“This Old Patriot Stood His Ground”

In 1864, George Blessing, “Hero of Highland,” bravely battled Confederate raiders on his farm near Wolfsville, Frederick County, Maryland, but the real man and his deeds became almost unrecognizable in popular retellings.

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Still image courtesy of the History Channel.

John Caleb Leatherman (1852-1952), who was a child during the Civil War and a neighbor of the man who would earn the sobriquet “Hero of Highland,” told a Hagerstown Daily Mail reporter in 1950, ​”Boy, that ol’ George Blessing was a spunky one. Those Rebels were trying to get a hold of all the horses they could. When [my] Father heard about it, he took his horses up into Pennsylvania. Not George Blessing—he just stood pat on his own farm there.”

A barnyard shootout at Blessing’s Highland Farm took place on 9 July, 1864, the same day that the Battle of Monocacy was fought only a few miles away on the outskirts of Frederick City. At the end of that month, the Frederick Examiner ran a letter to the editor, suggesting “the raising of a sum, by the contributions of Union men … for the purpose of procuring a medal, with the appropriate device and inscription, to commemorate [Blessing’s] noble feats of that occasion.”

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Frederick Examiner, 27 July, 1864.

In the years that followed, the grandiosity of the tale and the pious nature of the hero was escalated by his niece, the writer Nellie Blessing Eyster, who published grandiose versions in both a noted ladies magazine and in her 1867 novel  Chincapin CharlieIn the latter, she called him “one of Nature’s noblemen,” wrote that he was possessed of a “strange power” from “living so close to Jesus,” and that as he was “thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ’76, loving the government for which his fathers died, next to the God whom he so devoutly worshipped … he defended his home from what he sacredly believed an unrighteous invasion.”

This holy grey warrior in his twilight, George Blessing, the son of George Johann Blessing (1764-1821) and Juliana Easterday (1765-1824), was born on 15 May, 1794, and was christened the next day at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Middletown.

Blessing was the grandson of Jacob Blessing (1736-1813), who emigrated from the Electorate of Saxony in modern Germany and wed Anna Magdalena Traut (1743-1813) of New Holland, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1761. On his mother’s side, Juliana was one of 11 children of Christian Easterday (1730-1805), who came to the Colonies from Germany in 1749—first to Philadelphia and later to nascent Frederick County, after marrying in 1750 Juliana Johanna Francisca Spiess of York County, Pennsylvania.

The Easterdays and Blessings were interconnected through multiple marriages. Kate Easterday (1826-1884), great-granddaughter of Christian, wrote in a letter to L.F.M. Easterday toward the end of her life, “There is a beautiful stream of water flowing through the entire length of our valley called the Catoctin Creek. The Easterday family graveyard is on the east side of the creek and the Blessing graveyard on the west of the creek. Both are on a hill, and not a quarter of a mile apart. There is also a graveyard where they buried their colored people.”

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An ambrotype of Nannie Tyler Page of Frederick, Maryland, with her child and her slave Laura Frazier. Both the happiness in Mrs. Page’s eyes and the resentment in Laura’s seem palpable. Courtesy Historical Society of Frederick County.

According to John Leatherman, “That George Blessing was one of the hottest Abolitionists I ever did see. The funny thing, though, was that he had some slaves on his own farm. He had married an Easterday girl from down around Jefferson and she had inherited some slaves. They weren’t treated like any other slaves in that day—they were treated like humans. And ol’ George freed them after the war started, long before the Emancipation Proclamation, and told them they could go their ways. ‘Nary a one left the place. All of those [former slaves] stayed on until the day he died, and the Blessings buried them all eventually in a corner of the St. John’s Lutheran churchyard, on Church Hill, about two miles from Myersville.”

Nellie Eyster wrote in Chincapin Charlie that one former slave was called Joe and another was a woman named Pinky. In the 1910 book, Middletown Valley in Song and Story, Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh noted that when news came of the Confederates’ imminent arrival on the farm, Pinky was ordered by Blessing to “blow the horn for assembly of the family, the Bible was taken from its shelf, and [Blessing] read the 91st Psalm,” which begins, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Blessing had married his first cousin, Susanna Easterday, on 8 December, 1821. She either came to him with a dowery of slaves or, if Leatherman was right, she had inherited them by 1830. On the census of that year, it is enumerated that the Blessings owned three male slaves—one aged 10-23, and two under the age of 10. They also owned two female slaves—one aged 23-34 and one under the age of ten. This probably represents either a single adult mother and her children or possibly a couple—Pinky and Joe?—and their offspring.

Ten years later, in 1840, the Blessings were enumerated with three slaves—one male and one female aged 10-23, and one female aged 23-34. By the day of the 1850 Census, no slaves remained and the only black individual nearby was a laborer named Luther Rollins who was at the property of 63-year-old Catherine Delauder. In 1860, there were no African-Americans anywhere in the Blessings’ vicinity. This calls into question Leatherman’s claim that the slaves stayed with the Blessings for the rest of their lives. Either they all were dead by 1850, which seems unlikely as the slaves on the 1840 Census were all young, they had hired themselves out to other farms at a distance, or perhaps the Blessings’ tenderness did not inspire the loyalty indicated by Leatherman.

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George and Susanna Blessing had ten children: Elizabeth Ellen (1824-1908); Benjamin Lawrence (1826-1886); Catherine J. (1828-1908); Parker George (1829-1866); Susan Rebecca (1831-1913); Lauretta Ann (1835-1914); Caroline P. (1836-1868); Lewis Clay (1839-1865); Tilghman Luther (1841-1845); and Sarah Ann Penelope (1844-1921).

At Find-a-Grave, Ancestry, and other sites, two pictures (below) can be found that purport to be George and Susanna Blessing. They originated with genealogist Howard Lanham and appear by his courtesy.

On the left is a black-and-white version of an albumen carte de visite (CDV). The woman portrayed is clearly in her late 20s to early 30s. She is dressed in the fashions of the early 1860s. The picture at right shows a man who cannot be more than 45 years of age, and I would speculate closer to 38 to 40. This is also clearly a CDV and he is also dressed in the fashions the early 1860s.

CDVs, while patented abroad in 1854, were not available in the United States until the summer of 1859, and then only in New York City. By 1861, the photographic medium was flourishing all over the country. Previous to this, studio portraiture was available solely in the form of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes—both photographic processes resulted in single-copy, fragile, cased images. Neither of these CDVs shows signs of having been copied from earlier daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, and the fashions and hairstyles of the sitters further rule this possibility out.

If the subjects are Blessings, then they may be Parker George Blessing and Susan Blessing Crone, whose names and ages comport with the appearance of the sitters, although they may also be other Blessing children.

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Courtesy Howard Lanham.

In Chincapin Charlie, Eyster describes her uncle thusly: “Seventy-two winters had already passed over him, leaving no marks of their frosts upon his head save a few grey hairs sprinkled among the short and heavy locks which curled over it. His sunburned skin and hard hands bore record of the toil and exposure which had marked his life, but his face was one which for firmness, shrewdness, thoughtfulness, courage, and dignity of conscious rectitude, would have graced any of the grand old Roman fathers.” He had a “bold broad forehead” and “Laughing blue eyes sheltered under shaggy eyebrows” with “countless tiny crow’s-feet.”

This description tallies remarkably well with the photo above left, which Lanham believes to be George Blessing. Of the provenance of the three photos, he told me, “I have had these images for many years and they were printed from 35mm negatives. Someone brought the original photos … to one of the Easterday reunions during the 1970s and I asked to copy them.”

The odds are good, therefore, that this is the actual face of George Blessing.

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On 9 July 1864, Confederates were in the vicinity of Wolfsville, Maryland. Shortly before this, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had moved his forces along the Shenandoah Valley, crossing into Maryland at Shepherdstown. The majority of those troops were at that moment engaged in battle by the Monocacy River, but Early had sent out bands of marauders to round up horses and other livestock.

It should be noted that Blessing farm was not the only place where a skirmish occurred that day, if the Hagerstown Morning Herald of 1 July, 1955, is to be believed. “On the march from Hagerstown to Frederick through Middletown Valley, Early sent small squads of cavalry to gather supplies … from the farms. Of course, they didn’t bother to buy them. When these soldiers entered the community around Grossnickle’s Church, near Ellerton, they met resistance and trouble.

“They asked a boy [John Mahlon Bussard (1848-1915)], who later became a minister of the Church of the Brethren, where the farmers had hidden the horses. He said he did not know. However, the soldiers found them in a wooded hollow. When Levi Kesselring saw what was happening, he raised his gun to protect the horses. When one of them shot at him, he returned fire and got two of them. The others fled to Middletown on horseback taking the wounded with them. The two men died that night.”

