Posts Tagged With: Dry Tortugas

The President Visits Fort Jefferson

From 1865 – 1869, Fort Jefferson served as the island prison which held four of the eight convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Micheal O’Laughlen and Edman Spangler were sent to this isolated ocean fort, 68 miles west of Key West, Florida, to serve their sentences for their involvement in Lincoln’s death. In 1869, three of the conspirators were pardoned by exiting President Andrew Johnson while one, Michael O’Laughlen, had previously perished at the Fort during a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1867.

Fort Jefferson was named after our 3rd president and is so deeply connected to the death of the 16th, but these are not the only connections that this former military base has to our former POTUSes. In this post we’ll explore the only three Presidents (that I know of) who have visited this sleeping giant.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR in Miami, Florida on December 5, 1937, the day after his trip to Fort Jefferson

We owe a lot to Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to Fort Jefferson. While the waters of the Dry Tortugas keys on which Fort Jefferson is built had previously been designated as protected, it was FDR who officially established Fort Jefferson as a National Monument in 1935. That put the old deteriorating fort in the middle of the ocean under the purview of the Department of the Interior and started the process of preservation. On November 28, 1937, President Roosevelt departed Washington intent on taking a cruise vacation to the National Monument he had helped save. On November 29, FDR boarded the U.S.S. Potomac out of Miami for a cruise to Fort Jefferson. The President was accompanied by his private secretary (and son) James Roosevelt, along with his attache of officials including the Secretary of the Interior. The Presidential group aboard the U.S.S. Potomac arrived at Fort Jefferson on November 30 and did not leave the waters around it until December 4. Over the course of his five days in the crystal blue waters of the Dry Tortugas, FDR kept busy with his work. He not only received coded messages aboard the Potomac through radio, but a mail plane was ordered by the Navy to run letters and official documents from Key West to the Potomac while it lay at anchor at Fort Jefferson. On the day that the group arrived, FDR wrote to his wife, Eleanor, who had not made the trip with him, “We are west of Key West, at the little harbor of old Fort Jefferson – a most interesting old brick fort standing out of the ocean in solitary grandeur…” The next day, FDR penned a short note to his aged mother headed with, “Dry Tortugas, December 1, 1937”. When not working, FDR joined in the many fishing expeditions that took place in the nearby waters. On one day he caught a total of five barracuda with the heaviest one weighing in at fourteen pounds. While others in the party had visited and toured the fort itself on the day of their arrival and during their subsequent time in the area, it wasn’t until the day of their departure, December 4, that FDR finally visited the Fort himself. The trip log describes his visit.

“At 10:40 the President accompanied by several members of his Party left the Potomac to inspect the ruins of Fort Jefferson. Mr. Willard Morris of the National Park Service escorted the party through the reservation and though he has been there but a few months was extremely enthusiastic and did everything possible to make the visit a pleasant one. The President evinced great interest in the structure and enjoyed the visit immensely. On departing from the Fort, Mr. Morris presented the President with a beautiful Queen conch shell which the President received with thanks and directed that it be sent to the White House. The President and all of his party signed the “guest book” in the Fort office. It was after noon when the President and his party arrived back on board the Potomac.”

During the tour FDR was informed by is guide that, “the first deck of the Fort served at one time as living quarters for soldiers, and later as cells for prisoners. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, of Maryland, the physician who treated the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, assassinator of Abraham Lincoln, was incarcerated in one of these cells.” With this tour, FDR became the first sitting President to visit the site and learn a bit about the Lincoln conspirators’ incarceration. The looming conflict of WWII prevented Roosevelt from ever returning to the island fort he helped save, but his successor would make his own trips when peacetime came again.


Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman arrives in Key West on November 17, 1946

In November of 1946, President Harry S. Truman was worn out. After 19 months in office, Truman was suffering from poor health and his doctor wrote him a prescription for a nice warm vacation. The decision was made for Truman to travel to Key West, Florida and vacation in a home originally built by the Navy in 1890. This marked Truman’s first visit to Key West but resulted in the President falling in love with the town on the southernmost point of the continental United States. Over the course of his Presidency, Truman made a total of eleven visits to Key West staying a total of 175 days in the home he affectionately dubbed, the Little White House. In his post-Presidency life, Truman continued to visit Key West regularly, he considering it his second favorite place on earth after his hometown of Independence, Missouri. The Truman Little White House is a tourist attraction in Key West today and are regularly open for tours when not housing important guests or diplomats.

