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Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

Dayhoff: The Odd Fellow’s Hall Opera House in Westminster a witness to history for over 165 years

The Odd Fellow’s Hall Opera House in Westminster has been a witness to history for over 165 years.

Although the history of the Odd Fellow’s Hall Opera House at 140 E. Main St. begins in the mid-1800s, let’s pick up the story in April 1910, when the final rehearsals were taking place for the opera “Miss Bob White,” an original American pastoral comedy opera, in three acts, that was performed in Westminster on Tuesday, May 10, and Thursday, May 12, 1910.

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According to research by Cathy Baty, curator of collections at the Historical Society of Carroll County, the production was put on by local singers and musicians to benefit the Westminster Orchestra. It sold out both performances at the Odd Fellow’s Hall.

According to Chris Weeks’ book, “The Building of Westminster,” the hall is located on “the site of [the] Jacob Mathias tanyard, shop, and residence” before he sold it for $375 in 1854.

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According to Nancy Warner, my Westminster High School Class of 1971 classmate and the author of “Carroll County Maryland – A History 1837-1976,” the Odd Fellow’s Hall–Opera House was dedicated in 1858. At the time, it was “the largest building in town except the court house…”

Over the years, Carroll County has stood witness to its fair share of murder and mayhem. Adding to this, there have been a number of accounts written about a murder that took place at the Opera House in the 1870s.

There are several unreconciled conflicting accounts, but Mary Ellen Graybill reports in an article she wrote for the Baltimore Sun on June 3, 2007, “The Opera House had been the town’s entertainment center since before the Civil War… Marshall Buell, a comedian from Alabama … was killed behind the Opera House, after the war, because of a performance in which he made fun of President Ulysses S. Grant… Buell’s killer was never caught.”

The date when this crime took place is uncertain. Grant was the 18th president of the United States and served from 1869 to 1877. Weeks said in his book, “The Building of Westminster,” “Not everyone liked the entertainment provided at the Odd Fellow’s Hall.” There was a show there featuring derogatory impressions of Lincoln, Grant and other national leaders. The next morning, the decapitated body of the entertainer was found in a rear stable…”

Carroll County historian, Dr. Jesse Glass wrote a lengthy account of the murder for the Carroll County Times on Nov. 3, 1978. According to an introduction for the article, “Glass relates the story of a comedian who was murdered in the streets of Westminster...”

According to Glass, “On this particular night, Marshall Buell of Alabama provided jokes at intermission, dressed in a carpet-bagger’s outfit. He waffled his hips and insulted President Grant and other less illustrious members of the government in a lazy southern accent. The people of Carroll County were pleasantly shocked. The Mayor of Westminster shifted uneasily in his chair. Buell’s jokes were terrible, and yet-hilarious…

“Suddenly a rock, thrown from the back of the hall, landed on the stage and rolled to his feet… Someone went for the sheriff. Then another rock flew, and hit him in the neck, knocking the comedian down. A woman screamed. In the back [there] was a commotion – three men were fighting with the sheriff and his deputies – shouting insults against Buell – saying that they were going to shut him up once and for all.”

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As the story goes, the sheriff offered the performer protective custody and told him that he could stay at the jail that night. But the comedian refused. Later that night, he was killed in back of the theater. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Westminster Cemetery.

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In addition to ill-fated traveling comedians, throughout history, many prominent American citizens, presidents, and presidential candidates have visited Westminster – including the famed national leader and orator, Frederick Douglass, who once spoke at the Odd Fellow’s Hall. Warner calls to our attention the Oct. 13, 1870, edition of the American Sentinel, in which it reports that he was well received.

Born in 1818, in Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass often spoke of his struggles as a slave, his escape from servitude and his subsequent rise to become a distinguished statesman, editor, author, and diplomat; who had the ear of presidents.

According to the 1870 newspaper article: “This renowned … orator delivered an address at Odd Fellow’s Hall, … which greatly delighted those who were fortunate enough to hear it..., but the opinion of all present was that Mr. Douglass ranks, as an orator, among the ablest of our country.”

On Feb. 1, 1912, according to research by the Historical Society, The Odd Fellow’s Hall … opened a movie theater - the “opera house.” Interestingly enough, in this period, not only was there a movie theatre in the building; but the American Sentinel newspaper was published there from 1882 until 1928. City Hall offices were located there in the 1882-1897 time period. Before 1882 the city offices were located in the Wantz building on Main Street. After 1897, the offices moved to the Westminster fire station on Main Street.

Much of this discussion was previously presented at a Historical Society of Carroll County Box Lunch Talk on April 19, 2016.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.


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