Edman “Ned” Spangler wrote letters to friends and relatives describing his experiences while a prisoner from 1865 to 1869 at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. Spangler was sent there after being found guilty of helping John Wilkes Booth escape from Ford’s Theater, a charge he vehemently denied the rest of his life.
See my recently York Sunday News column below for excerpts from some of those letters:
Ned Spangler—life as a prisoner at Fort Jefferson
Several years ago I wrote a column on Edman “Ned” Spangler (1825-1875), York native tried with the Lincoln conspirators. I noted that Spangler was convicted only of helping John Wilkes Booth escape from Ford’s Theater that night of April 14, 1865, not of conspiracy to murder the president. Throughout the rest of his life, he vigorously asserted that he was completely innocent of any charges, a stance supported by high ranking officials and leading newspapers throughout the nation.
After the hanging of four of the conspirators, the remaining four prisoners were sent to Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, arriving there July 24, 1865. Spangler was to serve six years at hard labor, and the other three: Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd and Michael O’Laughlin, were given a life sentence. Serving as a military prison, it was not a good place to be, especially during the 1867 yellow fever epidemic.
The 150th anniversary of the assassination is soon, so I found the excerpts below, from letters written by Spangler while at Fort Jefferson, quite interesting. (I recently had the opportunity to visit Fort Jefferson, now a national park and a most impressive site.) The tiny island is part of Florida, but lies 70 miles out to sea.
This letter, to an unknown correspondent, possibly a Spanglers who had gone west, was published in the Aledo [Illinois] Weekly Record October 25, 1865. Besides again emphatically avowing his innocence and that he was the victim of false witnesses, he tells of life on the island:
“My dear friend,
I take my pen in hand to write to you these few lines to let you know that I am well and hope you are the same. This is a pretty hard place to live. The sun is very hot and we have hard grub, salt horse and one pc. of bread. We sometimes get soup. There is some small fish in the break water that we can catch from our cell window, but we have no fish hooks small enough here. Have no money to send for them. There is a sutlers store here. You can get anything you want if you have the money. There is about 500 prisoners here. We have the privilege of going over the whole island. It is about 13 acres of sand and some few trees. I am at work at my trade… .
Yours Most Respectfully,
Two years later yellow fever rampaged through the fort. Spangler wrote to Baltimore friends, and the letter was widely published in newspapers:
“Fort Jefferson, Fla., Sept. 6, 1867
I am well at present, but don’t know how long it will last, for we have the yellow fever here, and there are two and three dying every day, and I am busy working in the carpenters’ shop, making coffins day and night, and don’t know when my time will come. They don’t last longer than a few hours. I will enclose a few moss pictures for you, and I will send you a barrel of coral if I don’t get the yellow fever and die; but there are ten chances to one if I ever see you again. It is very desperate here. The doctor of the post is very sick with it, and there is no doctor here but Dr. Mudd, and he volunteered his services, and has made a good hit of it. We have lost no cases with him yet.
With love to all,”
Spangler again wrote to Baltimore friends September 24, telling of some of the items he made in the carpenter shop and sent to relatives and friends, such as a writing desk, canes and a cribbage board. He also reports that the epidemic is worsening:
“Poor Michael O’Laughlin, my friend…died yesterday of yellow fever, and during the twenty-four hours seven others passed from time to eternity. The fever has assumed a more malignant type. There is but one officer for duty at the post, the others having died or now lying ill with the fever. Lieut. Gordon, taken two days ago, is now lying in a critical condition. From all I can learn we have had 280 cases, out of which so far thirty have died. Some are even taken with it the second time, and from appearances, and from what the Doctor says, we shall always have it here—the thermometer never falling below 63 degrees. I have not been attacked yet, but may be at any moment, in which case I thought it best to forward to you and my family small mementoes, should I die of the fever. Arnold has had it, and has fully recovered, yet remains in a very weak condition. Something should be done, if possible, toward obtaining our removal from this den of pestilence and death to some more healthy place. Nearly all the late cases are of very malignant type, scarcely any recovering.”
Mudd also fell sick with the disease, but recovered. Spangler, Arnold and Mudd were pardoned by President Johnson just before he left office in March 1869, partially for helping out during the yellow fever outbreak. Arnold’s father personally brought the pardons for his son and Spangler to Florida. The two were taken by federal craft to Key West, then travelled on the steamship Cuba to Baltimore, arriving April 6. Ned went back to work as a carpenter, helping build John Ford’s grand new opera house in Baltimore. After it was completed in 1871 he went to live with Dr. Mudd at his home near Waldorf, Maryland, doing carpentry jobs in the neighborhood for the next few years. He died before he had a chance to build his own house on land the Mudds gave him, and is buried nearby in St. Peter’s cemetery.
On June 23, 1869 Edman Spangler released a nearly 3,000 word statement telling of his complete innocence, the harsh treatment of the defendants supposedly ordered by Secretary of War Stanton and the cruelty of some of the officers at Fort Jefferson. It was widely published throughout the country. More on that later.