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Sunday, 18 March 2018

His name is mud: the origin of the phrase


When we say that somebody’s name is “mud” we mean that he or she is completely out of favour for one reason or another. On the face of it, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable word to use, given that mud is that nasty, sticky or slippery stuff that we don’t like treading in if we can avoid it.

However, the term has a much more interesting derivation, concerning a tale of a miscarriage of justice and a name that just happened to fit the use to which it was put.

The story begins with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in a box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on 14th April 1865. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, fired the fatal shot then jumped down on to the stage of the theatre. This proved to be too great a height for safety, because Booth broke his leg when he landed and it was only with some difficulty that he was able to leave the theatre, mount his horse and escape.

Once safely outside Washington, Booth found a doctor to treat his injury. This was Dr Samuel Mudd, who did what he was asked, after which Booth rode away.

Dr Mudd only realized who his patient had been when news of the assassination reached everyone the following day. He promptly informed the authorities that he had seen and treated the assassin, but the response he got was far from what he expected. Instead of being thanked for providing valuable information, he was arrested and charged for apparently being a friend of Booth and part of a conspiracy to kill the President.

Giving aid to the man who killed Abraham Lincoln was reckoned by the general public, and the court that tried Dr Mudd, as being a heinous crime that deserved a heavy punishment, and a sentence of life imprisonment was what he got, despite his claim that he had no idea who Booth was at the time he had treated his injury.

It was not until 1869 that Dr Mudd was pardoned and released from jail, but there were still plenty of people who did not believe his protestations of innocence. His name therefore continued to be “mud” for the rest of his life, and “mud” has stuck to many other people in later years whose reputation has been seriously tarnished.
© John Welford