hollywood’s highest-paid actor at the time. As Mudd’s life goes from bad to worse, his family works to prove his innocence. Fortunately, one of Mudd’s guards at Shark Island is a Corporal Buck Milford, a former slave of his who has joined the Army to be near his former master. Mudd also must contend with the leering, sadistic Sergeant Rankin (John Carradine), who makes it his personal crusade to make the doctor’s life a living hell.

Hearing news that a judge has agreed to reopen his case if he can make it to Key West, Mudd plans a breakout along with the loyal Buck. But the plot fails. Buck is arrested, and Mudd falls into the moat while being shot at by the soldiers in the fort. He manages to swim to a boat below that is carrying his wife, Peggy, but is quickly recaptured by Rankin. The sergeant throws both Mudd and Buck into a pit below the prison, where they are destined to stay forever perhaps.

A yellow fever epidemic breaks out at the prison, however, and its doctor is among the stricken. Mudd is asked to take over—only to contract the disease himself. When the epidemic is controlled and Mudd has recovered, Rankin is the first to sign a letter to President Andrew Johnson urging executive clemency. It’s granted and the doctor returns home to a loving family.

Reality was somewhat different for Mudd. On September 25, 1865, the doctor did attempt an escape, albeit less dramatic, by stowing away on a ship bringing replacement soldiers to Fort Jefferson (he was quickly discovered and recaptured). In the summer of 1867, a yellow fever epidemic did break out, and Mudd, who was working in the prison dispensary, treated many of the afflicted. Just before leaving office, Johnson commuted Mudd’s sentence.

Mudd died in 1883 at age 49. His descendants have tried, unsuccessfully, to clear his name ever since.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of America’s Civil War.