Courageous Testimonies of African-American (Colored) Witnesses during the Lincoln Assassination Trial
It is not unusual to think of African Americans and Abraham Lincoln together. The honorific of “Great Emancipator” suggests that Abraham Lincoln helped African Americans a great deal, but did you know that African Americans played a fundamental role in helping to convict an alleged conspirator in his assassination trial? I did not, until recently.
While reading the official court transcripts from The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President, and the Attempt to Overthrow the Government by the Assassination of Its Principal Officers, I was captivated by the distinction of “colored,” in parentheses, next to certain individual witnesses’ names. My surprise and interest in this signifier was not exclusively because these individuals were coded by color (annoying, yes—but after all, it was 1865), but also because of their daring honesty.
African Americans testified throughout the trial, but a specific group of 10 witnesses delivered straightforward and downright risky testimony against conspirator Samuel Mudd, a doctor and plantation owner from Southern Maryland. Mudd’s alleged ties to the Confederacy, his suspicious decision to care for John Wilkes Booth during his escape from Ford’s Theatre, and Mudd’s heroic medical act while imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas have made him the complex subject of many debates.
I was most interested in the discovery that African Americans were allowed to testify in court during what could be argued was the most notorious trial of the 19th century. Only three years before, the federal government first allowed African Americans to testify in court against whites.
Historians, descendants and others have been on opposing sides of defending Mudd’s honor and innocence. The most captivating personal accounts of Mudd I have encountered, however, are from the mouths of the formerly enslaved people from his plantation and the surrounding area.
Mary Simms was the first African American to testify on May 25, 1865, and likely faced the most counterattacks because she went first. As Samuel Mudd’s former slave, she easily identified him when questioned in court. Simms recalled Mudd’s conversations about President Lincoln and was quite familiar with Mudd’s distaste for him.
Referring to Lincoln’s cloaked entrance to Washington in 1861, when he was rumored to wear women’s clothing, she said of Mudd: “He would have killed Lincoln, he said, if he had come in right, but he could not; he was dressed in woman’s clothes.”
It is noteworthy that, in May of 1865, a recently freed African-American woman felt comfortable enough to incriminate her former master. Who recruited Simms to testify, and was she prepped at all by the prosecution? Did she still live on Mudd’s plantation or anywhere nearby? Was she not afraid for her life or worried what ramifications may come to a woman who made such accusations? Without much context in the court transcripts, I yearned to learn more.
Family Friends Stand Together Against Mudd
Reading through the trial testimony, I determined that Simms and other African Americans who testified felt comfortable for a number of reasons. These could have included Maryland’s abolition of slavery the previous year, and strength in numbers. This group of witnesses was very close—family and friends— and they protected one another.
Who Else Testified Against Mudd?
Elzee Eglent was one of Mudd’s former slaves. Eglent testified that Mudd shot him, likely in summer 1863. But Eglent did appear in court and his testimony showed him to be fearless and honest. Eglent bravely admitted, “[Mudd] told me the morning he shot me that he has a place in Richmond for me.” Here we have an African-American male openly admitting to being shot and threatened by his former owner. Seems like a story worth telling!
Sylvester Eglent was originally a slave in the home of Dr. Mudd’s father and was sent with 40 others to Richmond to “build batteries,” which were large caliber guns used in warfare. His testimony sought to prove Mudd’s ties to the Confederate capital.
Melvina Washington recalled the colors of men’s clothing (likely Confederate spies) who met secretly with Dr. Mudd and camped out on his property. Her testimony was details and direct. “Some had on gray clothes, and some little short jackets, with black buttons,” she shared on the witness stand.
Milo Simms was Mary Simms’s brother and one of Mudd’s former slaves who delivered messages. His testimony was comprehensive in that he recalled Mudd telling his sons to be on the lookout and other conversations Mudd had with friends. Simms said, “I heard Ben Gardiner [a neighbor of the Mudds] tell Dr. Samuel Mudd in Beantown, that Abe Lincoln was a God d----- old son of a b---- and ought to have been dead long ago; and Dr. Mudd said that was much of his mind.” He really said that on the witness stand! My inability to put myself in his shoes makes me wonder where Simms’s bold confidence came from and whether or not he faced any repercussions
Rachel Spencer was insightful in her testimony. Yet another former slave of Mudd’s, she recalled the names of the men who slept on Mudd’s grounds, saying, “I only remember the names of Andrew Gwynn and Walter Bowie [two Confederate soldiers].”
William Marshall was descriptive. He was slave of a man named Willie Jameston who lived near Mudd. Marshall recalled a man named Ben Gardiner saying that rebels would “have old Lincoln burned up in his house.” Although Marshall’s comments were not directed toward Mudd, I cannot help but wonder who in the audience knew Ben Gardiner and whether they sought revenge against Marshall for these remarks.
Frank Bloyce lived in nearby Bryantown, a few miles from Waldorf. He recalled seeing Mudd earlier during the day on April 14th.
Eleanor Bloyce also lived nearby. She openly recalled seeing, “a gentleman with him [Mudd]” on April 15th, but could not make out his a face.
Becky Briscoe lived at John McPherson’s near Bryantown. She recalled that Mudd went off with a “strange” man to the swamp on April 15th. This strange man may very well have been John Wilkes Booth.
Each of these testimonies was intriguing and, I’m sure, played a role in leading to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s conviction. Though the credibility of their statements was challenged on the count of each witness’ race, I believe their accounts were honest. For me, they add fascinating new details to an already complicated time in our history. I believe that these witnesses were brave risk-takers and that their surprising testimony should be acknowledged as key witnesses in the trial.
As someone far removed from the operations of trials and lawyer-jargon, I found myself on the edge of my seat while reading these testimonies. These individuals challenged Samuel Mudd’s innocent country doctor reputation and revealed a private life as an immoral slave holder and corrupt Confederate spy.
The trial transcripts (more than 400 pages) are available for reading
You too, can find something or someone that peaks your interest! For further reading about this topic, read Edward Steers Jr., Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses.
Aysha Preston is former Museum Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre and a Ph.D. candidate in Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University.