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Towson family tied to Washington Monument cornerstone

From left, Lance Humphries, chair, Richard Thomas, chair of the development committee, and Faith Millspaugh, vice president, all with the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, look at glass bottles containing newspapers inside the 200-year-old cornerstone.
From left, Lance Humphries, chair, Richard Thomas, chair of the development committee, and Faith Millspaugh, vice president, all with the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, look at glass bottles containing newspapers inside the 200-year-old cornerstone. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

When the newly discovered cornerstone of the Washington Monument was opened Wednesday afternoon, a familiar name was revealed inscribed on the underside of the lid of the 200-year-old time capsule.

There with the name of the mason and another stone cutter, it read, "Thomas Towson." A member of the family for which the Baltimore County seat is named carved his name on the lid before he helped lay the monument's cornerstone, according to 1815 newspaper reports.

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"The Towson mentioned was indeed descendant of the Towson family, though there were multiple lines of the family and many Towsons," said Adam Youssi, executive director of the Historical Society of Baltimore County, in an email soon after the time capsule was opened.

"His business as a stone cutter was listed in the Baltimore City Directories of both 1816 and 1822," Youssi said.

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What's more,Youssi found the 1815 newspaper account of the laying of the cornerstone on July 4. The July 8 account published in The Commercial and Daily Advertiser, listed the contents of the box, including an engraved copper plate, a sealed glass bottle containing a likeness of Washington, his valedictory address, several newspaper printed at the time and U.S. coins.

"On the stone was engraved — 'William Steuart and Thomas Towson, Stone Cutters; Sater Stevenson, Stone Mason,'" the newspaper reported.

Towson and Steuart, with the monument's architect Robert Mills, placed the stone before the contents were installed at the Fourth of July ceremony in 1815, the newspaper said. The article recounts the flowery prayers, including a blessing of the stone with a scattering of corn and pouring of oil and wine. The ceremonies concluded with a playing of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and a volley of gunfire.

When Lance Humphries of the Mount Vernon Conservancy and Terry Drayman-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum, opened the box Feb. 18, they found the items as listed by the newspaper reports. Instead of one bottle, however, there were three wide-mouth bottles inside, according to Weisser. Walters staff will undertake the delicate job of preserving the 200-year-old artifacts, attempting to extract them from the box and X-ray them, she said.

The Walters staff was called in before the cornerstone was opened out of concern for the condition of its contents. And in fact, there was water damage, mold and salts that had seeped out of the two-centuries-old mortar, according to Drayman-Weisser.

"Nothing has been removed at this point," she said. Lots of questions remain before the contents can be disturbed. The presence of mold raises health issues and concerns about contaminating the Walters' collections.

Deteriorating newspapers, combined with water — now frozen — and salt, surround the three jars and in fact have cemented the contents inside the box. The Walters conservators will have to figure out how to loosen the material and remove the contents before they can X-ray the bottles. All they know about their contents are the newspapers dated July 1815. Drayman-Weisser said they believe other objects may be inside the jars. She said two of them were sealed but the seals have been disturbed, while the third jar is open.

"That's going to be a challenge," she said.

A second time capsule, placed in the monument during its centennial year and uncovered last fall, is currently on display at the Walters. A copper box soldered shut, its contents have been X-rayed but the box itself has not yet been opened, Drayman-Weisser said.

"We have an idea of what may be in there," she said.

It will be on display in the museum's glass gallery near Centre Street until May when it is scheduled to be opened. Then the contents will be on view in the Walters' conservation window on the fourth floor of the museum.

The Maryland Historical Society plans an exhibition of artifacts for the Washington Monument's bicentennial on the Fourth of July, according to Laura Rodini, spokeswoman for the historical society. She said planning is still underway. Drawings of initial drawings submitted for the contest held to design the city's monument which are part of the society's collection are expected to be on display.

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