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On the Trail Of Dr. Mudd

By Hal Higdon

Our tour boat skimmed across the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at a speed of 26 knots, nearly 30 miles per hour. At that speed, our trip would take just over two hours. We had left Key West earlier that morning, headed westward toward the Dry Tortugas, a collection of seven, tiny coral islands so named in 1513 by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon because of their large turtle (las tortugas) population and lack of any drinkable water.

But turtles had not drawn me to the Dry Tortugas. Motivating my visit was a mass of masonry, which first appeared on the horizon as a thin, brick red line, then began to dominate it as we drew nearer. This was Fort Jefferson, the largest coastal fortress in the Western Hemisphere, constructed beginning in 1846 to control traffic in the Florida Straits separating Key West and Cuba. After the Louisiana Purchase, the growing United States needed to protect its shipping routes between New Orleans and the Eastern seaboard.

Fort Jefferson, occupying 12 of the 16 acres on Garden Key, boasted 16 million bricks. Its gun ports could accommodate 450 straight-bore cannons capable of hurling iron balls three miles into the surrounding waters--or into the hull of an enemy ship. Merchant boats and vessels of war could moor beneath this protective umbrella confident that they could not be attacked.

Or so thought the fort's designers.

Alas, within a decade Fort Jefferson had become obsolete, a victim of improved technology. Warships with newly developed rifled cannons could sit safely outside the three-mile umbrella and fire projectiles that could pierce the Fort's walls and reduce it to rubble as had been true during the siege of Fort Pulaski in 1862. A two-day bombardment with 5,300 shells reduced that fort at the mouth of the Savannah River to rubble. Although Union troops occupied Fort Jefferson at the beginning of the Civil War to prevent its falling into the hands of the Confederate Army, "the Fort's cannons never were fired in anger," so explained Jack Hackett, tour guide on the Yankee Fleet, which brought us from Key West.

The Union vs. Dr. Mudd

I first had seen Fort Jefferson four decades ago, although only from the air. In 1962, I was an aspiring, young writer researching my first book, The Union vs. Dr. Mudd, its protagonist Dr. Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland, who in 1865 had set the broken leg of actor John Wilkes Booth after Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. For his part in the so-called Lincoln Conspiracy, Dr. Mudd was tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. Four suspected conspirators were hanged; four others (including Dr. Mudd) were sent to Fort Jefferson, because of its inaccessibility to the Mainland. Authorities feared Confederate sympathizers might try to free them.

Construction ceased in 1870, partly because of the fort's obsolescence, partly because Yellow Fever, endemic to the area, made living there dangerous. For most of the next century, Fort Jefferson remained largely inaccessible to tourists, who might have been attracted by its history or its wildlife, both sea and air. The Dry Tortugas were designated a wildlife refuge in 1908 to protect a sooty tern rookery from egg collectors, and Fort Jefferson became a National Monument in 1935, but only a few government caretakers managed its vacant hulk. Boats took considerably longer to span the 70 miles between Key West and the Dry Tortugas than swift catamarans like the Yankee Fleet do today. Unable to conveniently reach the fort in 1962, I chartered an airplane so I at least could see it. I flew to the Fort, circled twice, then headed home to complete my book, which sold a modest 5,000 copies in its first printing.

In 1992, Fort Jefferson was granted status as a National Park. Meanwhile, Dr. Mudd's heirs lobbied Congress to declare him innocent of complicity in the Lincoln assassination. (Dr. Mudd had served only four years of a life sentence, pardoned because of his humanitarian efforts during a Yellow Fever outbreak.) The Mudd heirs' efforts proved only partly successful, but attracted enough publicity to Fort Jefferson so that last year, 100,000 tourists visited. Some came mainly to snorkel or fish, but others came to see what truly was an architectural, as well as historical, wonder.

Visiting Fort Jefferson remained an unfulfilled desire for me for four decades, but somehow I never summoned the effort. Then my wife Rose and I purchased a second home near Jacksonville, Florida. Next I received an invitation to the Half Shell Half Marathon, a 13-mile running race in Key West. Thursday before the race, we drove south down I-95, arriving six hours later at the Breakwater Hotel in the heart of Miami Beach's Art Deco district. Built in 1939, the hotel occupies a position midway between Decoratively Retro and Seedy, but you can't beat the location right on the beach, plus the price: $159 for a corner, ocean-view room.

The next morning, we continued our drive to Key West, connecting with US 1, which in its southernmost miles hops from island to island across bridges (one of them 6.8 miles long) that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. The highway both parallels and overlaps the over-water railroad built by Henry Flagler a century ago. Traffic was relatively light, so we cruised along at a comfortable speed, stopping at Marathon Key for lunch. Mid-afternoon, we arrived in Key West at the Southernmost Hotel, advertised as the "southernmost hotel in the United States," although it is southernmost only in the continental United States (Hawaii being further south). A pylon a few blocks from the hotel identified the southernmost point. A dozen or so businesses nearby also identify themselves with the "southernmost" label. Across 90 miles of water lies Cuba.

For several days, we combined touring with race activities and eating in some colorful restaurants, beginning with the Half Shell Raw Bar, sponsor of the half marathon. Our favorite breakfast spot became a café a few blocks from our hotel named "Camille's" that featured French toast. Given all the race T-shirts I accumulate, I rarely purchase that item on vacations, but we bought a "Camille's" T-shirt as a birthday present for our daughter-in-law of that name.