Kesselring ought to have been lauded as a hero, too, but he did not gain the attention of national newspapers, as Blessing did. The story of the “Battle of Highland” appeared in many newspapers—some to which George Blessing himself mailed an account.

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This 1873 map shows the property of “G Blessing” at the top right, as well as denotes it as the site of “High Land Battle Field.”

For Blessing to pepper editors with his missives was not unusual, however. In the book And All Our Yesterdays: A Chronicle of Frederick County, author John M. Ashbury noted that Blessing “frequently demonstrated his sly sense of humor in letters to the editor to various newspapers throughout the county.”

For example, when the area around Middletown tried to break off into its own county in 1856, to be named Johnson after Maryland founding father Thomas Johnson, Blessing wrote to the Examiner that “I would name it Tadpole County, from the fact that comes nearest in shape to that insignificant animal. I would like to know how far $12,000 would reach to meet the current expenses of this new county, to say nothing of the inconvenience to which those citizens residing at the head and tail of Tadpole County would be subjected.”

As the embroidering of the Battle of Highland story commenced, Blessing wrote again to the Examiner, promulgating his version of the event. The newspaper published his letter on 27 July—seven days after originally running the sensationalized story.

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Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 27 June, 1864.

What follows are the two most unadulterated versions of what happened that summer day at Highland Farm, the first told by Blessing himself in his letter to the Examiner, and the second by Union officer Corporal Christopher Armour Newcomer (1840-1924), who was at the farm late in the afternoon of 9 July.

On the morning of that day, a company of cavalry commanded Major Harmon and Captain Walker came in sight of my farm, where they detailed five to come and steal my horses. As they rode up, I gave my son two guns and I took six and went in the name of the Lord God of Hosts to meet them, and as they rode up in haste we fired upon them in quick time and one was mortally wounded (he died at Middletown), the other not so bad, they rode under the overshoot of the barn where we had cross-fire on them. As they were retreating, I fired, killing one on the spot, and took the other prisoner.

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Is Blessing stating that he killed two Rebels? He wrote that he shot one Rebel in the opening salvo, who later died in Middletown, as well as another killed outright as they were retreating. Frederick Examiner, 27 July, 1864.

The balance got back to the Company, which was from 40 to 60 strong, and before I had reloaded my guns they returned, nineteen in number, and had pressed in their service four of my neighbors as guides, and marched them in advance. I gave my son two guns and another young man one, but they both retreated. I then took four guns and went to a group of cherry trees; as their guides came up I halted them under pain of death if they did not stand. One of them broke off and ran. I fired on him without effect. As soon as he reached the Rebels, they opened fire upon me to their hearts’ content; the splinters from the trees and fence flew in my face while some of the [minni]balls fell at my feet. I had three guns which I held back for sure work. After firing some fifty shots they rode off, leaving their dead and wounded in my hands.

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Hawkline Farm, near Ellerton and Wolfsville, Maryland. This aerial photo shows one of several potential sites of the 9 July skirmish. There is no doubt that this farm was once owned by Blessing, but he also owned an adjacent property that may be the Highland Farm where the fighting took place.

They sent me word that they would bring up a battery and shell me. I sent word back that I had their wounded man in the barn, and if they chose to burn him up they could do so.

A little before night, Cole’s Cavalry, under command of Lieut. Colonel [George W. F.] Vernon, came into sight. I thought it was the Rebel battery, and I took the Dead Rebel’s carbine and concealed myself in the bramble bush close to the lane to make that the closing scene of that bloody day. When I saw my happy mistake, I crawled out; they gave me a hearty cheer, rode up to the house, helped bury my dead, and stayed overnight. Thus closed the most tragic scene in the history of my life.

The Rebels who came to Highland Farm were from the 47th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, whose captain was Elias M. Walker. Major William N. Harman was the commander. The Confederate casualties have been identified as Corp. James Stowers, whose military file states that he died “in a skirmish, 9 July, 1864,” and Corp. William Holt, whose arm was shattered by Blessing’s bullet. Holt survived the war. After recuperating, he was sent to Point Lookout Prison and eventually exchanged.

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Christopher Armour Newcomer

Next is the account of Christopher Newcomer. After the war, he wrote a memoir titled Cole’s Cavalry: Or Three Years in the Saddle in the Shenandoah Valley, in which he recounts his experiences during that day.

In 2008, Robert W. Black wrote in Ghost, Thunderbolt, and Wizard: Mosby, Morgan, and Forrest in the Civil War, “Cole’s Maryland cavalry were experienced troopers, many having served since 1861. They were border-state men. All knew the division of war within their community—some knew it within their family. Christopher Armour Newcomer had the experience of having family in arms against him and wrote, ‘Although connected by ties of birth and blood in the South, I loved my country and my flag better than my state or section.'”

The battle of Monocacy had been fought. Lieutenant Colonel Vernon and his small force of sixty-five men were familiar with the country. The enemy’s cavalry was overrunning Frederick County in small detachments, gathering up horses from the farmers. Our detachment had come upon several small squads of Rebel cavalrymen and either captured or dispersed them. On our arrival in the neighborhood of Middletown, we were informed by the citizens that an old gentleman, a farmer by the name of George Blessing, living several miles distant, had shot one or more Rebels, and Colonel Vernon started at once with his men for Blessing’s farm.

“As our advance was proceeding up the lane leading to the farmer’s house, they were halted by an old gray-haired man, fully sixty-five years of age, who demanded that they should go back, or he would shoot. The old gentleman was partially concealed behind a large tree, with a rifle in his hand. Colonel Vernon called him by name and informed him we were Cole’s men and had come to protect him. Mr. Blessing gave us a hearty welcome and said he had mistaken us for the Confederates whom he had exchanged shots with a number of times during the day, and had driven off the enemy, not an hour before, who threatened to return and hang him and burn his property. 

“To prove his assertion, he led the way up to his barnyard, where lay a dead Rebel and one in the barn, wounded. The old farmer had some half dozen guns of different patterns; when the roving bands of Confederates approached his house he would warn them off, they would fire upon him, and this old patriot stood his ground. He would do the shooting whilst his small grandson would load the pieces. Our command remained at the farmhouse overnight and the ‘Johnnie Rebs’ failed to put in an appearance; they would have received a warm reception If they had returned. Our men buried the dead soldier and left the wounded prisoner in the hands of his captor, who promised to have him properly taken care of. On the following morning, we made an early start in the direction of Frederick, picking up an occasional straggler.

The two stories differ in small details: Blessing said he was hiding in a bramble bush when Cole’s Cavalry arrived; Armour says he was behind a large tree. Blessing said his son and another unnamed young man were with him at first; Armour says it was his young grandson. Both agree that the Union troops spent the night and left the next morning. Blessing’s niece, however, turned that into a finale à la cinematic epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille:

“After a breakfast for which Mrs. Blessing’s larder furnished its choicest food, the sound of prayer and praise arose again from that farmhouse, but this time a hundred full throats joined in the old chorus, ‘Praise God from who all blessings flow,’ and the self-selected chaplain, Mr. Blessing, felt, as he combined their united thanks in one voice, that the God who had dealt him such a signal and wonderful deliverance, would yet answer the prayers of thousands of other loyal hearts throughout the vast Union, and in his own good time work out for this mighty country ‘an exceeding great salvation.'”

It has been reported that Blessing himself remarked of the Hero of Highland legend, “What nonsense if they mean me.” Ω

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The Examiner reported the death of George Blessing on 24 December, 1873. “The highly esteemed gentlemen died at his residence near Wolfsville, Catoctin District, in this county, on Thursday last in the 80th year of his age. Mr. Blessing was our best citizen and will be remembered as ‘Hero of Highland,’ in connection with the barnyard fight with the Rebels in 1864.” The day after his death, Blessing was buried at St. John’s Lutheran Church Cemetery, Ellerton. Photo by Becky.

 

A Haunting of My Own

Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.

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St. Paul’s Lutheran Cemetery, Myersville, Maryland.

This Halloween, I will be the guest speaker of the Myersville-Wolfsville Area Historical Society, presenting on local ghosts and paranormal phenomenon. Whilst this part of Maryland is rich in folkloric creatures such as a flying monster called the Snallygaster, or the Veiled Lady—a sort of banshee who plagued the environs of South Mountain—neither these nor other similar tales are particularly believable or verifiable.

I will stretch as far afield as Antietam and Gettysburg for parts of my lecture, but one paranormal story, at least, will be from Myersville, and it is my own. I share it now knowing it could be as figmental as the ghostly forms that once circled above Frederick’s Rose Hill Manor, or the Christmas Eve Phantom Flutist of Emmitsburg, who purportedly plays, as he did in life, over his dead father’s grave.

