By Julie Greenwalt
August 13, 1979 12:00 PM

When he was awakened at 4 a.m. by a bearded stranger with a broken leg, the Maryland country doctor obliged with a splint and a bed to sleep in. That afternoon the stranger was gone, and a few days later soldiers of the Union Army arrived to arrest the physician. The year was 1865, and the good doctor had unwittingly aided the flight of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

In the military trials that followed, eight civilians were found guilty. Four were hanged, including Booth’s landlady; the doctor was given a life sentence. After four agonizing years in prison, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, who was convinced of his innocence. But that action came too late to save his reputation, by then immortalized in the phrase “Your name is mud.” His name, in fact, was Samuel Alexander Mudd, and of his 389 known descendants (the youngest 1 month old), none resented the shadow over the family more than his grandson Richard Mudd, now 78 and a doctor himself in Saginaw, Mich.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Richard recalls that his own father—the son of the wronged Dr. Mudd and also an M.D.—was so bitter “he wouldn’t even talk about it. It ruined the family.” So, as a teenager, Richard began to gather information about the case of his infamous grandfather. “When I found out about the strait-jacket they put him in for his trial, the blindfold over his eyes and the cotton stuffed in his ears,” declares Mudd, “I wanted to do something.” But it was as a young doctor that his obsessive campaign really began. He circulated petitions, gave speeches, wrote books and filled his 13-room home with minutiae on the assassination and the Mudd family. Indeed, in the past 50 years he has logged 600,000 miles, gathered 1.5 million documents and items and spent nearly $100,000 to restore the family name.

In 1936 Twentieth Century-Fox treated his grandfather favorably in a film titled Prisoner of Shark Island, the dramatized name of the gloomy Fort Jefferson prison off the Florida Keys where he served the four years. Then in 1959 President Eisenhower authorized a plaque at the fort honoring Dr. Mudd for heroically treating hundreds of yellow fever victims during his incarceration—though he nearly died of it himself. In 1968 a school was named for Samuel Mudd in Waldorf, Md. and pageants were staged twice in his honor. Seven state legislatures issued resolutions praising him, and in 1972 Ann Landers took up the cause, exhorting Mudd supporters to “fight on.”

Richard Mudd, a Ph.D. and former Air Force colonel as well as an M.D., needed no urging. Now retired from his job as a company physician for General Motors (he still does examinations for the FAA and Coast Guard), he spent most of his time running the family’s crusade (at one point relatives wanted a bridge renamed and a stamp issued to honor Dr. Mudd). He also still plays handball three times a week (“All three doctors who told me to stop are dead”). His wife of 51 years, Marie, is a life master in bridge because, she kids, “I had to do something in self-defense.”

Late last month the quest of Richard Mudd was rewarded. First, CBS correspondent Roger Mudd, a collateral relative, tipped him that Jimmy Carter was sending a telegram. The President did, followed by a two-page, single-spaced letter expressing confidence that the 1869 pardon had been fully justified. Not even a President, Carter wrote cautiously, can set aside a conviction. Nonetheless, the letter and attendant publicity have cleared his grandfather’s name sufficiently for the keeper of the Mudd faith. “I’m satisfied,” exulted Dr. Richard Mudd. “I’ve got 34 grandchildren. Let them carry this on if they want to.”