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1865 August 26: Lincoln Conspirators Sent to the Dry Tortugas

August 31, 2015

This article on the four Lincoln conspirators not hanged—Dr. Samuel A. Mudd,¹ Michael O’Lauglen, Jr.,² Samuel Arnold,³ and Edman Spangler4—comes from the August 26, 1865, issue of The P.

The full set of conspirators—John Wilkes Booth, David E. Herold, Lewis Powell, Michael O’Laughlen, Jr.,² and John H. Surratt, Jr.—planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and hold him to exchange for Confederate prisoners. This was attempted twice, but failed, because Lincoln was not where they thought he would be.  Arnold and O’Laughlen dropped out of the conspiracy when the prisoner-exchange program started.

The four conspirators listed here were sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson (in the Dry Tortugas, Florida). You may remember the Torgugas from Frank D. Harding’s letter of January 28, 1865.  Tortuga is the Spanish word for turtle or tortoise, and the Dry Torgugas is a group of islands in the Florida Keys, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. Fort Jefferson is located there.

Michael O’Laughlen died in the prison at Fort Jefferson in 1867, and in 1869, Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler were released after being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

Mudd, O’Laughlin [sic], Arnold and Spangler on their way to the Dry Tortugas. 

During the voyage, all the prisoners were more or less afflicted with seasickness, and at one time half of the guards were unfit for duty.  Dr. Mudd and Arnold were particularly wretched.

Spangler, though quite sick, was given to practical joking.  Finding that while sick, he could get from the Surgeon, Dr. Porter, a modicum of French brandy, he concluded to take sick at various times, always with pains for which vini galliei spiritus is supposed to be a sovereign cure ;  but his trick was discovered, and he was, much to his chagrin, compelled to quaff Jamaica ginger in place of the more palatable beverage.

He was generally quite talkative, and expressed himself satisfied with the action of the Military Commission, but continued to assert his innocence of participation in the crime of assassination.

In a conversation with Captain Dutton, he remarked that he knew nothing of Booth’s designs, and that even after the murder, while Booth was passing through the theatre, he was unaware of the foul deed that had been committed.

“The fact is, Captain,” said he, “Booth was a privileged character at Ford’s.  He had the run of the house at all times, day and night ;  had access to the dressing-rooms, and frequently came to the rehearsals unannounced, and always by the rear entrance.  He was a great favorite, and spent money freely.  Whenever he came with his horse he always called for me to groom the animal, and I have many a time blacked his boots, and done other menial work for him.  I did not close the door behind Booth.  It was a spring door, which you can see when you get back to Washington, and closed of itself unless you held it open. There was nothing unusual in my holding Booth’s horse on the night of the murder, for I had done it twenty times before.  I didn’t see how the Commission which tried me could have decided otherwise in my case, considering the evidence ;  but I am not guilty of having anything to do with the crime.”

Spangler was very lively during the voyage, and several times ran up the ladder from the hold, three steps at a time, heavily ironed as he was.  He was quite jubilant over the idea that he would not be a prisoner for life.  “I’ll come out all right—six years is not such a long time after all,” said he.  “You need not felicitate yourself on having a short time to stay, Spangler,” said Dr. Mudd.  “I don’t know where they are taking us, but if it is to the Dry Tortugas, there is no more chance for you than for me.  None of us will live more than two years.”

Up to this time, not a word had been dropped in references to the ultimate destination of the conspirators, but they had occupied themselves in discussing the probabilities of a residence at Albany, a trip to some port on the Gulf, or a sudden death by drowning.  O’Laughlin [sic] was very reticent, rarely entering into conversation even with his fellow-prisoners.

Mudd carried with him a printed copy of the evidence educed during his trial, and took great pleasure in tearing it to pieces.  He is described, by our informant, as a man of good education, considerable shrewdness, and strong rebel proclivities.  He was never off his guard, always pondered a question well before returning an answer, and invariably spoke of Mrs. Surratt as having been unjustly executed.  It will be remembered that on his trial, Mudd denied all knowledge of Booth previous to the visit of the lame assassin to the Doctor’s house, but to Captain Dutton he confessed that he was acquainted with Booth for some time before the murder.  In regard to that deplorable crime he did not know of it until after Booth’s departure.

Mudd was very gloomy during the voyage, and fears were entertained by his guard that he contemplated suicide.  He was accordingly closely watched, very much to his indignation.