The setting for this tale is the cemetery of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, directly across Main Street from my home.

My young family moved to Myersville in autumn 1995. Our house occupies a corner of two bustling roads that offer no on-street parking. Happily, across Main Street is the carpark of St. Paul’s, the use of which is kindly permitted for Myersvillians and town visitors. This is where I park.

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An early image of the second church building, circa 1900. The cemetery is behind it and today’s parking lot to the left.

The burying ground is at the rear of the church—a sunny slope oriented east to west. (For weeks in 1997, the Comet Hale-Bopp hung beautifully above that field.)  Approximately 800 past congregants are buried there. On Sundays, I leave my car at the rear of the lot by the cemetery to not inconvenience elderly churchgoers. Often my vehicle remains there on Monday mornings. Until recently, I left for work before dawn, with my car first glimpsed as a dark lump beside a field of silhouetted memorials.

Soon after moving in, I became uncomfortable during my pre-dawn trudge, as well as whenever I parked in the evenings. At first, I chided myself for irrational fear. However, I eventually understood that it was not merely the combination of the cemetery and the dark that frightened me. There was someone in the cemetery who didn’t want me there. Over time, I deduced it was an old man connected to a particular area of the graveyard. The feeling of targeted hostility grew until I was quite afraid to be alone in the lot between twilight and sunrise. In an effort to self-trivialize my terror, I joked with my family and friends about “Mr. Grumpy” who haunted the cemetery, always telling me to “Get out!”

One winter day, circa 2000, I picked my son up from his after-school care provider, pulled into the lot, and parked. Attached to my keychain was a 30-second micro-recorder that I used for spoken notes. As my son and I walked toward Main Street, I jovially said, “Let’s see if Mr. Grumpy wants to talk to us,” and switched on the recorder.

On playback, we heard my question followed by a loud male voice—most definitely not of my eight-year-old boy—quite close to the microphone, who shouted, “No!” My little daughter later recorded over it but neither my son nor I ever forgot about the afternoon when Mr. Grumpy spoke.

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Electronic voice phenomenon (EVPs) are recorded human or animal utterances—the meow of a cat, for instance—that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. As EVP research advances, communication continues to improve. Current results in both EVP and Instrumental Transcommunicion (ITC), which includes instantaneous two-way and visual communication, are being obtained by thousands of independent researchers and affiliated groups, including the University of Arizona’s VERITAS Research Program of the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health.

Among the early EVP investigators were Raymond Bayless, a well-known writer, and a photographer and psychic named Attila Von Szalay. In the 1930s, Von Szalay claimed to hear disembodied utterances in the air around him. He had some success capturing them using a 78-RPM record cutter; he had better luck later with a wire recorder. In the 1950s, Von Szalay joined up with Bayless, who constructed a cabinet with an interior microphone resting inside a speaking trumpet. The microphone cord led out of the cabinet and was patched into a reel-to-reel recorder and loudspeaker. Almost immediately, they claimed to hear whispers originating from inside the cabinet and duly recorded them, but on 5 December, 1956, they taped the first voice which had not been audible over the loudspeaker. It was a male voice saying simply, “This is G.” The pair documented their results in a 1959 article in the journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.

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Frederick Jurgenson

The first EVP experimenter to really make headlines was Friedrich Jurgenson, a Swedish film producer, who claimed he accidentally taped his dead mother calling his name whilst he was recording wild bird songs. From that day on, he was able to regularly capture EVPs. Jurgenson held a 1964 press conference during which he played his recordings for a skeptical press. He went on to author several books on EVP.

In 1970, a Latvian-born psychologist, Konstantin Raudive, who was a protege of Jurgenson, released the book Breakthrough, detailing his own EVP research. It became an international bestseller. In the book, Raudive revealed that he had recorded thousands of discarnate voices, many of whom, but not all, communicated in a polyglot of languages. Raudive was the first to find that the voices gained in strength and number when he generated white noise. For this, he used a diode—a broad-band, crystal radio detector with a short antenna and a second wire directly connected into the microphone input of the recorder. (A recording of EVPs obtained by Raudive can be heard here.)

Sarah Wilson Estep of Severna Park, Maryland, also noticed the benefits of white noise. She detailed the results of her own EVP research in 1988’s Voices of Eternity. Before the book’s release, she had founded the American Association Electronic Voice Phenomena, a loose collective of experimenters in survival research. After her book, the organization grew to include hundreds of members in countries around the world. (Examples of her work can be heard here.)

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Sarah Estep with her EVP recording equipment in about 1985.

Estep made it her goal to glean from her non-corporeal guest speakers information about life in their post-mortem dimension. She was also the first researcher to publicly admit receiving EVPs from communicators in alternate universes, including extraterrestrials. Sarah was not alone in receiving “space” voices. The ITC researcher Frank Sumption, who invented the “ghost box” in wide use today, also heard from these types of entities, as have many others. (Warning: The link leads to an ITC recording session with a Frank’s Box that includes profane and racist language.)

My Mr. Grumpy, however, was all too formerly human. After receiving his angry EVP message, I knew I must forge a detente. When I walked to my car each morning, I repeated aloud that I was no threat to him. I was not there to evict him from his ground of mortal rest. All I wanted to do was drive to my job. As time passed, Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.

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St. Paul’s Church Cemetery in autumn.

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Ezra Routzahn lived in the Middletown Valley his entire life. He was born on the farm of his father, Enos S. Routzahn, Sr. (1800-1850) on 25 March, 1836. Ezra was the fourth infant born to Emos’s wife, Lydia Schlosser Routzahn (1805-1882), and the third boy. Another three daughters and three sons would follow.

On 17 November 1858, Ezra Routzahn married Sarah Catherine Harp (1839–1926), daughter of farmer George Silas Harp (1808-1847) and Catherine Poffenberger (1812-1889).  They had three children, Laura Virginia (1859-1942); Franklin (1861-1943), and Mary Elizabeth (1865-1926). There are still Routzahn descendants in the valley today.

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The farmhouse on Church Hill Road, Myersville, where Ezra and Sarah Routzahn lived for many years. This photo was taken in 1992 by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Routzahn’s time on Earth was spent like that of his forefathers, farming the rich soil of the Middletown Valley. In 1870, he purchased from Josiah Harp, his wife’s relative, a 146-acre, well-established agricultural operation at 10412 Church Hill Road. Known as the Doub-Routzahn Farm, it has been surveyed by the Maryland Historical Trust, who reported it “exemplifies the transition of a mid-19th-Century farmstead from agricultural to private residential use in the mid-20th Century. It retains features from its possible establishment as a typical farm of the period of about 1840-1870 in the brick dwelling with domestic outbuildings and the frame and stone bank barn, with the additions of late 19th century outbuildings that reflect changes in agricultural technology such as the wagon shed/corn crib, the garage, and the proliferation of various sheds in the agricultural grouping.”

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Ezra Routzahn in about 1905.

Routzahn may have been interested in banking and financing from early in life. If so, as a local farmer of means, he was in a position to act on inclination. In January 1899, Routzahn helped found the Myersville Savings Bank, which by 1904 reported deposits of more than $120,000 and surplus and undivided profits of more than $5,000.

In 1902, a brick bank building was constructed on Main Street “with a chrome-steel lined brick vault, a Miller fire and burglar-proof safe with a timelock and other modern fixtures,” noted the 1905 History of Myersville. “The officers and directors of the institution are careful and sociable men.” Routzahn was preeminent amongst them—the bank’s president. The only known photo of Routzahn shows him in his 60s, confident and competent, dressed for his important local position.

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The interior of the Myersville Savings Bank, circa 1905.

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The stained glass window before which Ezra Routzahn died. Photo by Jody Brumage.

Frederick News, Monday, 18 October, 1915

After helping with placing memorial windows in the in the Myersville Lutheran church and while looking at the window which was just completed in memory of himself and his wife, Ezra Routzhan, president of the Myersville Savings Bank and prominent resident of that town, fell to the floor of the church about 10 o’clock this morning … and died instantly. He had been in good health and was feeling well…. Death was due to apoplexy, it is thought. Mr. Routzahn was in his 80th year.

Being a prominent member of the church, Mr. Routzahn had taken much interest in the extensive improvements now being made, including the placing of a dozen memorial windows…. [He] had just completed the Routzahn window when he was stricken and fell over backwards. H. F. Shipley, who was working on the same window, was closest to Mr. Routzahn when he fell. Others in the church were G. W. Wachtel, Rev. James Willis, the pastor, and Carlton Smith of Polo, Ill.

