Solving a mystery about check from 1874

Monica Marcum sat in the office of the Baltimore City Historical Society and held a document she discovered among her late father's papers. It was a check dated July 6, 1874, for $62.81 for plumbing materials at the "new City Hall." She was giving the canceled check to the historical group because she thought it deserved a proper home.

She wondered how her father came into possession of this financial document for Baltimore's City Hall, which was under construction during this period and opened for business in 1875.

Michael S. Franch, the historical society's president, put out a call that this check, signed by Mayor Joshua Vansant and made payable to Henry McShane & Co., would be arriving. He said he didn't know if these checks "are rare or available by the bundle, but I thought it was neat."

My ears perked up when I heard that Marcum, the check's donor, lived in eastern Baltimore County. I asked if she knew Arthur G. "Whitey" Mansberger. Indeed she did. There was a family connection through her father, Charles Townsend Schmidt. He and Mansberger owned adjoining vacation cottages on Broad Creek in Harford County at the Susquehanna River. The two men shared a certain taste for architectural recycling. The ceiling of her father's cabin was formerly the bowling alley from Fort Holabird.

There is no doubt in my mind that Whitey Mansberger gave Marcum's father the canceled check as a little gift from the bundle of papers he acquired in 1976. City Hall was then undergoing a thorough renovation, and papers that had been filed away for more than 100 years were being tossed. News accounts said that Mansberger got past the do-not-enter signs and struck a deal with somebody in charge. He bought all that old paper for $50.

Mansberger, who was retired from Bethlehem Steel's tin mill, was a famous personage during the period of the 1960s and 1970s when Baltimore landmarks were falling for parking lots and urban renewal plans. He'd spot a news story that something was being torn down and strike a deal with the wreckers. He worked from Roland Park to Highlandtown. News articles detailed how people were decorating their homes with floors, millwork and stained-glass windows from his inventory. He was the sales agent for salvage from Baltimore's beloved Ford's and Stanley theaters.

Maybe because so many reporters congregated at City Hall, his coup of the $50 purchase of old city receipts made good copy. When he organized his loot, he found the payment records of the construction of City Hall. When he died in 1999 at age 103, his junk finds made the news one more time.

"It solves the mystery for me," said Marcum, who retired from Mercy Medical Center. "He must have given it to my dad."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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