Having spent so much time in Key West over the course of his presidency, it should come to no surprise that Harry Truman visited the island prison of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, Fort Jefferson. Truman actually visited Fort Jefferson during his very first vacation to Key West, on November 22, 1946. He was transported to the island by the U.S.S. Stribling, a 2200 ton Navy destroyer, for a sight seeing trip. A second destroyer, the U.S.S. O’Hare carried members of the press and served as an escort vessel. When they reached the island, President Truman and his party were met by Russell Gibbs, the custodian of the fort who lived there with his wife and child. The large party had been joined by members of the press, including photographers who snapped some pictures of the visit that have been digitized by the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. In most of the pictures below President Truman is the one wearing the safari helmet.

The official log of the President’s visit in 1946 included a little summary of the tour Truman was given by Russell Gibbs. Truman was fully educated about how Fort Jefferson was used to imprison Dr. Samuel Mudd (the other conspirators didn’t make the cut again) and how Dr. Mudd’s bravery during the 1867 yellow fever epidemic helped earn him a pardon. The log then contains this nugget:

“The President and his party were shown one of the areas of Dr. Mudd’s confinement, where the President posed for a picture. On being informed by the guide that Dr. Mudd was confined with a ball and chain about his leg, the President jokingly asked the guide if there were any balls and chains available now so that he might leave a few members of his party here.”

Sadly, I have not been able to find the described photograph of President Truman posing in Dr. Mudd’s cell. After the tour was over, President Truman and his party thanked Russell Gibbs, signed the fort’s register, and departed.

The large party then split into two groups and boarded the smaller boats that had ferried them between the destroyers and the island. Preparations were made for the President and his party to enjoy some fishing about 4 miles away from the Fort. A bet was made between President Truman and Clark Clifford, his White House Counsel who occupied the other boat. Clifford bet the President five dollars that his group on his boat could catch a larger weight of fish than the President and his boat-mates. Truman accepted the challenge and the two boats, which positioned themselves about 200 yards away from one another, started casting. President Truman made the first catch of them all, landing a six pound grouper. In the following picture of the ecstatic president with his fish, Fort Jefferson can be seen on the horizon under his wrist.

The log of the trip contains a humorous anecdote of “collusion” on the part of the crew of the President’s fiishing boat. Unbeknownst to Clark Clifford and his boat, while the Presidential party was touring Fort Jefferson, the crew of the President’s boat had done some fishing of their own. The plan was to include these extra fish with the President’s when the two boats weighed up against each other later. While the President and his group had modest luck (save for Truman’s Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy who caught nothing and “could only confess he was a bad fisherman on this trip”), Clark Clifford’s boat did exceptionally well. When the fishing came to an end and the two weighed up, it was found that Clifford’s group had bested the President’s. Even when the President’s group added the pre-caught fish from the crew of their ship, they still lost to Clifford.

“When it was learned that Mr. Clifford’s group caught the larger weight of fish, the President confessed to Mr. Clifford that even by weighing in the fish already on board the DOLPHIN when he started fishing, his group had failed to beat Mr. Clifford’s group. Had it not, however, the President jokingly remarked he might not have confessed the perfidy.”

It’s unknown if Truman paid Clifford his well-earned Lincoln.

This 1946, trip was not the only time Truman visited Fort Jefferson. About two years later, on November 13, 1948, Truman returned to the Dry Tortugas, this time accompanied by his wife Bess and daughter Margaret. The Trumans and their guests spent about an hour touring the Fort. Here are some of the pictures from this trip, once again courtesy of the Truman Library.

In the log for this 1948 visit, it was noted that President Truman had remembered what he had been taught about Dr. Mudd two years previously:

“The President, who had previously visited the island in November 1946, pointed out the dungeon where Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, had been held prisoner.”

President Truman made one final visit to Fort Jefferson during his presidency. This last trip occurred on March 21, 1951. President Truman greeted the workers and visitors to Fort Jefferson and took the tour. It was a fairly standard visit except this time a picnic lunch was set up for the party on the parade grounds of the fort. The meal included ice cream, which was also given to the children who lived at the Fort with their parents. After lunch was over, Truman signed the guest book as usual and departed. Here are the pictures of the visit.

