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Why do we say ‘your name is mud’ – and what does it have to do with Abraham Lincoln?

If you have done something that makes you unpopular, disgraced, or discredited, it is said that 'your name is mud' – but why? And where does a US president come into the story...

John Wilkes Booth flees the theatre after shooting US president Abraham Lincoln
Published: February 11, 2022 at 9:55 am
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The origins of the phrase may seem obvious: people’s view of you is so low that you are no better than the mud beneath your feet. There is a much more interesting story linked to the phrase, however, although not necessarily the source…

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Dr Samuel Mudd was a 19th-century American doctor from a small town in Maryland, US, when he became embroiled in one of the most defining moments in the country’s history.

After John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln on 14 April 1865, he broke his leg while escaping. He rode away from Washington DC and entered Bryantown, where he knocked on the door of Mudd’s home at at 4am. Mudd treated his broken leg, and let Booth stay the night.

In the frantic manhunt following the assassination, Mudd was arrested as a conspirator, although many historians believe he did not knowingly involve himself in Booth’s plot and was a victim of hysteria.

He was pardoned in 1869 by President Johnson, but the damage to his reputation was done. So his name is still linked to disgrace even today, but attempts to redeem Samuel Mudd’s reputation continue.

It’s a great story, but sadly not the source of the saying. The phrase actually appeared years before Lincoln’s assassination in A Dictionary of the Turf (1823) by John Badcock. He defines ‘mud’ as being, “a stupid twaddling fellow”.

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This content first appeared in BBC History Revealed

Authors

Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.

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