Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen,
Voices whisper in the trees, “Tonight is Halloween!” —Dexter Kozen
How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.
On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.
(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)
After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.
What we captured there included the following:
Male voice one: What’s the coffee?
Male voice two: Official dark boots.
The audio file below repeats the sequence four times—twice at normal speed, once slowed, and once slowed with noise filtration.
At the time we recorded this exchange, I was unaware of the primacy of highly caffeinated coffee in the day-to-day lives of military men trying to get through the next chilly morning, the next hard march along muddy and rutted roads, or the next siphoning up of courage for a battle they might not survive.
“Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived,” John Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wrote in a July 2014 New York Times article. Union quartermasters issued each solder 36 lbs. of coffee beans per year, which the men roasted and ground themselves. Some of them used a Sharps coffee grinder carbine to do the latter, wherein the normal cartridge box built into the shoulder stock was replaced by a grinder with a detachable handle.
“Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a ‘delicious cup of black,’ or fumed about ‘wishy-washy coffee,'” noted Grinspan. “For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as [one] diarist noted, ‘little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.’ Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans.”
To underscore exactly how much coffee meant to the average Union soldier, Grinspan tallied up how often the word coffee appeared in diaries and letters. The total was much higher than for words such as “war,” “mother,” and others that should have weighed on the mind of a soldier.
Confederates, on the other hand, used their ink and paper to complain that their coffee wasn’t worth a hill of Yankee beans (because it wasn’t coffee, but a grain- and vegetable-based, noncaffeinated horror show), and how annoyed they were that the enemy had the consolation of the good stuff.
In 1888, Union veteran John D. Billings wrote in his book Hard Tack and Coffee about the lives of Civil War soldiers, “What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march—and this was an experience common to thousands—have I … made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Other soldiers referred to the dark brew as their “nerve tonic,” and when rations ran short, fumed that “no one can soldier without coffee.”
From the sound of things, they still can’t.
My friend, my niece, and I wonder whether we recorded two Union soldiers in conversation, one referring to the coffee aptly and humorously as “Official Dark Boots” in the same way we name our coffee blends—for example, “Wake the F$%# Up,” “Feels Like Flying,” or “Fog Chaser.” The beans, received from the quartermaster, were indeed official and boiling the grounds in a mucket would result in a black brew that provided them a figurative kick in the pants and give them the will to march. Ω
When Hannah McCracken Kelly died in 1855, she left two small children who would retain no memory of her and possess no photographic image other than this postmortem daguerreotype.
Hannah B. McCracken was the daughter of John and Mary McCracken (or Mecracken), who farmed in Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania, during the early 19th Century. Named after the “Great Compromiser” U.S. Senator Henry Clay (1777-1852), the town is located on the line of the Cumberland Road which forms its Main Street. Claysville is 18 miles east of Wheeling, West Virginia, and 10 miles west of Washington, Pennsylvania. The town was laid out in 1817 and remained unincorporated until 1832.
John McCracken was born about 1795 in Pennsylvania and died 28 December, 1865, in Claysville. His wife, Mary, the daughter of Samuel Caldwell of Buffalo Township, was born in about 1797 and died 4 August, 1878. The couple married in Washington County on 30 December, 1820. They are buried together in the old Purviance Cemetery, Claysville.
Hannah was the eldest child, born in 1829. She appears on the 1850 census of Donegal Township, Washington County (about 3 miles northwest of Claysville), with her parents and siblings. The next born, in January 1830, was Samuel C. McCracken. He married Susannah R. McCay and migrated to Longton, Elk County, Kansas, where she passed away in 1900; he followed in 1912. They had three children. Youngest brother John H. McCracken was born in 1834. He had removed to Des Moines, Iowa, by 1875, when he married Emily Robinson on 10 March. On his wedding day, He listed his occupation as merchant. The youngest daughter was Mary, born in 1837.
Hannah married Dr. John W. Kelly 12 September, 1852, in Claysville at the First Presbyterian Church on Wayne Street. Kelly, born in 1823, was the son of John Kelly and his wife Mary. The union quickly resulted in the birth of two children: George Mutter, in 1854 and Clara Brownell, born 12 February, 1855. A reasonable speculation is that Hannah Kelly died, at approximately age 31, because of this second labor and delivery or of puerperal sepsis thereafter.
The daguerreotype I own was likely taken whilst Hannah was laid out in the Kelly home before burial in Purviance Cemetery. The image was prettily hand-tinted and is housed in a nearly perfect union case with domed glass over the image. Two copies were made, both of which surfaced after I purchased mine in early 2012 from a dealer in Alexandria, Virginia. The first copy was auctioned on eBay in July 2012. The second copy, located in Australia, was sold on eBay in October 2012.
Almost certainly, each of Hannah’s children was given a version of the image. The third may have belonged to Dr. Kelly. My daguerreotype is the original and the only one with identifying information included. It shows Hannah in mirror image, as all daguerreotypes do because they are viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. The copies were made later, in the photographer’s studio, thus returning Hannah to her actual orientation upon the bed on the day she was photographed.