“Why do you keep me so closely guarded ?”  Said he to the officer in charge of him.

“Because,” said Capt. D., “I am afraid I may lose you.”

“How lose me ?  There is surely no chance for me to escape here, and you do not suspect that I would kill myself ?”

“That it just what I fear, and until I get my receipt for your body from the commandant of the post to which you are consigned, I deem it my duty to have your every step strictly watched.”

“Well, Captain, you need have no fear on my account.  I would put an end to my miserable existence, but for the thought of eternity.  I am afraid to die, although I can bear this terrible life, which is so much worse than death.”

When off the coast of Florida, the weather being so warm, the prisoners were allowed to sleep on deck, and during the day their irons were removed.  They were very grateful for this unmerited kindness, and showed their appreciation by giving as little trouble as possible to those who had charge of them.

When the steamer came in sight of the Dry Tortugas, on the 24th, and it was made known to the criminals that this treeless, lifeless place was to be their prison, their emotion could not be checked.  They cried like children, Mudd and Arnold in particular, evincing the most poignant grief.  The former paced the deck, wringing his hands, and exclaiming time and time again, “there is no hope for me.”  Arnold bewailed his fate in piteous tones.  He said, “if this were Albany, or any other place where my mother and sisters could sometimes see me, I might bear my imprisonment, but here I shall have no one to live for.”  Mudd declared, when his paroxism of grief had subsided, that he should lose no opportunity to effect his escape.  When asked where he would go if he succeeded in eluding the vigilance of the garrison, he cried out, “Home !  Government would not touch me there.  It could not hunt me down in the midst of my wife and children.”

1.  The conviction of Dr. Samuel Mudd proved to be—along with the death sentence for Mary Surratt—the most controversial action of the Military Commission that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1833-1883) was a doctor in southern Maryland, who also used slaves on his tobacco-farm, believing slavery was a God-given institution. The Civil War seriously damaged his business, especially when Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. At this time, he first met Booth, who was planning to kidnap Lincoln, and Mudd was seen in company with three of the conspirators. But his part in the plot, if any, remains unclear. After assassinating Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold rode to Mudd’s home in the early hours of the 15th for surgery on his fractured leg. Some time that day, Mudd must have learned of the assassination, but did not report Booth’s visit to the authorities for another 24 hours; this appeared to link him to the crime and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
2.  Michael O’Laughlen, Jr. (1840-1867) was one of John Wilkes Booth’s earliest friends as the Booth family lived across the street from the O’Laughlens. When the Civil War started, O’Laughlen joined the Confederate Army and was discharged in June 1862. In the fall of 1864 O’Laughlen agreed to become a co-conspirator in the plot to kidnap President Lincoln, becoming one of Booth’s earliest recruits. The government attempted to prove he had stalked Ulysses S. Grant on the nights of April 13 and April 14 with the intent to kill and murder. This was not proven, but there was no doubt O’Laughlen was a willing conspirator through late March. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He died in Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas from yellow fever on September 23, 1867.
3.  Samuel Bland Arnold (1834-1906) was a classmate of Booth at St. Timothy’s Military Academy. Booth recruited him in the late summer of 1864 to join the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln.  Arnold dropped out of the conspiracy around the middle of March, but was arrested on suspicion of complicity after the assassination of Lincoln. After his release from prison, Arnold wrote a detailed confession of his role in the plot to kidnap Lincoln.  His statement was published in Samuel Bland Arnold: Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator, by Michael W. Kauffman. In 1902 Arnold wrote a series of newspaper articles for the Baltimore American describing his imprisonment at Fort Jefferson.
4.  Edman/Edmund “Ned” Spangler (1825-1875) was an American carpenter and stagehand who was employed at Ford’s Theatre at the time of President Lincoln’s assassination. In the early 1850s, Spangler helped build the summer home of the Booth family, and it was during this time that Spangler met future stage actor John Wilkes Booth, who was then a child. In 1861, he relocated to Washington, D.C., and began working as a carpenter and scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre. It was while working at Ford’s Theatre that Spangler became reacquainted John Wilkes Booth, and was dazzled by Booth’s fame and charm. After the assassination, Spangler was arrested on April 15, 1865, and released. He was arrested a second time on April 17 and booked as an accomplice to John Wilkes Booth. Although the evidence against him was questionable, Spangler was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.

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