When President Truman departed Fort Jefferson on March 21, 1951, it marked the last time a President has set foot on the island. But it’s not exactly the last time a President has “visited”.


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower chipping golf balls in Key West, January 7, 1956

On December 28, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Key West, Florida. Three months earlier, on September 24, Ike had suffered a severe heart attack. In order to help with the President’s recovery, it was suggested that he take a vacation to a warmer climate and get away from the harsh D.C. cold. Eisenhower took up residence in the Little White House in Key West that his predecessor Truman had enjoyed so much. Eisenhower had actually stayed at the Little White House during Truman’s presidency when Ike was still acting as a General in the army. Eisenhower spent eleven days in Key West, painting, chipping golf balls, and taking strolls. The press noted that:

“Shirt-wise, the President’s holiday was not so colorful as Mr. Truman’s used to be – he dressed in slacks and sweater. Moreover, the President was conscious that this was a holiday for health and not fun. It was not the place he would have chosen. He is a man who prefers to have the smell of balsam in his nostrils rather than the smell of tide water. (One morning he stood before a window overlooking the sea, painting a Rocky Mountain scene.)”

So it seems that the allure of Key West might not have rubbed off on Eisenhower as much as it did on Truman. However, Eisenhower at least found something alluring with Fort Jefferson. While he did not take a naval destroyer cruise out to the Dry Tortugas, he made sure to get a glimpse of the fort on his way back to Washington. After departing by plane from Key West on January 8, Eisenhower had his pilot divert off their path to Washington so that he could see Fort Jefferson from the air. Here is a New York Times article about it:

Though he never stepped foot inside Fort Jefferson, it could be debated that Eisenhower’s views surpassed those of FDR and Truman. Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas are truly beautiful from the air.

Five hours after his plane had taken off in Key West, President Eisenhower landed back in Washington, D.C.


It’s possible that more Presidents have seen Fort Jefferson for themselves aside from FDR, Truman, and Ike. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have stayed at the Truman White House in Key West following their presidencies, but I haven’t been able to find anything on whether those visits included trips to the Dry Tortugas. Other former presidents like U. S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and JFK visited Key West, but it’s very doubtful their visits included the very isolated fortress across the ocean 68 miles to the west.

Regardless, Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park remains one of our treasured historical gems. If you ever have a chance to visit this massive masonry marvel, I highly recommend it. Whether you get there by ferry or seaplane, you’ll depart knowing that you have walked in the footsteps of both conspirators and Presidents.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

A New Photograph of Dr. Mudd?

I’ve always been a big proponent of digitization efforts on the part of institutions. Scanning and putting materials online allows researchers to connect with items that they would not know existed otherwise. It was through a digital collection that I noticed that there was a third mug shot photograph of conspirator Michael O’Laughlen when most texts and historians were only aware of two. At the time, I had believed that discovery of a new photograph of a Lincoln conspirator had been a once in a lifetime find. Yet last night while doing some minor research regarding Fort Jefferson, the island prison of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, I believe I stumbled across another historic find and, once again, digitization efforts have made it possible.

In April of this year, I fulfilled my dream of visiting and camping at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. I took almost 2500 pictures while on the island and yesterday I went through some of them. Some of the pictures I took were attempts to recreate older photos of the Fort that I had seen in books. The goal was to match the old photo as close as I could and use them for side by side shots demonstrating the “Then and Now” of Fort Jefferson. Last night I was looking for high resolution copies of some of the older photographs in order to provide the best visuals I could. While searching for better quality images of National Park Service photographs, I came across a digitization site called the Open Parks Network.

Operating in partnership with the NPS and Clemson University, Open Parks Network is digitizing some of the National Park Service’s holdings of images and documents. In this manner they have digitized some of the collection of Dry Tortugas National Park. I was grateful to find that the Open Parks Network had several of the older images I needed and that they were available to download for free and were in the public domain.

Then, as I was scrolling through the items from the Dry Tortugas collection, I found this curious entry.

Though titled, “Doctor Mudd at fort entrance, Fort Jefferson” it had the date of 1870 attached to it. Given that Dr. Mudd was pardoned and left Fort Jefferson in 1869, I was suspicious. I just assumed that some archivist or digitizer made a mistake somewhere, but I clicked on the entry anyway. This is the image I was presented with.

I, of course, immediately zoomed in on the figure sitting on the railing near the moat.