Dr. Ralph Browning was hurriedly summoned, but Mr. Routzahn expired almost as soon as he fell. The news of the sudden death was a shock to the Community…. The memorial window on which Mr. Routzahn had just finished work contains this inscription: “A Living Tribute to Ezra Routzahn and Sarah C. Routzahn by Their Children.”

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The monument to Ezra and Sarah Routzahn in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery.

In 2016, I stumbled across the above article whilst engaged in other research. It took only a fast walk across Main Street and into the cemetery to confirm the potential epiphany I had just experienced: Ezra Routzahn’s impressive monument stood in the area I associated with Mr. Grumpy—an area I had frequently pointed out to family and friends. Could Ezra Routzahn still be tied to the church where he worshipped, in which he died whilst gazing on his own memorial window? Was he Mr. Grumpy?

The accumulated evidence of EVP, ITC, and other paranormal research indicates that some of the deceased remain in the place where they died. They may do this because they are in a muddled post-death state, or for their own reasons, such as anger with the Cruel Hand of Fate, or fear of eternal punishment for their sins.

If Mr. Grumpy is Ezra Routzahn, he might indeed be angry at the last hand dealt him, or is possessive of his fine memorials both in and outside the church. Also possible is that he may not be angry but protecting the graveyard—his aggression no more than the warning barks of a dog at a stranger. Maybe there are others from Myersville’s past with him and they don’t want to be disturbed. They want their life in the Middletown Valley to go on unimpeded. Who can blame them? Ω

Is the Past More Than Prologue?

In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.

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Sean Byrne at Pry House Field Hospital Museum, Keedysville, Maryland, June 2018.

On Tuesday, 16 September, 1862, farmer Phillip Pry, Jr., and his wife Elizabeth, née Cost, found that the Civil War was standing on their doorstep. Since the summer of 1844, the couple had dwelt happily in their imposing home, high on a hill, which Phillip and his brother Samuel had built on their father’s land. The road between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg ran along the foot of the hill, and as Philip and Elizabeth could see from their front porch, it had become an artery for the Confederate war machine. Soldiers in grey, wagons, armaments, ambulances, horses—for a day and night they moved past the Prys’ house in a kaleidoscope of pending misadventure.

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Philip and Elizabeth Cost Pry, circa 1868. Courtesy Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

The next day, the road was crammed with soldiers in blue trundling along with the Union Army’s horses, vehicles, and ordnance. They were headed to attack the Confederacy at Sharpsburg—a bloodbath now known as the Battle of Antietam. Shortly, the Prys’ home would be commandeered as a headquarters and a field hospital by no less than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. From that moment, the Prys’ bucolic life on the hill was over.

For safety, Elizabeth Pry and her five children—all under the age of 15—were sent by army ambulance to Keedysville. When at last allowed to return, they found their farm devastated. Despite repeated attempts, the family was never compensated by the government for property damage and looted crops, domesticated animals, and stored supplies that totaled more than $60,000 in today’s money. Financially ruined, the Prys chose to start over again in Johnson County, Tennessee, but they never regained their antebellum prosperity. Before Elizabeth died in 1884, she begged her husband to take her body back to Keedysville to be buried where life was once sweet. He did as she requested. In 1900, he was laid to rest beside her.

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The Pry farm in September 1862. This photo was taken after the battle by Andrew Gardiner. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Surely no one would blame Philip or Elizabeth Pry for haunting the happy home stolen from them. Indeed, reputedly, there was a female ghost seen as she descended the staircase and also one who peered sullenly from an upstairs window when the house caught fire in the 1970s. One or either of these ghosts may be Elizabeth Pry. Lacking access to witnesses or recorded evidence, I must place these stories in the realm of lore. Not so, however, the following. The witness, actor Sean Byrne, was interviewed by me in June 2018 at the Pry farm—now a field hospital museum run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

In 2005, when Byrne was 12, his Boy Scout troop engaged in a service project assisting the then-executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine George Wunderlich to restore Pry House. On a warm September day, Wunderlich, the troop’s leader, was in the Prys’ kitchen washing salt pork for the boys’ Civil War-inspired dinner. Byrne says that the Scouts—about ten in number—had time for mischief. “We wanted to go to the cornfield and start chucking corn at each other,” he recalls.

The stalks and corn in the husks were dry, waiting to be harvested for feed. “The corn easily came over our heads. I’m six-foot now, so I was probably like four-foot-something then, maybe,” he says. “I was in the middle of this field—it was probably right about there. I remember grabbing an ear of corn and turning around and there was a gentleman standing there.”

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Byrne points to the site of his encounter in the cornfield, now planted with wheat.

Byrne insists that the man, who stood just a few feet away and whom he could see at full-length, was a Confederate soldier. “He was wearing a grey uniform, buttoned-up jacket; he had a hat with a turned up brim, yellow gloves tucked under his belt.” There was a lantern hooked to his belt, too. The soldier also had a blonde goatee and hair long enough to be seen beneath the brim of his hat.

The expression on the man’s face was matter-of-fact—”stoic,” Byrne describes it. “I saw him, then he put up his hand. He said, ‘Stop. Wait. Be careful,’ then turned and walked away,” states Byrne, “but he kept a very straight line; he didn’t zigzag.”

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A Confederate gray wool frock coat with black facings and gold colored buttons, sky blue trousers, black leather belt with brass “CS” belt plate; leather cartridge box; bayonet scabbard; buff slouch hat. Byrne’s soldier wore grey pants but otherwise may have been garbed quite similarly. Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of American History.

It was then, Byrne remembers, that he consciously grasped the unapparent: “He was only about 50 percent there. I could see the corn through his body. He got no more than four feet before I lost him. He just kind of went into the corn. If [a living person] was walking through the cornfield, you could see them for say eight or ten feet—see portions of his body. But you couldn’t see him that far. He just disappeared.”

Stunned, Byrne let go of the corn. “I got a good gash in my finger, because dried corn is actually very sharp, and I ran back to the house where Mr. Wunderlich was. I told him I needed first aid, but also that there was this man there. And Mr. Wunderlich told me, ‘Wait, wait, let me guess. You saw a man with a lantern?’ I said, ‘Yes! How did you know?'”

Wunderlich knew because it was not the first time he had heard a such a story. Now with the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Wunderlich still remembers Byrne’s encounter in the cornfield. He was willing to speak about it and other similar instances of which he was aware.

For a number of years, he says, an academic conference on banjos was held in the barn on the Pry property to “discuss the importance of banjo music during the Civil War and things of that nature, and we had guys camping there. Doug Harding, a National Park Service employee from St. Louis, told me he got up to use the portajohn, looked out [across the property], and there was a lantern moving by itself through the cornfield.” Together, they went to the spot and determined that the light had followed the path of the old road once traveled by both the Confederacy and Union. “They moved the road away from the house many years later when they built the bypass around Keedysville,” Wunderlich states. Today, Pry House sits at the end of a long drive, perhaps a quarter mile from the modern road.

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The approach to Pry House in May 2018. The cornfield is at left, the barn to the right.

According to Wunderlich, the second encounter concerned “a Boy Scout from another troop who mentioned the same thing—a lantern walking through the corn. I pointed out to him where it had occurred and he asked, ‘How did you know?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s happened before.'”

Several years later, at another iteration of the banjo conference, two men saw the lantern traveling the same route. They told Wunderlich that a human form was visible, but only where the lantern cast its light.

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Amongst paranormal researchers, there are several schools of thought concerning ghosts and hauntings: First, ghosts can be discarnate persons who are completely or partially aware they are dead. They may have chosen to remain in a place or with loved ones they are loath to leave, stay behind because of unfinished business, or possess other motivations we cannot comprehend. The second possibility is that events are captured by wholly natural but unknown mechanisms and—when conditions are right—they replay themselves. In this latter scenario, whether or not there are human observers is irrelevant, and any persons within the replay have no more consciousness than digital images projected on a screen.

If not for the other sightings of the lantern in the cornfield, Byrne’s encounter could have been the intervention of a concerned spirit still tied to the place where he died, as it is all but certain that the Union field hospital at Pry House treated Confederate wounded. By themselves, the sightings of the lantern moving down the old road could be the replications of the past. However, in tandem with Byrne’s encounter, a lifeless replay makes no sense.

