Florida Keys Interlude


Thursday, November 17, 2016 was the second full day of the trip that we’d spend in Key West. I was up fairly early to get some work done: approving an e-blast that had to go out that day. The Detroiters woke up next and joined me on the patio at Casa Amor. They then wandered out to get breakfast, while I stayed behind finishing up my proofreading and waiting for the Chicagoans to emerge. We agreed that we’d check in throughout the day since we all wanted to meet up for the Dry Tortugas National Park Visitor Center at the Key West Bight.


Eventually, Sean, Nick, Juan, and I too wandered out and had a French breakfast at Le Petit Paris. Noah had wandered out separately, as was his wont, and met up with us at the cafe. Then all eight of us converged on the Hemingway House Museum.




What to say about Hemingway House? Full disclosure: I’ve not read much of his writing. I understand his impact on twentieth century American writing and culture. I have no particular aversion to Hemingway, but I have no particular attraction to him either. The machismo, the spare style. Meh. For American letters of the era, I far prefer Steinbeck. And for writers engaged with the Spanish Civil War, visiting Federico Garcia Lorca’s house on the outskirts of Granada was a necessary pilgrimage when Sean and I were in Spain.

The house itself, though, was fascinating, conjuring up a bygone era of literary and Hollywood subtropical chic.


Image: Sean M. Santos

His writing studio, the sanctum sanctorum, was as you’d expect, both in how it represented the man and how it reflected our idea of the “writer.”


Image/Treatment: Noah Powell

Noah sort of hit it on the head in his joke above, ultimately most of us were more taken with the famous six-toed cats than with Hemingway.






Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Sean M. Santos

Afterward, we strolled together toward the Key West Bight and Visitor Center.




The Dry Tortugas National Park Visitor Center in Key West is billed as the Fort Jefferson Museum and is part of the Key West Bight complex. There is actually a ticket booth for the Yankee Freedom III ferry to Dry Tortugas right there at the museum. The spur-of-the-moment day trip that this booth is geared to, which is how Sean and Noah ended up at Dry Tortugas almost twenty years earlier, was such a different experience from our planned and thought out and well-orchestrated camping experience.


The centerpiece of the museum is a scale replica of Fort Jefferson as it looked near the end of the Civil War. The best part of the model, which is very impressive overall, is that the still-existing parts of the fort complex are rendered in full color and detail while the vanished elements and structures are rendered in white. So it’s possible to get a sense of the size and scale of the now-demolished soldiers’ barracks or the original lighthouse or the roof elements on the fort’s ramparts and compare them to the size and location of existing structures like the magazines and the hot shot furnace. Frankly, it felt better to see the model after so thoroughly exploring the fort than it would have been to see the model first.



Then there was Doctor Mudd, present in an mannequin form opposite a young soldier.

Doctor Samuel Mudd (1833-1883) was easily Fort Jefferson’s most famous inmate, imprisoned there from 1865 to 1869 along with three others for involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, he leaped from the Presidential Box to the stage, breaking his leg in the process. Booth made his way to the home of Doctor Mudd in rural Maryland, and Doctor Mudd set Booth’s leg. After Booth was apprehended, Doctor Mudd was arrested, tried for conspiracy, and sentenced to imprisonment at Dry Tortugas (he escaped the death penalty by one vote). In 1867, an epidemic of Yellow Fever broke out at Dry Tortugas, and Doctor Mudd was instrumental in helping save lives and end the outbreak.

Video: Noah Powell

The story of Doctor Mudd inspired some in our group to interpret his story musically.

Doctor Mudd’s fellow conspirators were convinced that their trials and convictions were due to a personal vendetta against them by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Conflict over the four Lincoln conspirators was one of many disagreements between President Andrew Johnson and Stanton, which ultimately led to Johnson’s attempt to remove Stanton from office, Congress’ resistance to Johnson’s attempt, and Johnson’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. Johnson was not convicted by the Senate, however, and just before he left office, he pardoned the Lincoln conspirators, including Doctor Mudd.

The interpretive portrayal of Doctor Mudd’s story at the museum and at Fort Jefferson emphasizes his service during the Yellow Fever outbreak and the ambiguity of his conviction. He is portrayed as a doctor whose crime was refusing to turn away a man with a broken leg, essentially ending up in federal prison for obeying his vow to the Hippocratic Oath. This version of Doctor Mudd’s story was the what all of us took away from the trip.

A 1950 National Park Service interpretive guide, while strongly stated, is generally representative of the impression we got of Doctor Mudd’s story:

Sam Mudd was a country doctor of Charles County, Maryland. In disguise, the Assassin Booth went to Dr. Mudd for treatment of his leg. The Doctor, ignorant of Booth’s crime, sheltered him for a few hours. This humanitarian service caused Dr. Mudd’s arrest and sentence to life imprisonment at hard labor.

Such injustice! Such overreach by the North and the federal government!

But…the story is not so simple.

Although Doctor Mudd was pardoned by Johnson, his conviction has never been overturned, despite repeated attempts by his descendants and even sympathetic presidents (among them Jimmy Carter).

The interpretation of the Civil War by the National Park Service has undergone a sea change in the past twenty years, spurred by Dwight Pitcaithley, senior historian for NPS from 1995-2000. Before then, interpretation of the Civil War, particularly at the National Battlefields, focused narrowly on military tactics and personal biography, avoiding the larger scope of race, slavery, economics, and other reasons for the war. In the past two decades, the Park Service has moved boldly to interpret and contextualize the Civil War as a whole and not to shy away from its underlying causes.