Now I receive a lot of pictures from people claiming to have a previously unknown photograph of John Wilkes Booth. At times I have been sent a prospective Lewis Powell or George Atzerodt to consider. I’ve also been given a couple of Dr. Mudds to peruse. Yet, despite the many folks who believe their mustachioed gentleman is John Wilkes Booth, I have never been presented with a new image of the conspirators (aside from the O’Laughlen one) that I felt was the real McCoy. Some have trouble accepting my opinion on their images and try to convince me that I’m mistaken. They provide “evidence” which “proves” their image is who they say it is. Some have even taken their images to so-called photography experts who have used scientific means to prove their image is genuine. But such claims have never changed my mind. All of the commissioned “proof” in the world can’t make my eyes see something that it doesn’t. I can speak about details in Booth’s face but, in the end, it just comes down to the basic question, “Does it look right”? Thus far, they never have. So I think it’s safe to say that I have a pretty discriminating eye when it comes to images of Booth and his conspirators.

It is for this reason that I am amazed to find myself saying that this image of Dr. Mudd looks right to me. I fully admit that the quality of the image is not great. The main subject is sitting farther back from the camera than would be optimal. His face is only partially turned toward the camera which impedes identification. And the notation of 1870 needs rectifying. Yet despite all of that, when I look at the gentleman in the picture I see Dr. Mudd. I see his mustache and his goatee (though trimmed a bit closer than in his other pictures). I see his slender build, made even more slender from the conditions of his imprisonment. And even though they are little more than pixels in this low quality image, I can still make out the light and aloof eyes that identify Dr. Mudd to me. In addition the pants and shoes the man is wearing closely, if not exactly, match the attire Dr. Mudd was photographed in while he was working in the carpentry shop at Fort Jefferson.

Let’s address the other aspects of the photo. After the uncanny resemblance to Dr. Mudd, there were a few things I noticed right off the bat. First, this is clearly a photo of a photo. At some point the original photo appears to have been tacked up on a wall or board somewhere and someone took a camera and photographed it. You can still see the tacks that held up the image in the corners.

Second, the original image looks like half of a stereoview photograph.  Stereoview or stereoscopic images are taken with a camera that has two lenses spaced beside each other. The camera captures two slightly different angles of the same subject. When viewed with a stereoviewer a three dimension image can be seen. This type of photography was popular in the Civil War era and beyond and can still be seen in the children’s toy, Viewmaster.  The closely cut right hand side of the image and the rounded top seem to imply that this image was taken with one side of a stereoscopic camera.

A stereoview card of Ford’s Theatre

Third, this photograph is old. When it comes to pictures of Fort Jefferson there are only a few that come from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. A large percent of the archived image of Fort Jefferson are from the 1930s onward. There are a few that were taken in the late 1890s and early 1900s when the Spanish American War made Fort Jefferson an important and useful fort again. Photography had also advanced quite a bit at that time which made photography easier, cheaper and more popular among amateurs. The presence of Union soldiers behind the Dr. Mudd figure and the good condition of the Fort itself show that this image most certainly could have been taken during Dr. Mudd’s imprisonment.

After going through all of the images in the Dry Tortugas collection that the Open Parks Network has digitized, I discovered that this was not the only image that shares the unique features mentioned above. I found eight other images of scenes around the Fort that are photographs of photographs and similarly appear to be parts of stereoview cards. You can view them here (1), here (2), here (3), here (4), here (5), here (6), here (7) and here (8). All the images show the Fort in the state of construction that it was in during the conspirators’ time there. One of the images is of the memorial for Dr. Joseph Sim Smith, the post doctor who died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867 that Dr. Mudd took over for.

If this image was taken at the same time as the Dr. Mudd one, which would seem likely, this can help us date that picture to after 1867.

The back notation of 1870 is a discrepancy in all of this. As far as we know, Dr. Mudd never returned to Fort Jefferson after his pardon in 1869 and, even if he did, it would seem extremely unlikely he would return so soon after his release. Some of the images that look similar to the Dr. Mudd one also bear the notation 1870, but others from the same series do not. It is my opinion that those notations of 1870 cannot be taken as accurate. As stated before, the images are clearly pictures of pictures so we do not know what writing, if any, was on the originals. The fact that none of the 9 images in the series have any other notation on the back shows that not a lot of detail was given to recording precise information about what they show and when. Perhaps 1870 was an approximate (or circa) guess by a well-meaning Park Service employee who discovered the image years later.