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After Byrne encountered the phantom soldier, he ran up the hill from the cornfield (right) to the white door at left. There he found his Scout leader inside the Pry House kitchen. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Confederate soldier appeared to see Byrne within his presumably 16 September, 1862 surroundings, playing in a roadway that was actively funneling elements of Lee’s army to Sharpsburg. The soldier also recognized it as daytime, for the lantern the others saw ablaze was not lit and was hooked to his belt. Concerned for the boy’s safety, he told Byrne to stop, wait, and be careful, presumably so that the Byrne would not be injured by whatever the soldier saw happening in the 1862 road.

That day, Byrne, who is now in his mid-20s, wore a Boy Scout Class B uniform—green pants and a red troop tee-shirt. Despite what would have a seemed strange attire, the soldier did not look surprised at Byrne’s appearance; he issued his warning, turned, and was gone. Perhaps there was so much activity within the soldier’s view that he did not critically register the weird garb worn by the boy in harm’s way.

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An ambrotype of an unknown Confederate soldier dressed and coiffed similarly to the man seen in the cornfield. Collection unknown.

So, is there another explanation—one that better fits the facts of the case? Could, for example, the time-space membrane between September 1862 and September 2005 have thinned enough to rupture?

In a bowl of hypotheticals, nothing can be proven, but we may speculate that a recipe for a time rupture was fully concocted on 16 September, 1862. First added, on 14 September, was the frantic and terrifying energy produced by the nearby Battle of South Mountain, in which the two armies fought for control of multiple Blue Ridge mountain gaps. Next added was the psychic trauma of 5,000 dead, wounded, and missing, including Alabamian Drayton Pitts, of whom I wrote earlier this year. Third, stirred in on the 16th was the mounting fear of the men of both armies and the region’s citizens, who knew a larger fight than South Mountain was imminent.

The Confederate soldier may have been stationed along the old road to help facilitate movement or to supply intel after barely surviving the Battle of South Mountain two days before. His consternation, determination, exhaustion, suppressed grief over lost comrades—all of these may have been the final ingredients that ruptured time.

The Scouts had been working on the property for two days and had both stirred up and become in simpatico with the energies of the estate, Byrne posits. His brief meeting with the Confederate soldier was “very simple. It wasn’t scary. I wasn’t waiting for something. I wasn’t invoking something. It was nothing blood-curdling—just a man doing his job.”  Today’s visitors to the Pry House may yet see the soldier following his orders during the 24 hours before Antietam. Ω

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This photo taken by Alexander Gardner during the Battle of Antietam shows a Union lookout stationed near the Pry House and undeployed Union reserve artillery in the field beyond. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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“There Lived an Old Man in Our Little Place”

Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”

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Main Street and Wolfsville Road, Myersville, Maryland, circa 1905. Courtesy Myersville and Wolfsville Area Historical Society.

Myersville—Emphasizing the need for lights in the streets of Myersville, there was a stoning encounter on Saturday night, when Robert J. Ridgely, a school teacher at Burkittsville and a resident of Myersville, was stoned by four or five young men of the town. Reports have it that Mr. Ridgely stoned back, but as the teacher could not be located this morning, this could not be verified.

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Frederick News, 6 October, 1915

Mr. Ridgley has an ugly cut over one eye, which bled profusely, and Wilber Shepley, one of those in the in the party stoning Mr. Ridgley, also has a cut, probably inflicted by a stone, although one report has it that Mr. Shepley sustained the cut by striking a telephone pole, while running.

“The stoning incident has aroused a number of people in the town, and it is stated that there is a stronger sentiment for electric lights, many residents claiming the affair would not have happened had the town been well lighted.”

The victim in this article, Robert Johnson Ridgley was born in Myersville in January 1867 to William Worth Ridgley (1822-1901) and his wife Martha Matilda Johnson (1834-1920). (Note: The family name is spelled variously as Ridgely, Ridgeley, and Ridgley. For consistency only, I am using the latter.) William Ridgley was well-known in the area for his success as a farmer although he was blind. His tenacity and determination were inherited by his son.

As an adult, Robert Ridgley received a scholarship from the Maryland State Normal School in Baltimore, later rechristened Towson University, starting his studies in September 1895. Before that, he was a teacher at Loys Public School. After his father’s death, he lived with his mother and a servant, Susan Shank, the latter of whom worked for Ridgley until at least until 1940. Keeping a long-term, live-in servant of this type is a positive testimony to Ridgely’s character, which was sometimes maligned by his fellow Myersvillians.

Ridgley faced the boys’ ire on that unlit October night because he was Myersville’s weirdo, thus a natural honey to the local bully bees. These same miscreants gave Ridgley the nickname “Buffalo Bill”—after wild-maned, Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody—because he wore his brown hair over his shoulders, potentially as an expression of sexual ambiguity. Ridgley never married; he may have been homosexual, transsexual, or asexual. Myervillian Clara Grossnickle Metzer expressed this in doggerel, “He shunned the ladies/Marrying was not a sin/But he much preferred/ To fight with the men.” John Grossnickle, also a bad poet, wrote of Ridgley, in an ode that began “There was an old man in our little place/who wore long hair and a funny face,” that people could neither call Ridgley “a lad nor a lass/He was neither Balaam nor Balaam’s ass.”

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Robert J. Ridgley in front of his Main Street home, circa 1920.

Even before the 1913 stoning incident, the local lads responded with glee when Ridgley, who was then an elected town burgess, was arrested for allegedly assaulting Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Wolfe. The Frederick News of 11 October, 1908, reported the boys hooted, cheered, and loudly banged pots and pans in celebration as the prisoner and the deputy sheriff waited at the trolley stop for the next car into Frederick to place Ridgley before a judge. Wolfe sued Ridgley for $500 because of the incident.

At some point during the same year, “Guy Shank called [Ridgely] ‘Buffalo’ at Melvin Shepley’s Post Office. Mr. Ridgley promptly threw him to the ground and sat on him, hoping someone would call the sheriff. Charles Poffenberger ran to his home and told his mother Mrs. John Poffinberger what was happening. Mrs. Poffenberger, a very determined woman, grabbed a tea kettle of hot water from the stove, and walked up the street, freeing Guy from his captor,” states The History of Myersville, 1971 edition. Whether Mrs. Poffinberger actually scalded Ridgley to achieve her goal was not reported.

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Robert Ridgley’s former home on Main Street, Myersville.

As well as teaching at a succession of local schools, including Burkittsville, Harmony, and Mt. Tabor, Ridgley was an avid agriculturalist. He owned a farm near Harmony—a settlement near Myersville—where he grew both crops and fruit. “Some of the finest apples in the county have been raised by Mr. Ridgley,” the News lauded in May 1911. On 12 November, 1921, vandals destroyed 30 of Ridgley’s apple trees. A News item stated, “The trees were beginning to bear fruit and were chopped off close to the ground.” This destruction was attributed to Ridgley’s unwillingness to allow hunting in the orchard and was one of a number of revengeful acts that occurred in the community.

Ridgley was a member of the religious sect called the Brethren (also known as the Dunkards), was against the playing of music during religious services, and was teetotal. According to The History of Myersville, he thoroughly “disapproved of strong drink,” loved to debate, and frequently took on alcohol proponents. The History states, “He often talked about the horrors of liquor, the need for Prohibition and how all the contents of the stills must be thrown into the rivers. Inevitably, someone in the audience would stand up and say, ‘Shall we gather at the river?'”

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Frederick News, 11 October 1908

In 1913, after the local lads cheered his arrest, Ridgley made an extended trip to Europe, during which he visited Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He told the News that he was much impressed with the cleanliness of Germany and delighted by the excellent crops produced there, however, Italy was dirty and unimpressive. Whilst in Germany, he traveled to the town of Swartzanau, a borough of Bad Berleburg in today’s North Rhine-Westphalia, and purchased a granite block as a cornerstone for the Myersville Church of the Brethren, then under construction. The Brethren originated in Swartzanau so the cornerstone carried great significance to the congregation at home.

Ridgley’s generous nature was further illuminated in a News article of 24 May, 1911, that reported Harmony School four students were treated to a trip to Washington, D.C., at Ridgley’s personal expense for their exemplary attendance and academic performance. Ridgley hired a car to drive them—some had never been in an automobile before—and made sure they had a memorable time. “Since he has been teaching at Harmony School, Prof. Ridgley has done much to make the several courses attractive to the pupils. Progressive in every way, this is not the first premium awarded by him for good work at the school, as a result, his pupils idolize him,” the News noted.

Earlier that year, Ridgley offered a total of $15 in prizes to Harmony School students who made winning entries in an agricultural display contest. A News article of 11 March 1912 reported that Ridgley put up prize money at another agricultural display at Mt. Tabor School.

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The Harmony School near Myersville where Robert Ridgley was a teacher, circa 1905.