We ran out of time before seeing the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum. Truman had been a frequent visitor to Key West during his presidency. A Shipwreck Historeum Museum near Mallory Square (good for shopping) memorialized an era when residents of Key West (sometimes called "conchs") would wait for ships to go aground on nearby reefs.  "Wreck ashore!" they would shout before clambering into boats to salvage cargo worth millions of dollars. We took a Sunset Cruise on the Schooner America, a replica of the boat that in 1851 defeated all challengers in the "100 Guinea Cup Race" in England. The cup was brought back to the United States and renamed the "America's Cup," still coveted by sailors today.

Most memorable to me was The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, the house occupied by Hemingway and his second wife Pauline during the 1930s. Hemingway was off hunting in Africa when his wife built a swimming pool in his back yard costing $20,000, a prodigious sum of money in that post-Depression period. Angered at the cost, Hemingway flipped a penny at Pauline saying, "Here, you might as well have my last cent!"

Pauline had the penny imbedded in the stonework beside the pool, where it remains today. Hemingway soon moved on, during the 1940s, to a third wife in Cuba and wrote my favorite book, The Old Man and The Sea. Not favorite Hemingway book, favorite book! While stationed in Germany during the 1950s, I picked The Old Man and The Sea off a shelf in a base library and began reading. After a dozen pages, I sat down and continued reading. I finished the book before I left the library that night. More than any other author, Ernest Hemingway (because of his simplicity of style) has influenced every word I've written. I suspect I'm not the only writer who could make that statement.

Different-colored bricks

Certainly, Ernest Hemingway cast a shadow over my first book, The Union vs. Dr. Mudd, as well as the several dozen that followed. It seemed time finally after four decades as an author to set foot on Garden Key and roam the vaulted chambers of Fort Jefferson once trod by Dr. Mudd. In Jack Hackett, we had more than an able guide. A whimsical man with a slouch hat, ruffled beard and eyes that I know twinkled behind his sun glasses, he walked us through the fort relating its history from Ponce de Leon's discovery of the Dry Tortugas in 1513 to Congress's declaring Fort Jefferson a National Park in 1992. He pointed out that the lower bricks were light red in color, the upper bricks a darker red. "That's because the bricks first used were acquired from Southern States," explained Hackett. "Once, the Civil War began, construction continued with bricks brought down from Danbury, Connecticut."

We climbed a circular stairway to a parapet overlooking a parade ground that could have swallowed a half dozen soccer fields and accompanying Soccer Moms. The parapet itself was six-tenths of a mile around, about a kilometer. Several of the Rangers I met who knew my name because of my work for Runner's World boasted that they ran for recreation atop the parapet; five laps being the same distance as you would cover in a 5-K race. Well, what better could you do for recreation when you're 70 miles from the nearest video store?

After a brief tour of the fort, we paused for a picnic lunch. Many from the tour boat then headed for the beach or to cross the short sand bridge to Bush Key to do some birding. Among the birds seen regularly at Fort Jefferson are: black-bellied plovers, cormorants, sooty terns (which nest there in spring), brown noddays, frigate birds and buttonwoods. I had another mission. Ranger Erin Kendrick had promised me a tour of Dr. Mudd's cell, that end of the island being temporarily off limits to most park visitors because of efforts to remove two fishing boats that recently had gone aground during a storm. The interior areas of the fort reminded me of Rome's Coliseum, because of the vaulted ceilings. Kendrick indicated one chamber, where they suspected Mudd might have been held early during his stay, then brought us to another identified by sign as "Dr. Mudd's cell."

"The evidence is clearer here," Kendrick explained, pointing to a bowl-like depression carved out of the concrete floor. "In his letters home, Dr. Mudd describes digging such a bowl to collect rain water for drinking."

Yellow fever

I had read those same letters, collected by his daughter, Nettie Mudd, in a privately published book: The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Writing home, Dr. Mudd described the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit the fort in 1867, causing 350 men (prisoners and jailers) to fall ill. Many died, including the fort's physician, Dr. James Smith. Dr. Mudd was pressed into service ministering the ill. At that time, physicians believed Yellow Fever was spread through noxious fumes, such as those rising from the fort's rancid moat. We now know that the disease is spread through the bite of specific mosquitoes. Eliminate the mosquitoes, and you eliminate Yellow Fever, though to this day no cure exists for the disease.

Dr. Mudd's family used his humanitarian efforts during the Yellow Fever epidemic as reason to petition President Andrew Johnson for mercy. Coming from Tennessee, however, President Johnson feared appearing overly sympathetic to the defeated Confederacy. He narrowly avoided impeachment by members in Congress who suspected him of complicity in the Lincoln Assassination. President Johnson pardoned Dr. Samuel A. Mudd as one of his last acts in office on February 8, 1869.
Vaulted elegance.

Dr. Mudd returned home to Maryland. He would die in 1883 at age 49, never having quite overcome the suspicion that he knew John Wilkes Booth better than he wanted to admit. "His name was mud," seems to be an expression owed to Dr. Mudd, but lexicographical evidence suggests that the phrase dates back to 1840, or earlier.

After our day at Fort Jefferson, we reboarded the catamaran for the trip back to Key West. I positioned myself in one of the boat's bows, leaning out over the waves, feeling the wind battering my face as we skimmed past floats marking lobster traps. Within two hours, Key West appeared on the horizon. One more dinner in one more memorable restaurant and we began our drive north, nine hours back to Jacksonville. It had taken me 40 years between visits to this southernmost place on at least the continental United States, but I knew it would not be that long before I returned again.

For information on the Half Shell Half Marathon, contact Barbara Wright at bwpromo@bellsouth.net, or by phone at 305/296-7182. The original art pictured here is available for sale. Contact: RoadrunnerPress@comcast.net or call toll free: 1-888-662-7786.