Widower John Kelly, the Clayville area’s only physician, who rode out in all weather or times of day to attend his patients, was left with a toddler and a newborn infant. In short order, he wed again. The bride and step-mother was Anna Eliza Laird, born 28 December, 1837, the daughter of John Laird and Agnes Maxwell. Dr. Kelly and Anna Eliza had one child, Hannah Mary, born in 1858 and christened with the name of Kelly’s first wife.
After she died, aged 76, in August 1914, Ann Eliza’s obituary provided her background: “[Her] family were among the pioneers of this section, descending from John and Mary Snodgrass Laird, natives of Ireland, where he was born in 1758. He came to the United States in about 1792. His wife and family came about 1800. They traveled by team to Lancaster, where he had located. About the year 1801 they came to near Taylorstown, and later Mr. Laird bought a tract in Donegal township, where they made a home. There the deceased was born and reared.
“She was married to Dr. John W. Kelly, for years was a prominent physician in Washington [Pennsylvania,] who died [30 October,] 1899. One son and one daughter are bereaved—Dr. George M. Kelly, of Washington, and Clara, wife of George E. Lockhart, who resides on the Kelly farm in Buffalo township, about a mile east of Claysville.”
The obituary does not mention Anna Eliza’s own daughter, Hannah Mary, who the 1870 Census reveals lived to at least to 12 years of age. Whether she died young or married and died before her mother is unclear. What is certain is that Hannah’s children, George and Clara, saw Anna Eliza as their mother. It was she who had raised them, fed them, taught them, heard their prayers, and nursed them when they were sick.
Yet Hannah McCracken’s name was not forgotten. The note with my daguerreotype was written by one of the two children, as it reads “Our mother, taken after the death.” She had lived on in the name of their younger sister. And when George Kelly died of arteriosclerosis in 1927, his death certificate and obituary stated correctly that he was the son of Dr. John W. and Hannah McCracken Kelly.
“His father rode the mud roads of his day in all the surrounding country on horseback to attend the sick and afflicted. For years he was the only physician residing [in Claysville]. Dr. [George] Kelly attended the common school here and W. & J. college until completing his junior year, when he entered Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, graduating in a class of 170 in 1875. His thesis was entitled ‘Acute Pleurisy.’ He served as interne in Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh, then associated with his father at 39 North Main Street, Washington, continuing eight years until 1885, when he studied ophthalmia in Morefield Hospital, London; eye, ear, nose and throat diseases in Berlin and Vienna. He had an office in the Joseph Horne Building, Pittsburgh, until it was destroyed by fire, May 1, 1927.
“He resumed a partnership with his father, continuing 15 years, part of each year being spent in study in New York and Philadelphia, specializing in surgery, diseases of the stomach, and other subjects. He was a promoter of the old Washington Hospital and helped make it a reality. He served 15 years on both the surgical and medical staffs. He held similar positions with the City Hospital. Local educational and civic interests were also given of his time and mind, serving on the school board. He was a member of Trinity Episcopal church and served as vestryman.
“He leaves his wife, Mrs. Rose LeMoyne Kelly, and one sister, Mrs. [Clara] George E. Lockhart, both of Washington.”
A year after her brother wed, on 11 February, 1903, when also in her late 40s, Hannah’s daughter Clara married 50-something George Edwin Lockhart (1848-1924) at Trinity P. E. Church in Pittsburgh.
As a teenager, Lockhard had joined the 147th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was with General William T. Sherman at Atlanta and during the famous “March to the Sea.” Afterward, in his native Pennsylvania, he became a player in Washington County’s Republican party, served as deputy sheriff then sheriff in the 1880s, and was chief clerk of the County Board of Commissioners from 1897 to 1906.
The childless couple owned the farm near Findley Township where the renown William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) was born, using it as their summer house. McGuffey was a college professor who wrote the cherished McGuffey Readers, the first elementary school textbooks used in the United States. Millions of adult Americans felt what we now call the “warm fuzzies” about these books that shaped their childhoods.
After Lockhart died of the grippe and angina, Clara was a wealthy widow. Deeply devoted to animals, before her own death from bladder cancer on 1 November, 1931, she made a Will specifying the use of $85,000 to turn her farm into a haven for friendless cats, dogs, and horses. The animal sanctuary was administered by the American Humane Society. Clara passed away with a cat named Buddy upon her deathbed.
Clara, her husband, father, and step-mother are buried in Washington Cemetery. John and Anna Eliza share an elaborate above-ground tomb. Clara and George Lockhart’s graves are either unmarked or they, too, rest in Dr. Kelly’s mausoleum. Clara’s possessions were sold or otherwise dispersed. There were no descendants to treasure them. Today, I protect what may have been her singular image of a long-lost mother.Ω
Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”
“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.
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.”
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 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?'”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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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“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.”
Myersville, July 10th, 1852
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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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