For some years, probably beginning in the late 1920s, Ridgley served as reverend of the Myersville Church of the Brethren. He was described thusly in the Frederick Post of 11 March, 1935, which noted that the body of Mrs. Mary Snyder of Harmony was discovered in her home by Rev. Ridgley who had called in on his way to church. (She died of a heart attack.) In May, however, Ridgely was ousted from his position, he claimed, because he had turned to still-breaking, targeting local moonshiners who paid no income taxes on their product.

When Prohibition was overturned by the 21st Amendment in December 1933, Ridgely surely felt great anger and despair. His hatred of alcohol—born from powerful religious beliefs and probably also from negative personal experiences—required a new focus. Clara Metzer’s poem states, “His stature was straight/And lots of brawn/Was sure in his mind/He never did wrong … His hair was long/and in this his strength/To carry out his convictions/He would go to all lengths.”

According to the History of Myersville, Ridgley “was an informer for the Internal Revenue Service. Every time the ‘revenuers’ broke up a still, Ridgely would put a white flint stone between the sidewalk and the curb in front of his house. Pretty soon, the whole space in front of his house was covered with white flints.”

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An Appalachian moonshiner, circa 1930.

The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, reported on 12 October, 1934, that during a raid instigated by Ridgley, Wilber Horine was arrested and arraigned for operating a still on his Myersville farm. (Charges against him were later dismissed.) On 4 January, 1935, the News ran a story titled “Again Leads Agents.” It detailed how Rev. Ridgley took federal agents “to the site of an illicit still in the mountains near Wolfsville, six miles north of Myersville. Three men, the small still, which had ceased operation only a few hours previously, and 225 gallons of mash and other equipment were seized… It is said that Rev. Mr. Ridgley received information … that the plant was in operation and rode about 10 miles on horseback to investigate the matter personally.”

Just a few weeks later, the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported that Lloyd Leatherman, a farmer near Wolfsville, was raided by agents who discovered 50 gallons of hard cider in his home. Ridgley had provided the tip and went with agents to Leatherman’s farm. “Rev. Ridgley assisted in destroying a still and other equipment, which … appeared to have been recently set up for the purpose of manufacturing applejack…. The residents of Myersville say the Rev. Ridgley has openly served notice that he intends to continue his personal activities until the section is free of moonshiners. It is claimed that shiners have been operating boldly in the mountains of the section for several years during which time several barns were destroyed by fire and one murder committed, all being blamed on drunken brawls.”

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Robert Ridgely, center front, poses with attendees of the 1926 Harp family reunion, Myersville. His infamous hair appears to have been cropped by this date.

In August 1936, two local boys—Willis Brunner and Murphy Beall—tried to steal some of Ridgley’s white stones, as well as damaged his gatepost and taunted the old man with calls of “Buffalo Bill!” Ridgley shot Beall, aged 19, in the legs with buckshot. Whilst in hospital, the 3 August Daily Mail reported that Beall told investigators, “‘I do not care to have anything done about the shooting.'” This position can be read either as a result of Beall’s remorse or that Beall saw Ridgley as a wacko, but he was Myersville‘s wacko, so hands off—a weird, but well-observed, protective response amongst community members.

Ridgley was busting stills as late as October 1949, when the Morning Herald reported, “Sleuthing by the Rev. Robert J. Ridgley of the Church of the Brethren, Myersville, resulted in the discovery of an illegal still in that area.”

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Frederick News, 21 October, 1952

In early 1950, 83-year-old Ridgley’s robust constitution failed. “Mr. Robert J. Ridgley, retired school teacher and dealer in antiques, who has been ill at the Emergency Hospital for several months, returned home [to] Myersville following his recovery,” announced the News of 7 April, 1950. The cause of his prolonged hospital stay was not made public. The following year, in September, he was well enough to travel by bus to Rockwell City, Iowa, to visit his brother Champ, who lived there with his family. It was Ridgley’s swan-song adventure.

The irascible Ridgley died at Guilford Nursing Home, Boonsboro, Maryland, 15 October, 1952. A few days later, the contents of his Will, written in long-hand in February 1910, was discussed by the News. “A lot in Myersville is bequeathed to the Church of the Brethren to be used for the site of a meeting house with the provision that no musical instrument be used in any part of the religious service…. The bequest is one of several involving churches made by Mr. Ridgley, who left an estate in excess of $10,000,” noted the newspaper on 24 October. The Grossnickle Church of the Brethren, located some miles outside of town, was bequeathed 17 acres upon which to build a children’s home, if possible, otherwise to dispose of it to the church’s profit.

“The testator directs that his books, furniture, farming equipment, horses, and cattle be sold at public sale and the proceeds be equally divided … to keep in repair the cemetery at Grossnickle’s Meeting House and the cemetery near Haw Bottom where his father is buried.” The rest of his property and real estate was to be sold and money given to his brother’s children “after careful inquiry by my executors [concludes they are] industrious, honest, and temperate people individually,” the News quoted.

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Ridgley’s gravestone at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery.

In his Will, Ridgley asked to be buried at the Grossnickle Church Cemetery, as near as possible to the grave of Elder George Leatherman (1827-1907). “I feel that I owe practically all from a spiritual standpoint to this Grand Good Man,” he wrote only three years after Elder Leatherman’s death. It is possible that Leatherman served as a grandfatherly influence in young Robert’s life, as well as a religious mentor. Ridgley’s wish was not granted. His obituary states that he was buried at Myersville United Brethren Cemetery, which refers to today’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery. Ridgley was a member of this congregation before joining the Myersville Church of the Brethren.

Amongst those who attended the public auction of Ridgley’s estate was Beatrice Toms. In her book Bits and Pieces of My Lifetime, she recounted, as a depressed young teen, encountering Ridgley on a Myersville street. Ridgley comforted Toms, telling her “Things will be better, just wait and see,” and “Little lady, if I ever can be of any help to you, please call on me. I would be proud to help you, if I may.”

The effect of his gesture “was like a life-line being tossed to a drowning soul,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever had the occasion to speak with him again, but his kind words had resurrected my self-esteem…. The memory of his kindness and concern lives with me to this very day.”

At the sale, Toms purchased “a handmade walnut pie cupboard and his handcrafted walnut secretarial desk, at which he must have sat and composed many of his sermons, essays, and readings.” The objects reminded her daily of Ridgley. “To me,” she closed, “he was a man among men.” Ω

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Ridgley’s possessions are detailed in this November 1952 estate sale advert.

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A Widower’s Search for Solace

“Some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so.”

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Letter from Joseph Brown to Emeline Hoffman, page one. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Myersville, July 10th, 1852

Dear Emeline,

I hope you will not think hard of me for thus approaching you so unexpectedly, as my mind has bin [sic] for some time a good deal taken up with you in regard to coming to see you in order to have some private conversations with you, not knowing at all whether my company would be agreeable or not, but take this plan of ascertaining something about the state of your mind.

Dear Emma, you are well acquainted with me and know all about my situation. You know that I have bin unfortunate in the loss of a very dear and kind companion, one in who my whole soul delighted to honor and respect. But she has gone I trust from a world of trouble and sorrow to one of happiness and joy, and I can have no more comfort nor consolation from her anymore, only with a firm hope and expectation of meeting her again in those blissful regions where parting shall be no more. I can do no more than to respect her memory, which I will ever do.

We read in the Bible that it is not good for man to be alone. I have realized that to be a very true saying indeed. I was once as happy as any person could be in the enjoyment in the company of my much-lamented Mary, but how different my case. With all I have I have no enjoyment & some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so, although I do not wish to do so for some time yet. But I have come to the conclusion to do so providing I can suit myself. I now feel like a lost sheep, lonely and without anyone to cheer me or comfort me, and if it was not for the comforts and the consolations of religion, I would often times have to despair in sorrow. But thanks be to God that he still comforts and consoles me. I find that I can never be happy again in this world without fixing my affection on one again in who I am satisfied will be a kind companion to me, and dear Emeline, you appear to the only one I can have any idea of going to see at the present and of fixing my affection upon.

You will please excuse me for being so bold in writing to you so soon in my present situation and not knowing anything about your mind on regard to the matter, but I hope you will consider the matter well and then reply to me & let me know as soon as you can something about the state of your mind in regard to the matter. I would like after some little time to have a private talk with you, as I cannot give you the same satisfaction in writing that I could if I was present with you. And you may perhaps see some difficulties in the way which perhaps can be removed.

If these few lines are received by you as they are sent, you can truly rely on me as one who would treat you with kindness and respect. If this does not meet with your approbation, all I ask of you is to tell no one about it except your parents, only burn it, and I hope there will be no harm done and you can respect me as you have always done, and I will do the same.

