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
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
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
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.