To me, despite its problems, this photograph checks all the boxes. The original image was taken using period appropriate photography equipment. The condition of the Fort matches the period of time when the Lincoln conspirators were imprisoned there. The Dr. Mudd figure has the same facial hair and body type as the doctor and his clothes closely match an outfit Mudd was known to have had with him on the fort. Lastly, the specific location of this photograph at the fort makes sense for Dr. Mudd. For a large part of his imprisonment at Fort Jefferson, Mudd was housed in the cell right above the Sally Port entrance. The three vertical windows on the second floor of this image are the windows of Dr. Mudd’s cell. So this image captures not only a figure who looks like Dr. Mudd, but the location of his imprisonment, which seems purposefully planned.

The cell that Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen and Edman Spangler shared was located above the sally port entrance to Fort Jefferson and is marked by the three vertical windows.

Still, all of this evidence only proves that it is possible for this image to be of Dr. Mudd. In the end, we must all draw our own conclusions.

Personally, I believe that this is an unpublished and previously unknown image of Lincoln assassination conspirator Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. I’m very excited that digitization has allowed me to find this image and share it with all of you. I hope that it can be used to further our understanding of the life of Dr. Mudd and his time at Fort Jefferson.


EDIT: A couple of comments have been made expressing doubt that the figure is Dr. Mudd due to the fine nature of the subject’s clothing. On the face of it, it is hard to believe that a man who was imprisoned on a isolated island for 3 years and 9 months could look so immaculately dressed. The following is the comment I made in reply to that conclusion which shows why I think it actually makes perfect sense for Dr. Mudd to look so well presented:

“Please thank Rick Smith for his analysis of the clothing. He is a real expert on both civilian and soldier attire so I’m glad to see that this image matches the time period.

It appears that the only reason Rick is suspicious that the image is not Dr. Mudd is due to the cleanliness and fine quality of his outfit. You also seemed surprised by the niceness of his attire. However, we must remember that Dr. Mudd was furnished with clothes by Mrs. Mudd while he was in prison. He used one of his fine suit of clothes when he attempted to make his escape in 1865. Here’s a quote from the report about Mudd’s escape attempt which mentions Dr. Mudd’s clothing:

“Since he has been in confinement here, he has been employed in the Prison Hospital, as Nurse and Acting Steward. When he came here, it was noticed that he immediately adopted the same clothing as worn by other prisoners. Although he had good clothes of his own. On the day he attempted to escape he put on one of the suits he brought with him and in some way got outside the Fort to the Wharf…”

Shortly after his escape attempt, Dr. Mudd wrote home asking his wife to provide him (and his cell mates) with additional clothing. On October 5, 1865, Mudd wrote, “The only article of clothing I need is shirts. The Government furnishes flannel shirts, which I find very pleasant in damp weather, but very disagreeable and warm in dry sunshine. If the friends of Arnold and O’Laughlin should send a box of clothing to them, you may put in a couple of brown linen, or check linen, shirts and a couple pairs cotton drawers. You may not bother yourself to this extent if you anticipate an early release. My clothing is sufficient to come home in.”

At least one shipment of clothes arrived by December as he wrote then to his brother-in-law Jeremiah Dyer that he had received a shipment, “containing a quantity of fine clothes”. A similar letter written to Mrs. Mudd at the time also commented on the clothing shipment stating, “The clothing is finer than I need, besides I am not situated to wear them.

These accounts establish that while Dr. Mudd did possess some fine pieces of clothing while at Fort Jefferson, during his day to day prison life he generally wore the normal garb provided by the government. However, I would imagine that getting your photograph taken would be the one event that would lead you to put on your finest clothing. And, if we speculate that this image might have been taken shortly before Dr. Mudd left Fort Jefferson forever, it would make sense he would change into his finest suit for the journey home.”


EDIT #2: I neglected to mention that this picture of Dr. Mudd wasn’t the only treasure in the Dry Tortugas collection. Also included in the digitized images is this picture of the door to the dungeon that held Dr. Mudd and the other conspirators after Dr. Mudd’s escape attempt. In his later memoirs Samuel Arnold mentioned that the door was headed with the inscription “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind.” From this image of the original door we can see that inscription was a bit more succinct than Arnold recalled but just as foreboding:

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