Cumberland Times-News

March 13, 2008

The desire still there to become a novelist

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

When I was 8 or so, just beginning to make two-fingered attacks on Daddy's typewriter, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I expected to write stories, but some years later I realized that I don't have what it takes to plot, and develop, and complete a 300-page novel. Still, every now and then, I stumble across a real-life experience that could be spun-out to novel size.

I came across two such situations last week, when I was seriously researching the life of Thomas Johnson, Maryland's first elected governor (although it was the House of Delegates that elected him, not the population as a whole).

Books have been written about his long friendship with George Washington and the fact that he nominated George to become commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies.

They worked together on the Potowmak Canal project, and the president named Johnson to the Supreme Court. I was more interested in finding out how the Johnson family acquired more than 40,000 acres of land in what is now Garrett County. Was it by grant or by purchase?

I didn't find a firm answer to my question, but in the course of hunting, I came upon two other, more intriguing, questions.

The governor's English grandfather, another Thomas Johnson, eloped with young Mary Baker without the consent of her court-appointed guardian. Facing fines and possible imprisonment for contempt of court, the young couple fled the country, arriving in Maryland in 1690.

That much is historic fact - but then the would-be-novelist takes over. When they eloped, were the young couple followed by relatives and court officials in hot pursuit? Did the bride cut off her hair and put on boy's clothes? Did they sell her jewelry to pay for their voyage across the Atlantic? Were they married by a clergyman who had been hidden in the priest-hole of a stately home? There is room for all sorts of fascinating speculations.

Almost two centuries later the governor's son became the center of another series of intriguing questions. He moved to Western Maryland to take charge of the huge tract of land that he and his brothers inherited.

He sold timber; he built - and for a while operated - an inn known as the Brumley tavern; he expanded what had been a log cabin into a house with four stone chimneys.

But he remained a bachelor until he was almost 70, when he entered into what biographers have called "a marriage of convenience'' with Miss Harriet Anne Beall, of Frostburg.

For whom was that marriage convenient? Was he already ailing, needing a 24-hour presence in the house? Was she a wayward young lady, just 21 years old, whose family wanted her safely distanced from the temptations of the town? Or was that union a cover-up for financial manipulations between the Johnson and Beall families?

Here again a novelist would have a free hand. Perhaps the elderly man and the young girl had had an earlier relationship. Certainly the fact that on Joshua Johnson's death, two or three years after their wedding, the inherited half of his estate - the rest to be divided among his brothers and sisters and their heirs - suggests that Joshua felt a considerable obligation to his widow.

On the other hand, the marriage may have been part of some sort of financial deal between the Johnson and Beall families. In those days, few women had control of their own money, either earned or inherited, although her name and signature might appear on documents, she may only have been a convenience to her male relatives.

The house in which Harriet Beall Johnson lived with her husband on the Johnson property is gone; the one we see deteriorating was built in 1882.

After Joshua's death she moved back to Frostburg, built the house, commonly known as the Hocking property, on East Main Street, and married James Kane, a partner with her Beall brothers in the Frostburg Gas Company. She had no children by either marriage.

As an amateur historian, I am concerned with dates and places, events and people, neatly documented in church records, courthouse books, and contemporary new paper accounts. I'm not a novelist - but when I come across an elopement, a strange marriage of convenience, I'm tempted. ....

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.