The Prisoner of Shark Island

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The Prisoner of Shark Island
film poster by Joseph A. Maturo
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Nunnally Johnson
Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Nunnally Johnson
Starring Warner Baxter
Gloria Stuart
Frank McGlynn
Francis McDonald
Music by R.H. Bassett
Hugo Friedhofer
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Edited by Jack Murray
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox
Release dates
  • February 28, 1936 (1936-02-28)
Running time
96 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a 1936 film loosely based on the life of Samuel Mudd, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by John Ford, and starring Warner Baxter and Gloria Stuart.


A few short hours after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.), Dr. Samuel Mudd (Baxter) gives treatment to a man with a broken leg who shows up at his door. Mudd does not know that the president has been assassinated and the man who he is treating is John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald). Mudd is arrested for being an accessory in the assassination and is sent to prison on the Dry Tortugas, described as in the West Indies and referred to in the film as "America's own Devil's Island".

After a period of ill treatment due to his notoriety, his skills as a doctor are requested by the Commandant of the prison. The island has been in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic and the official prison doctor has fallen ill. Dr. Mudd takes charge with the blessing of the Commandant and the cooperation of the soldier guards, and the yellow jack epidemic subsides.

In the end he receives a pardon and is allowed to return home.

Historical accuracy[edit]

The film portrays Dr. Mudd as an entirely innocent victim and scapegoat, while the actual historical details of the case and his ties to Booth cast a shadow on his true innocence.

The historically accurate parts of the movie are (1) that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, (2) by John Wilkes Booth who sought help for a broken leg from Dr. Samuel Mudd, (3) who was subsequently tried before a military commission, found guilty of aiding Booth, and sent to an island military prison, and (4) was a hero in treating those felled in a yellow fever epidemic.

Other than this, the movie is historically inaccurate from beginning to end. In the assassination in the opening scene, Lincoln is holding a poster for the play when he is shot. He never had such thing. Booth is depicted as shooting from the doorway when he was actually five feet from the back of the president at the time of the shooting.[1] Dr. Mudd's wife was named Sarah Frances, not Peggy. They had four children at the time, none of whom resembled in any way the one cute little daughter in the movie. Mrs. Mudd's father was dead, not alive and kicking as in the movie. None of the trial testimony is accurately portrayed. There is no "Shark Island"; Dr. Mudd was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands, Florida. None of the characters refer to the prison by its historical name, although Mudd does receive a letter correctly addressed to Fort Jefferson. One of Dr. Mudd's slaves did not follow him to prison, and try to help him escape from there. Dr. Mudd's wife and her father did not command a boat in an attempt to rescue Dr. Mudd from prison. Dr. Mudd did not engage in a running gun battle while trying to escape to his wife's fictional boat. He did try to escape a couple of months after arriving at Fort Jefferson by hiding aboard a visiting ship, but he was quickly discovered and returned to the fort. He was not placed in an underground pit as punishment for trying to escape. His punishment for trying to escape was 3 months in a large empty ground level gun room with four other prisoners. The men were allowed out of the gun room every day to work around the fort, etc.



  • The film inspired a radio adaptation on the "Encore Radio Theater" in 1946.
  • The film also inspired the western film, Hellgate (1952).
  • A television adaptation The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd was released in 1980.


  1. ^ Lincoln Assassination, History Channel

Further reading[edit]

  • Hughes, James (November 7, 2012). "REVIEW: The Prisoner of Shark Island". Oxford American. Shark Island still manages, seventy-five years later, to be adventurous, bizarre, redemptive, and blistering in its assessment of American power. A must for the Lincoln catalog.  A reconsideration of the film in the context of the 2012 film Lincoln.
  • Schwartz, Dennis (December 14, 2007). "The Prisoner of Shark Island". Ozus' World Movie Reviews.  A recent, positive review by the prolific online critic.

External links[edit]