The Delmarva Dickens

September 15, 2017

If you pass through Crampton's Gap on the portion of South Mountain that looms over Burkittsville, Maryland, you will come upon an astonishing sight at the crossroads on the summit, a structure that looks like the ruin of a medieval castle or a remnant of a Roman aqueduct. Stop to examine it and you will find such adornments as horses heads and "speed" and "heed" cast in terra cotta, a zinc statue of Mercury in a niche and WAR CORRESPONDENTS spelled out in brick.

It's the Civil War Correspondents Memorial Arch, maintained by the National Park Service as part of Antietem National Battlefield. The arch is surrounded by Gathland State Park, once known as Gapland when it was the folly-filled estate of journalist George Alfred Townsend who added an "H" to his initials and wrote as "GATH."

Townsend erected the memorial arch in 1896. Its design was inspired by the Victorian eclectic facade of a firehouse in Hagerstown. Its builder slipped from fame to obscurity midway through his life.

After her "par and mar" die of the "pilmonary," Rhoda comes to live with her Uncle Meshach and Aunt Vesta. She tells Vesta that home isn't the same "sence the shews don't stop thar no mour."

A contemporary of his friend, Mark Twain George Alfred Townsend was born in Delaware about a dozen years after justice was met by the quasi-mythical [Patty] Cannon-[Joe] Johnson Gang, kidnappers of free and enslaved negroes. Townsend's father was an itinerant Methodist preacher who was employed by churches up and down the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) Peninsula and around Philadelphia. Townsend's mother had an ancestor who, in the early 1800s, inherited a hat which George Alfred, admirer and intellectual descendant of Puritans/Calvinists, imagined to be a piece of 17th-century, steeple-crowned headgear that is today called a "pilgrim hat."

Rev. Townsend and his Milbourne wife made an ambitious couple. He obtained medical and doctorate degrees and purchased farmlands in Delmarva on his meager preacher's earnings. Meshach Milburn, the "forester" (likely descended from indentured servants who escaped to the Delmarva wilds) who amasses wealth in George's novel, The Entailed [Heirloom] Hat, is probably a personification of George's parents' Protestant industry.

George Alfred Townsend

No less ambitious, George Alfred distinguished himself as a writer in many modes even before he graduated from high school in Philadelphia on the eve of The Civil War. An abolitionist from his childhood, he foreshadowed a distinguished career as a journalist by interviewing successful free negroes for one of his high-school paper articles.

Niles the model

The model for newspapermen of Townsend's generation was Hezekiah Niles, another Delmarvan who preceded Townsend by two generations. Niles was among American journalism's great newspapermen (the number of which would by no means fill a sprawling pantheon). From Baltimore he published his Niles Weekly Register containing what we in media today call "premium content," serious news about business, technology, politics and world affairs. Niles, for example, reported on the origin and progress of America's first common-carrier railroad, The Baltimore & Ohio. He also published news and statistics about slavery. His newspaper was printed in small format -- Readers complained about the miniscule type -- intended to be bound in volumes that would last for centuries. Indeed many copies of Niles' rough drafts of history have survived.

A devout Quaker, Niles was also religiously objective and unbiased in his publishing. He did not forward any news that at least two reliable sources, often other journals, did not corroborate, and he avoided tainting his reporting with personal and religious opinions. In fact, at a time when the American public was obsessed with religion, particularly Romanism, Niles stood out with his tendency of avoiding the subject altogether.

If ever the American news media comes to take balanced and unbiased reporting seriously, a Hezekiah Niles Award would be a fitting recognition of outlets that exemplify it.

GATH's rise and fall

George Alfred's newspaper jobs in Philadelphia included being a drama critic. In that role 19-year-old Townsend first met actor John Wilkes Booth.

Oddly, for a man who wrote a novel about the Civil War and erected a monument to its correspondents, Townsend was away in Europe for much of the Union-Confederacy conflict, trying to make a living as a writer/lecturer and apparently cohabiting with a woman.

He returned to the U.S. in 1865 as the war was being concluded. Again he met Booth and he was on hand as a correspondent to report on the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. He raced to Washington by train to cover the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination.

