The Regional Review

Volume V - No. 6

December, 1940


Long since outmoded as the "military key to the Mexican Gulf," massive Fort Jefferson unites history and romance with natural features in an unusual combination which offers substantial rewards to visitors who take the overwater trip to the Dry Tortugas Islands, 68 miles west of Key West, Florida.

Fabulous tales of smugglers, of pirate gold, of the heroism of man the builder, of the reckless desperation of escaping prisoners, of deadly yellow jack and the guarded doctor who fought it, all these and more form the record of the tiny group of islets which bears the name bestowed in 1513 by Ponce de Leon because of the hundreds of turtles he saw there.

Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal work with a perimeter of about a half-mile and walls eight feet thick and 45 feet high, covers most of 10-acre Garden Key. Construction began in 1846 and continued for 30 years. Designed for 7,500 men and 450 guns, the fort, largest brick stronghold of the Western Hemisphere, was never completed because improvements in cannon already had made its defenses obsolete.

Garrisoned by Federal troops for the first time in 1861, Jefferson was used as a military prison during the War Between the States and for several years afterward. It leaped into national attention on July 24, 1865, the day when Dr. Samuel A. Mudd arrived there to begin service of a life term because of his conviction, in a judicially remarkable 50-day trial, of abetting the escape of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Accused formally of conspiring to slay the President, the Maryland physician in reality was found guilty only of aiding the fleeing murderer; and many Americans believed Mudd had but performed his professional duty. Still bitterly protesting his innocence, the physician was frustrated in an attempt to flee the island prison by hiding in a moored ship. His fortunes thereafter rose or fell, it has been asserted, in accordance with the varying attitudes of shifting fort commanders. Then came the dreaded yellow jack.


Yellow fever had appeared on the island several times after 1854, but a major epidemic burst forth in August 1867. Soon there were 270 cases. Michael O'Laughlin, also serving a life term as an alleged accomplice of Booth, died September 23, and another early casualty was the post surgeon himself.

Dr. Mudd is said to have been on his way to volunteer his professional services to the commanding officer when he met an orderly bearing instructions that he assume charge of the fight against the scourge which, at that time, was regarded helplessly as a mysterious malady of the climate. It was not until 1900 that experimentation revealed a mosquito as the intermediate host which incubated some minuscule virus for 12 days before transmitting it to a new human victim. Yet, marshalling such remedies as the area afforded, Mudd labored Hippocratically throughout the late summer and early fall among prisoners, soldiers, and officers alike. Aided by Dr. D. W. Whitehurst, of Key West, he struggled day and night; and if the progress of science did not permit him to lead a frontal attack upon a microbian foe, it enabled him at least to lighten the tasks of those unfortunates who were destined to lose in their battle with death.

Meanwhile, there were petitions both from prisoners at Fort Jefferson and from citizens of north and south, demanding Dr. Mudd's release. He fought on while slow communications of the day carried his story to President Johnson. Pardon came in 1869. (Illustrations by Philip C. Puderer).


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Date: 04-Jul-2002