So while the interpretive guide from 1950 quoted above (which also refers to the war as the “War Between the States”) takes pains to absolve Doctor Mudd, the profile of Mudd on the National Park Service website rebukes this earlier interpretation, coloring the “country doctor” in a very different light:

Samuel Alexander Mudd I was a physician, small-scale tobacco farmer and slave owner who assisted in the escape of John Wilkes Booth in the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Historians debate how much Dr. Mudd knew of the plot to kidnap or kill the president and others before the event, but certain facts are indisputable: that Mudd was entirely sympathetic to the Southern cause; that Booth visited his farm some weeks before the event; that Mudd met with Booth and other conspirators multiple times in Washington and they with him at his farm; that he lied about knowing Booth; and that he delayed notifying authorities of Booth’s presence in his home until days after Booth’s departure.

Despite the circumstantial evidence, no direct testimony of Mudd’s prior involvement in the plot emerged during his trial and, though convicted as a conspirator, Mudd escaped the death penalty by a single vote of the Military Commission. After Mudd’s trial, conspirator George Atzerodt claimed that Dr. Mudd played an important role in the scheme. “I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it,” Atzerodt said. “Booth sent liquors and provisions for the trip with the [kidnapped] President to Richmond about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd’s.” Samuel Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment for his association with the assassins and was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off the Florida coast, but was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869. After his release, he returned to his Maryland farm where he spent the remainder of his life.

So much for Sam Mudd the simple, upstanding country doctor.


After the museum we wandered off in search of pie…


Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Sean M. Santos



…ultimately finding it at Coffee Plantation on Caroline Street.


Image: Sean M. Santos


Image: Noah Powell

Afterward, we split up again. Sean and I joined the Detroiters for a visit to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.



Image: Sean M. Santos




Image: Sean M. Santos


The Eco-Discovery Center was great! The displays, videos, and exhibits interpreted the natural history, ecology, and geology of the entire Florida Keys region, including all three National Parks: Dry Tortugas, Biscayne, and Everglades. It also functions as an office for Dry Tortugas National Park, and Ion was able to complete his workbook and be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger for Dry Tortugas National Park.


Sean and I split off from the Detroiters and wandered around Key West some more, visiting Books and Books and a few other shops before ending up at Grand Vin Wine Bar for a couple glasses. In the midst of a big trip with friends, I enjoyed a quiet couple of hours with my husband.


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church



Image: Adam Geffen

Back at the house, we listened to music, hung out, drank, tried to swim in the now-chilly pool, had take-out burritos, and just generally relaxed.

Adam had picked up a journal to record the vacation and each of us inscribed a page with impressions from the trip.

One of the upshots of the photos of us already being shared back and forth on our phones was that they looked like band photos and album art. That led to the christening of our fake band, The Ripped Panties, dedicated to hit singles about Doctor Mudd:


Image: Nick Baker, Treatment: Noah Powell


Image: Sean M. Santos, Treatment: Noah Powell

(Despite the fun and inanity and laughter, that night I made the mistake of catching up on the national news a bit and ended up tossing and turning and fretting. It was not a good night’s sleep by any means.)


Next morning, Friday, November 18, it was time to say goodbye to Casa Amor and Key West. Our adventure would now take us north to Key Largo and Biscayne National Park.




On the way up the Keys, we stopped at Summerland Key to have a look at the old Bahia Honda bridge (above) and the current Overseas Highway (below).



Palm Warbler

Even with a brief stop, we encountered an array of wildlife including birds, insects, and reptiles.


Gulf Fritillary


Green Iguana


Green Iguana


We stopped for picnic and some beach time at Bahia Honda State Park before continuing on to Key Largo.

Now Noah, Juan, Nick, and Sean are among the funniest people I know. Stuck in a minivan together for hours (with a big group text going with Adam and Kam in the other car), led to jokes and nonsense well beyond anything appropriate for this (family friendly?) site. Emerging out of the inanity were the characters of Barb and Bjärb, created by Noah and Juan respectively, just two Minnesota gals on the go in the Florida Keys. Barb and Bjärb discussed white wine, men, and Florida in their thick Minnesota accents as I drove us ever closer to Shell World in Key Largo.


Shell World. Image: Adam Geffen

Ah Shell World. Before we could go to our AirB&B in Key Largo, we needed to stop at Shell World to get…shells? Nick and Sean were very excited to do this. Juan and I were amused. Noah was very unhappy to do this.


Shell World. Image: Sean M. Santos


Shell World. Image: Sean M. Santos


Treatment: Noah Powell

Ultimately, Barb (Noah) made her displeasure with Shell World known in a series of photo treatments.

After only a little while (-Nick and Sean) / an eternity (Noah) at Shell World, we converged on the nearby house that was ours for the next two nights. It was a three-bedroom situated on a Key Largo canal. Not nearly so glamorous as Casa Amor, but it served our needs quite well.

After unpacking we stopped at a great wine shop/bar, Corks and Screws, for provisions before getting dinner at Sharkey’s, down the street from our AirB&B.


Barb opens the gate at our AirB&B


Image/Treatment: Noah Powell

Back at the house, we hung out for a bit before heading to bed. We’d be up early the next morning for our day at Biscayne National Park.


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