During Townsend's absence, the U.S. government ordered newspapers to print the by-lines of their reporters. This new practice brought Townsend, writing as "GATH," the fame as a writer he sought. In 1865 his first book, a compendium of his newspaper reports, The Life, Crime, And Capture of John Wilkes Booth [etc.] was published. It included GATH's eyewitness account of the hanging of Booth's co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt at Washington Arsenal (now Fort Leslie J. McNair).

Several years after the war, Townsend published a thick volume describing how Washington, D.C. actually works. In his 20s and 30s, he was the best-known journalist in America and fabulously compensated.

However by the time a middle-aged GATH purchased the Crampton's Gap lands in 1884 for his Gapland estate on the mountain above Burkittsville and began writing his historical novels, he was on the road to obscurity and beyond that to penury. He was eventually reduced to charging a toll to those who traversed his mountain. Crampton's gap was a shortcut from Frederick County to Washington County. Locals simply went another route. Townsend died in New York in 1914. His remains never reached the mausoleum at Gapland with "Goodnight, GATH" inscribed over its portal. In 1949 the property came to Maryland which turned it into a state park.

Georgetown Visitation Prep

Georgetown Visitation Prep figures in Katy of Catoctin. Under the white chapel of the 1790 girls school in D.C. lies a crypt where sisters of Visi's early decades are interred.

History, local color and love

GATH's novels of the lands around The Chesapeake Bay were basically historical works of local color. To reach a broader market, i.e., extend the appeal of his tales to female readers, the author larded them with love interest. Typical of Victorian novels with their stage-drama-like dialogs and characters pausing to reflect, the works seem plodding to 21st-century readers. Early printings and Tidewater Publishing's mid-20th-century editions are hard to find.

The Entailed [Heirloom] Hat Or Patty Cannon's Times is a long, rambling tale wrapped around the story of the criminal operations and capture of Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, Joe Johnson. Literally its many characters rove at various paces all over Maryland's Eastern Shore and Delaware.

Based along the Maryland/Delaware line around Reliance, The Cannon-Johnson Gang of white toughs and black decoys ranged as far north as Philadelphia to kidnap free and enslaved blacks and smuggle them to the South. Nothing was done about the racket until the 1820s when four bodies were discovered buried on Cannon's property and Cannon was indicted in Delaware. After admitting many murders, Patty died in jail awaiting trial having, according to legend, poisoned herself with arsenic.

As a boy growing up on The Delmarva, Townsend would have known people who were versed in the Cannon-Johnson story and who were perhaps even acquaintances of the criminals themselves.

Low-born Meshach Milburn is the owner of the legacy, 150-year-old steeple-crown hat. For his wearing of it, the townsfolk of Princess Anne, Maryland have set him down as everything from a weirdo to a familiar of Satan who reads the Bible upside down. But Meshach has made a fortune. He uses some of it to obtain the hand of beautiful, old-line Episcopalian Vesta Custis by settling Vesta's father's debts. Vesta's servants are kidnapped by the evil Joe Johnson (with whom Vesta's respectable father is in cahoots). Come the middle pages, the many characters are off and scrambling all over the Delmarva with intrepid Greek fisherman Jimmy Phoebus on a mission to rescue the abducted. By the book's conclusion, at least three couples are engaged.

St. Ignatius, Chapel Point Maryland

St. Ignatius at Chapel Point is, in Katy of Catoctin, "St. Thomas Manor...A handsome design, of dark red brick, with Roman arches and heavy chimneys, spire, wide hall, and cool gallery within the hall, and slave quarters...."

A much tighter tale-telling is Katy of Catoctin or The Chain-Breakers. On a hunting trip on the eve of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Loyd Quantrell, a wealthy, young Baltimorean who was raised as a Catholic, meets Katy Bosler and her family. The German Boslers are members of the Dunker sect. They have their 'love feasts" at the plain chapel that became a famous landmark at The Battle of Antietem. A friend of the fictional Boslers is another German, George Atzerodt, who assisted John Wilkes Booth in materializing the Lincoln plot.

Loyd meets Brown and his men on their way to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The young Baltimorean ends up among Brown's prisoners in the engine house. At Brown's trial John Wilkes Booth appears. The rest of the story consists of the fictional characters' tales intertwined with Booth's progress through his assassination of Lincoln, his flight through Southern Maryland and his destruction in a Virgina barn.