If you should have any other engagement with any person, I would not wish to interfere upon …?…. I would not like to attempt anything of the kind if your parents should not be satisfied to it.

I have many reasons for this movement, which at the present I could not give, but I have many things to say to you which would no doubt be interesting to you could I have the opportunity to do so, as I would not like …?… should you be …?… to come there to see you. But we can correspond with each other and it will not be found out, perhaps.

Please do as I have said in regards to not telling any person.

Yours truly,

Joseph Brown

The plaintive writer of this remarkable missive was born 28 February, 1819, on a farm in Foxville, Frederick County, Maryland, to Ignatius Brown (1781-1830) and Elizabeth McAfee (1781-1853). Ignatius Brown was a member of the Frederick County Militia, who, on 12 October, 1804, was commissioned as a lieutenant and later became a captain. Brown served in the War of 1812 and later operated a waterpower sawmill located between Foxville and Deerfield. The captain was also a constable and magistrate. He died of typhoid fever on 12 March, 1830, in Foxville, when his son Joseph was just 11.

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Scottish thistles on Joseph Brown’s Monument, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery, Myersville, Maryland.

On his father’s side, Brown descended from early English and Dutch settlers of New York and New Jersey. Joseph’s maternal line were Scots—indeed, Joseph Brown’s tombstone is decorated with Scottish thistles. Perhaps this heritage was significant to him, even after spending his life amongst the heavily German and Swiss population of Myersville, about 12 miles southwest, where he resettled as a young man and eventually set up a thriving mercantile business.

Joseph Brown was in Myersville by 3 October, 1843, when he married a local girl named Mary Doub. Her people were descendants of French Huguenots, who first resettled in Germany, and then came to the Colonies in about 1712. They were amongst the group of settlers who built a religious settlement at Jerusalem, now on the outskirts of Myersville.

Mary Doub Brown was the daughter of John Doub (1799-1824) and Sophia Floyd (1802-1877). The Doubs’ union produced Mary on 11 October, 1823, and another daughter, Caroline (1821-1891). In 1824, John Doub died at the age of 24. Sophia was left to watch his burial in Jerusalem cemetery, perhaps with her two tiny girls beside her. She shortly did what the majority of widowed women with dependents had done for millennia: She found a new husband and provider, Michael Hoffman (1805-1860). The marriage was entirely successful. Sophia and Michael produced five children, one of whom was Emeline Hoffman (1834-1898).

Mary Doub’s life would have been spent wholly in the domestic circles of her birth family, then her family by marriage. The years that Mary spent with Joseph were his salad days. With his wife beside him, Brown developed his large mercantile establishment at what is today 205 Main Street. Brown clearly felt she was more than an adequate helpmeet. The letter indicates that Joseph Brown deeply loved Mary Doub and that, during the decade they were man and wife, he felt that she lived up to the wifely standards of the age; she was his “very dear and kind companion, one in who my whole soul delighted to honor and respect.” Sadly, we know little else about her—not her height, build, the color of her eyes or hair, nor any of her thoughts and feelings.

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Circa 1900: Joseph Brown’s store is the last visible on the far left side of Main Street, Myersville. Flush with the road, it can be seen behind another house that sits farther back. Both yet stand today.

The Browns’ marriage produced three daughters. First was Sophia (1844–1911), named for her grandmother and who married prosperous carriagemaker John T. Hildebrand (1829-1923). Next was Sarah E. (1848-1898), called “Sallie,” who, in 1879, at the age of 31, married merchant and public notary Peter R. Langdon (1859–1920) and made up for lost time by bearing five children before the age of 40; and last, the unusually named Arbelon (1851– 1919), who married Dr. C. W. Harper (1838–1909).

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An albumen carte de visite of Sallie Brown, circa 1865. As well as providing a possible glimpse of her mother, Sallie sports fashions worn by trendy teens of the mid-1860s. Author’s Collection.

Years ago, I acquired a photograph of the middle of Brown’s first three daughters, Sallie, through an independent source. It was not until I obtained Joseph Brown’s letter that my research finally allowed me to link Sallie Brown to her family. It is in the face of Sallie, with her neat dark hair, oval face, and uniform features, that we can perhaps catch a glimpse of Mary Doub, with whom, her husband attested, “I was once as happy as any person could be in the enjoyment in the company of my much lamented Mary, but [now] how different my case.”

Mary Doub Brown died 3 February, 1852, of unknown causes. She was laid to rest in Jerusalem, near the father she could not remember, and next to her brother, Ezra Valentine Hoffman, who died at age 21 in the spring of 1848, four years earlier.

Mary’s loss left Joseph Brown staggered. As his late wife’s mother once lacked a father for little her girls, he was now a widower with eight-, five-, and one-year-old daughters. Brown was more than emotionally bereaved; he desperately needed a wife to care for his children and run his home, and we must wonder whether his best friends’ advice to marry again, without which, they said, “I need not expect to be happy anymore,” was not also given in the hope of reknitting a shambolic household.

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The graves of Mary Doub Brown (left) and her brother Ezra (right). The placement of the burials may hint at a closeness between the siblings, as Mary was five years old when Ezra was born—a perfect age to develop a deep adoration of her first little brother. The grave markers chosen for Ezra and Mary clearly indicate family affluence: They are amongst the largest and most ornate found in a burial ground where most stones are untrimmed slate scratched with German inscriptions. Ezra’s, in particular, is an impressive red brick table tomb with no comparison in the cemetery. A lengthy sentimental inscription covers the sandstone top, at the beginning of which is a decorative tableau of weeping willows, obelisks, and hearts. The latter may relate to Valentine, the young man’s middle name, and which makes clear that Ezra was a cherished firstborn son.

After fixing his mind on the idea of remarriage, it seems Brown cast a mental net for possible candidates and came up with one name alone: Emeline Hoffman, his late wife’s younger half-sister. When Joseph Brown wrote to her, Emeline was nineteen years old. She may have been staying with relations in Petersville, about 18 miles south of Myersville. It is also possible that she was living in Middletown, about five miles away, as her family appears, albeit without her, in the 1850 Census of the district.

Whether Emeline was in Petersville or Middletown, she was somewhere other than Main Street, Myersville, as Brown wrote that “my mind has bin for some time a good deal taken up with you in regard to coming to see you in order to have some private conversations with you.” He asks her to write to him from her current location: “I hope you will consider the matter well and then reply to me & let me know as soon as you can something about the state of your mind in regard to the matter. I would like after some little time to have a private talk with you, as I cannot give you the same satisfaction in writing that I could if I was present with you.” Towards the end of the letter, he tells her that he wants “to come there to see you. But [until that time,] we can correspond with each other and it will not be found out, perhaps.”

Turning to the physical letter, “Miss Emeline Hoffman” is the only writing on the front of the folded pages. (There is no envelope.) Adhesive-backed postage stamps were mandated in the United States in July 1847, so the lack of both a stamp and address indicates that the letter was furtive, delivered to Emeline by a third party. That person may have been a friend of Brown’s with personal business near where Emeline stayed or may have been one of the friends who told him to marry again and who was keen to undertake the matchmaking journey. Whoever it was, Brown clearly counted on his or her discretion.

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These women are not Mary Doub and Emeline Hoffman, but they clearly capture the similarities between sisters that likely drove Joseph Brown’s proposal. Circa 1860, these unidentified 1/9th-plate ambrotypes were taken by “Kimball & Childs’ Ambrotype Gallery, No. 176 Elm Street, Ferren’s Building, Manchester, New Hampshire.” Author’s collection.

In both the United States and Great Britain, marriage between a man and his dead wife’s sister was considered taboo by ecclesiastical law—it was perceived as akin to incest. However, that did not stop grieving men from wedding the sisters of their spouses.

In 1835, the British Marriage Act firmly quashed such unions, although marriages of couples already wed stayed legalized. The desire of men to wed their spouses’ sisters remained so common, however, that by 1842 a bill was introduced into Parliament to end the prohibition. It was defeated, but that loss reignited the public debate that continued unabated through the reign of Victoria and into that of her son, Edward VII. Finally, The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907 was passed, as was the clarifying Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act of 1921, giving both types of marriages equal legality.

Today, in an age of very different social mores, we must strive to understand the drivers of these affinal marriages. As it was in Britain, in the United States, unmarried sisters often dwelt with married couples, or visited for long periods of time to help with childbirth, childcare, nursing, and housekeeping. For example, during her final illness in 1821, Elizabeth Branwell cared for her sister Maria Branwell Brontë, the mother of the literary Brontë sisters, who was dying of ovarian or uterine cancer. Elizabeth came the considerable distance from Penzance, Cornwall, to the parsonage at Haworth, Yorkshire, and after Maria’s death, “Aunt Branwell” remained with the six Brontë children for the rest of her life. She did not marry her brother-in-law, Vicar Patrick Brontë, but the matter may well have been discussed between them.

