“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 certainly 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.

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 use 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.

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. His grave is unmarked.

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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This is His Orphan: What it Shows and What it Doesn’t

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Widow and Orphan, Albumen Carte de Visite, Circa 1868. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”

The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”

“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.

Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground of the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be altered.

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CDV of Malvern, Worcestershire, Circa 1870. Courtesy Collection of pellethepoet.

My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where user comments suggest that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.

This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught whilst tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.

Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.

Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historical record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.

Further, it should be asked why a mother would choose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?

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A mother from Philadelphia dressed in full mourning, which differs from a widow’s full mourning, cradling her presumably dead infant. Albumen CDV, Circa 1870. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω

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A young boy is photographed while held still by a posing stand. Circa 1890. Unknown provenance.

When Soap Was Taxed, Bathing Was Optional, and Dying Was Too Expensive

I have decided to occasionally reblog the excellent content of other history blogs. This site, Unremembered: A History of the Famously Interesting and Mostly Forgotten, is made of the same stuff as Your Dying Charlotte; to wit: “Let these people and these stories not be forgotten.”

UNREMEMBERED

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By Ken Zurski

Beginning in 1712 and continuing for nearly 150 years, the British monarchy used soap to raise revenue, specifically by taxing the luxury item. See, at the time, using soap to clean up was considered a vain gesture and available only to the very wealthy. The tax, of course, was on the production of soap and not the participation. But because of the high levy’s imposed, most of the soap makers left the country hoping to find more acceptance and less taxes in the new American colonies.

Cleanliness was not the issue, although it never really was. Soap itself had been around for ages and used for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with good hygiene. The Gauls, for example, dating back to the 5th Century B.C., made a variation of soap from goat’s tallow and beech ashes. They used it to shiny up their hair, like…

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