Gathland War Corresponts Mememorial

GATH's [Civil] War Correspondents Memorial Arch surrounded by Gathland State Park.

One of the finest passages in Katy is Townsend's depiction of a nighttime Nativist rally at The Washington Monument in Baltimore:

"Such an outpouring of rude yet well-attired and solvent native men later times never knew; it was the apotheosis of the "rowdy," that culmination of physical spirit and national jealousy on the brink of ideal issues and against insoluble foreignisms. The cold German, the mettlesome Irishman, had swarmed during ten years upon the settled land, and the power of their naturalization was already felt at the ballot box. It was not in the nature of American boys to submit....

Toward the tall white pillar to General Washington the defiant and triumphant "Native Americans" moved in lines of sword and fire, in clubs, without any other purpose than battle, by fist or weapon, by steel or shot. The insignias on their transparent lanterns told the purpose and the degree of refinement of the time: "The Blood-Tubs,"... "The Rip-Raps,"..."The Plug-Uglies." With battle-axes, and in red shirts or grenadier hats, they marched as grim as executioners.

...their blazing sulphur and burning rockets brought Washington's statue, on the summit of its candle, out into the prominence of a saint upon the Roman altar, and to every lad there he seemed to be giving them his benediction."

Too Many Micawbers

In his fiction GATH attempted to mimic the premiere novelist of Victorian times, Charles Dickens. However no Dickens was he. The Londoner with his "key of the street" was unsurpassable at depicting minor characters and their memorable phrases: Uriah Heep with his "umbleness," Jeremiah Flintwich making his wife "a comfortable dose," Wilkins Micawber ever optimistic that "Something will turn up." Townsend puts too many Micawbers in the field and he causes them to repeat their pet phrases way too often.

Patty Cannon House

Jimmy Phoebus, the Greek captain of a Chesapeake Bay fishing schooner called a "pungy," works "hokey-pokey" and "pangymonum" into his every utterance. Allen McLane, also of The Entailed Hat, another first-families Episcopalian who silently partners with the slave traders, divides everything into "conservative" or not. Among John Brown's prisoners at Harpers Ferry are a senile barkeep named Watty who keeps saying "fi'penny bit--fi'penny bit" [5 cents= the price of a drink in 1859] and an unnamed town bell-ringer who declares that he or others are "off of [their] Americanus" three times in two pages.

Then there are the ethnic accents. I believe that if characters with accents are going to talk a lot in a story, their regional pronunciations should be very muted or be entrusted to the reader's imagination. Flannery O'Connor never phonetically spelled her Georgians' talk, thank God. In GATH's Katy, Lincoln conspirator George Atzerodt brings to mind Yogi Yorgesson and his "By yiminy!" by peppering his Cherman with "Py Jing" as often as Phoebus declares "pangymonum."

The dastardly Joe Johnson speaks his own language:

"I have took a bigger nug than you and nicked his kicks into the bottom of his gizzard till his liver-lights fell into my mauleys. So it's nish or knife betwixt us, my bene cove ...We'll have this out nope for nope, or may I take the morning-drop."

It appears that Townsend made up Johnson's lingo from an old dictionary of criminal slang (1), perhaps as a linguistic costume for the 'napper to wear like a striped burglar's outfit with a black mask.

One delightful strain in Townsend's cacaphony of accents and ejaculations is the speech of Rhoda Holland in The Entailed Hat. The dialect of "Rhudi Hullin," as Rhoda pronounces her name, is familiar to Marylanders.

After her "par and mar" die of the "pilmonary," Rhoda comes to live with her Uncle Meshach and Aunt Vesta. She tells Vesta that home isn't the same "sence the shews don't stop thar no mour."

"The shoes? What is that?"

"The wax figgers and glass-blowers and the strongis' man in the world. Did you ever see him?"

Rhoda's description of the "shew" personnel run to the "canninbils" and the missionary and a rope-walker who's a "mountain-bank."

Chapel Point Maryland

"...terraced slopes and garden walks dropped away to the shores of the mighty Potomac." -- Katy of Catoctin

"Oh, I have a passel of beaus that takes me over to the Oushin on Sinepuxin beach [Near today's Ocean City], outen the way of the skeeters, an there we wades and sails, biles salt and roasts mammynoes."