Anne D. Wallace, professor and head of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, writes in On the Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy, 1835-1907, “In the 1849 Commons debates…a Mr. Cockburn, supporting a bill to legalize [deceased wives’ sisters marriages], calls the deceased wife’s sister ‘the person who, of all other human beings, was the best constituted and adapted to act as a substitute for the mother. She was already, as it were, half a mother to them from her very position; and even the law regarded her in the place of a parent. The children, who would have shrunk from a stranger, turned with affection towards the sister of their mother.’”

Wallace also provides the example of Prime Minister and Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone, who “speaking in opposition to [these marriages] later that year, waxed more eloquent, but in very similar terms: ‘No doubt the children of the first wife derived an inappreciable advantage from the care of the sister of their mother after her death. She stood to them in a natural relation, approved by God and man; and, mindful of the tenderness which united her to one now removed, she carried the overflowings of her tenderness to the offspring of the beloved person who had been called away.’”

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Unidentified sisters, 1/4th-plate ambrotype, circa 1859. The wedding rings of all five have been decorated with gold. Author’s collection.

In the United States of Joseph Brown and Emeline Hoffman’s day, the debate was as vociferous. As in Britain, the primary disconcertion was committing incest in the eyes of God. Other arguments against the marriages included that should a man was allowed to lay with his wife’s sister after her death, little would prevent him from doing so before he was a widower. The sure destruction of the family would follow.

Martin Ottenheimer, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, writes in Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, “Acrid debates over marital law in the country during the first half of the nineteenth century were dominated by concerns with the moral consequences of the affinal marriages. Incestuous relationships, in general, were viewed in terms of social and moral implications of marriage. Affinal kin were treated no differently from consanguineal kin in legislating prohibitions. Each side of the debates relied primarily on biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical authority for their arguments…. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the debates over the regulation of marriage no longer focused on biblical exegesis and moral concerns. The emphasis had shifted to the results of empirical investigations into the health of various human subgroups and to the possible physical consequence of consanguinity for offspring.”

Whilst much has been written about why sisters were all-but-tailor-made replacements for a lost mothers, and whilst no one of the Nineteenth Century would disagree about a man’s need for woman to tend his home and mother his children, little has been said about what truly lay in a man’s heart, as opposed to his head, to spur him to marry his sister-in-law. Surely, in cases where the heart played an important role—and Joseph Brown presents every indication of a man being primarily moved by his emotions—that cause is the same as already mentioned in regard to nieces and nephews: the sister-in-law possessed the same ability to soothe and comfort the widower, who yearned the return of the woman he’d lost.

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Unidentified sisters, 1/2-plate daguerreotype, circa 1850. Courtesy Leigh McKinnon Collection.

A well-known American example of this psychological phenomenon is Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president, slaveholder, and lonely widower. Much has been written about how Jefferson established a long and, most likely, genuinely loving relationship with his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings, but little has been said about Sally’s true relationship to her owner: As was Emeline Hoffman to Joseph Brown, Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s affinal sister. Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, was the daughter of a Welsh ship captain and an African enslaved woman. Betty’s owner was a white planter and slave trader John Wayles, who was also the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha. Soon after the death of the last of his three wives, Wayles took Betty as his mistress and had six children by her, of which Sally was the last, born in 1773.

Although she was two-thirds white, Sally was still a slave, and she came to be owned by Thomas Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. According to Isaac Jefferson, a former slave at Jefferson’s Monticello, “Sally Hemings’ mother Betty was a bright mulatto woman, and Sally [was] mighty near white…. Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” Her sister Martha was also beautiful—tall, lithe, and dearly and deeply loved by Jefferson.

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Sisters Caroline and Dulcie Eden, photographed in about 1850. Courtesy National Library of Wales.

Whilst with Jefferson in Paris when he served as U.S. ambassador to France, Sally turned from a child to a young woman who may have looked, moved, and spoken very much like her sister. “Interestingly, [Jefferson historian Annette] Gordon-Reed believes that speech patterns may have been one more way that Sally Hemings actually reminded Jefferson of Martha. Besides resembling each other physically, half-sisters can resemble each other ‘in the tone and timbre of voice, and mannerisms.’ Furthermore, Gordon-Reed points out that ‘even before they were together in Paris, the Hemingses and Jeffersons lived in close proximity to one another and interacted on a daily basis, creating as this did all over the South, a mixed culture of shared language, expressions, sayings, and norms of presentation,’” writes University of Richmond Professor Suzanne W. Jones in her 2011 article “Imagining Jefferson and Hemings in Paris” (Transatlantica: Revue D’Etudes Americanes.)

It is entirely possible that Emeline Hoffman, due to her shared DNA and upbringing, was as familiar to Joseph as Sally Hemings was to Jefferson. Emeline may not only have looked and spoken like Mary but may have emitted similar pheromones that sparked an attraction on a more primal level. A 2012 article by Scientific American, probed the issue: “‘We’ve just started to understand that there is communication below the level of consciousness,’” says Bettina Pause, a psychologist at Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf, who has been studying pheromones and human social olfaction for 15 years. ‘My guess is that a lot of our communication is influenced by chemosignals.’”

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Detail, 1/6th-plate daguerreotype of sisters, circa 1855. Author’s collection.

What transpired after Emeline received Joseph’s missive is not known, but the ultimate outcome is that she did not marry him. The “Why not?” may be speculated in several scenarios: One possibility is that for either religious or personal reasons, her parents did not wish their daughter to make an affinal marriage. Like Joseph Brown, the Hoffmans were Lutheran and may have agreed with scriptural prohibitions against a man marrying his late wife’s sister; they may also have thought the age gap between the two was too great, or that Emeline was not prepared to take on her sister’s three children. Another scenario is that Emeline rejected Joseph for her own religious or personal reasons, including that she had set her sights on another man. A third possibility is that Emeline and Joseph did court, with or without her parents’ permission, but ultimately decided they would not be compatible as man and wife.

What is definite, however, is that Emeline did not do as Joseph requested: She chose not to destroy his letter and apparently kept it for the rest of her life. There is no chain of provenance, so it must be speculated that the letter was found amongst her papers by her children who also chose to save it from fire or rubbish tip because they appreciated the affection that had existed between, if not Joseph and Emeline, then the Brown and the Hoffman families. The letter has now survived for more than 165 years, preserved by descendants or other owners until I became its current custodian in late 2014.

The letter’s tale, written on very fine rag paper that now feels also like worn cloth, remained intact through the years, as did the fondness, I believe, between Emeline and her brother-in-law. Indeed, for the rest of their lives, they dwelt near each other, attended the same church, and could almost surely be found at the same social and family events.

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The memorial to Joseph Brown and his second wife Lenah, St. Paul’s Church Lutheran Cemetery, Myersville.

The woman who became Brown’s second wife and the stepmother of his children on 28 March, 1853, was 20-year-old Magdalena Charlotte Schildknect, known as “Lenah.” The couple had four additional children. Brown was widowed for the second time when Lenah died on 6 January, 1874. In 1878, Brown married a third wife, 35-year-old Lugenia Routzahn (1843-1915).

On 18 September, 1855, Emeline Hoffman wed farmer and laborer David Kinna (1832–1912) and had nine children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. She died 15 September, 1898, at the age of 64, and is buried in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery with her husband beside her.

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Frederick News, 4 March, 1910.

Joseph Brown made his last appearance on the 1910 Census. He was then 91 years old, living off his own income, at what is now 199 Main Street. As is fitting for such a long-lived and well-respected man, he was surrounded by multiple generations of his family. He had then been married to Lugenia for 32 years—longer than his first two marriages combined.

Brown continued to run his mercantile business until 1902, when failing eyesight forced him to retire, ending a “business life of more than fifty years,” during which “he had walked more than 23,000 miles, [as] his place of business was 1/4th of a mile from his residence, ” stated A Brief History of the the Middletown Valley, 1849-1880.

Joseph eventually lost his sight entirely, but the History of Frederick County, Maryland, Volume I, in a section that dates from before Brown’s death, pointed out, “He retains a remarkable memory and can intelligently speak of events of Frederick County for three-quarters of a century past.”

At age 93, Brown died 3 November, 1912, in Myersville. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in a row close to the building. Both Joseph and Emeline rest on the same green hill with the spouses they eventually chose—still brother and sister, but never lovers. Ω

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Brown letter, page 2.
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Brown letter, page 3.

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