The usual suspects: Catholics

If Townsend was no Dickens, he was also, in his fiction, no Hezekiah Niles. Any hungering and thirsting for truth and accuracy possessed by GATH lapsed when it came to the Catholic church. Like many journalists in our day, such as the ones who think "Catholicism" and "Inquisition" are interchangeable, Townsend was content to pass on Protestant folklore and wild imaginings about Catholicism that have no roots in reality.

A character in Katy of Catoctin, is Hugh Fenwick, named for a Catholic family who owned land on the Delmarva Peninsula (e.g., Fenwick Island, Del.). The Fenwicks produced early bishops of Boston and Cincinnati. Hugh Fenwick is a disingenuous, not-yet-ordained twerp. He invalidly marries Katy and Loyd without having the proper faculties. For this Townsend has Fenwick sentenced by the church to living as a monk among the graves in the crypt of Georgetown Visitation Prep. This real Catholic high school in D.C. truly has a cemetery below stairs.

Fenwick's fictional penalty is ridiclulous if only because no nuns would have had a man living in the walls of their convent. But, of course, in 19th-century anti-Catholic lore, nuns and priests were thought to mix freely in the secret confines of nunneries.

In another preposterous string-tie-up in Katy's plot, Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg bring Loyd's father into the church by sprinkling holy water on him.

Townsend also makes much of the fact that Lincoln conspirators Mary Surratt, her son John H. Surratt (2) and Dr. Samuel Mudd were all Catholic.

Dr. Mudd, as far as GATH was concerned, was fully knowledgeable of and involved in the sixteenth president's murder. Included as evidence in Katy is the doctor's pre-assassination meeting with Booth at St. Mary's church in Bryantown, Md. In defending himself Mudd claimed that this encounter was to discuss a real-estate deal.

Were Catholics really such villains when it came to slavery?

Abolitionists, such as Townsend, as ancestors of the modern left with whom they share many characteristics, are the heroes of History. In the pre-Civil War era, there were others who opposed slavery, but who were not Abolitionists. While these anti-slavery people agreed that slavery was immoral, they also believed that its ending should be gradual, not a sudden abolition.

In another preposterous string-tie-up in Katy's plot, Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg bring Loyd's father into the church by sprinkling holy water on him.

Into this patience-counseling anti-slavery camp fell most Catholic leaders. They were concerned about masses of unskilled people no longer being fed and sheltered. They wanted a gradual, thought-out end. However, in the eyes of Abolitionists, their gradual approach to an evil that must be dispelled immediately was as damning as outright support of human bondage.

In addition for their penchant for absolutism -- Our way or you're evil! -- Abolitionists also cooked their goose with the Catholic church and other organized Christian faiths by being against them. And they were against Romanism in particular.

Further, some abolitionists advocated free love and birth control. In the still-Christian world of the 19th-century these were extreme, shocking, unimaginable behaviors. Cardinal Newman could verily tell the readers of his 1855 novel Callista that they knew nothing of living in a pagan society.

Astute observers of the mid-19th-century, such as Orestes Brownson, understood that Abolitionism had more to do with foiling the growing power of recent Irish Catholic and German arrivals than with the welfare of negroes (just as modern heart-bleeding for various causes is really about overwhelming the native Christian population).

Vehicles of anti-Catholicism and technically flawed, George Alfred Townsend's novels are nonetheless interesting recollections of long-forgotten details of history and glimpses into the antebellum daily life of a region that has gotten much less attention in fiction than it deserves.


(1) "Nug [dear one]," "kicks [breeches]", "Bene Cove [good fellow]" "Nope [blow]" are all entries found in The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose.

(2) John H. Surratt escaped the fate of his mother by fleeing to Canada where he was helped along by Catholics, eventually becoming a papal zouave in Italy, enlisted in the losing cause of defending the papal states from secularists led by Guisseppi Garibaldi. Townsend, like many Americans and leftists the world over, was an admirer of Garibaldi for the latter's efforts to destroy the political power of the church. Anti-Catholics figured that the absorption of the papal states into a united Italy would be the end of Catholicism.

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