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LOST SOUL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. LEONARD -- In the more than 300 years since his violent death, the life and memory of Christopher Rousby have been commemorated, miscalculated, relocated and all but obliterated. And now, after all these years, the long-ago tax collector for the king still can't seem to find a proper resting place.

Rousby, who was killed at the hands of a cousin of Lord Baltimore in 1684, was buried under a 1,000-pound slab of limestone soon after his death. If only he was left there in peace.

At some point after his burial, his remains were lost. And over the past 65 years, the tombstone made a strange journey from Southern Maryland to a Michigan museum and back again. Now it rests, in pieces, in a conservation laboratory at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County, as locals decide whether it can be restored and possibly re-erected somewhere.

"It's a shame it was ever even removed," said Joan McGill Kocen, a Lusby woman with a keen interest in the history of the Rousbys who helped get the stone returned to Maryland. "We wanted it back to tell the story."

And what a story it is.

Removed from the spot where it was set down in the 1940s, soon after the Navy determined it would put a new air station atop the old Rousby homestead, Rousby's grave marker, his remains, his house and his story became part of the Henry Ford Museum of American history in suburban Detroit.

For decades, actors in Colonial garb stood inside his relocated Susquehanna plantation home on the grounds of the Dearborn museum and told the tale of Rousby's life -- a powerful man who was stabbed to death by a rival.

But then historians realized that the house, in fact, wasn't Rousby's -- it didn't even date to the 17th century -- and his story went quiet. Once again, it was relegated to local folklore and the occasional history book.

His tombstone was put into storage in Michigan and nearly forgotten. Three years ago, however, after prodding from Kocen, the stone came home to Maryland. Now, carefully packed in a wooden crate, it awaits a decision about its fate.

Death and remains

Rousby was a prominent attorney and politician in Colonial Maryland who was named the king's tax collector on the recommendation of Lord Baltimore. But things between the two quickly soured, and Baltimore tried to have Rousby removed from his post. Lord Baltimore's cousin George Talbot also had a simmering feud with Rousby.

One night in late October 1684, Rousby was aboard a boat anchored in the Patuxent River. Talbot rowed out to meet it. A fight ensued and, according to historical records, Talbot fatally stabbed Rousby with a dagger "newly prepared and sharpened."

The boat's captain placed Talbot in irons and sailed to Virginia, fearing there would be no justice meted out to a cousin of Lord Baltimore in Maryland. But Talbot's wife staged a daring escape and spirited her husband to Cecil County. He hid and wore disguises but, by May 1685, Talbot again was apprehended and returned to Virginia, according to a paper written by Julia A. King, an adjunct professor of anthropology at St. Mary's College of Maryland and director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard.

In Virginia, Talbot was sentenced to death but later was pardoned by the king.

Family members are believed to have buried Rousby alongside a creek on land that is now part of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station -- about a half-mile from property that would become the Susquehanna plantation.

That's where engineers sent by car-maker Henry Ford found the stone in 1942, flat against the land, cracked into pieces, when they came to remove what they believed was Rousby's home. The Navy was taking over what had been the crossroads of Cedar Point; eviction notices were tacked to front doors, with some owners given 30 days to leave.

Samuel Young, who lived in Michigan, had bought Susquehanna at the behest of his late wife, a St. Mary's County native, King said. When they were told to leave, Young offered the home to Ford, who had a historic village at his museum that included Thomas Edison's workshop. Young apparently told Ford of the property's connection to Rousby and life in Maryland a century before the American Revolution. The house could be Ford's for free.

"All he had to do was come and get it," King said. "The only thing this guy wanted was a plaque memorializing his wife."

On display

So men from the museum came. Instead of a grand manor home, they found a moderate wooden house, 60 feet by 15 feet, about the size of a mobile home.

The workers carefully took it apart, piece by piece. They took Rousby's tombstone, too. And they took what was underneath the stone -- described on the inventory as "a bag of bones."

The crew loaded everything onto trucks, then onto a train, bound for Dearborn, where the parts were reconstructed and put on display as a vehicle by which to talk about early colonists such as Rousby.

Several decades later, historians became suspicious of claims that the house dated from the late 1600s, King said. In the 1980s, a group from St. Mary's County told museum officials that there were only two buildings from before 1700 standing in Maryland -- one in Anne Arundel County and one on the Eastern Shore.

"That alerted the staff here that there may be a problem," said Henry J. Prebys, the curator of domestic life for the Henry Ford Museum.

Soon the staff realized there were major flaws in the story of Susquehanna. After doing tree-ring dating on the beams of the house and hiring King to do archaeological work on the home's Maryland site, it was determined the house wasn't so old. It likely dates to the 1830s, Prebys and King said. That meant it couldn't be Rousby's house. He had been dead more than 150 years when it was built.

"If they knew it hadn't been associated with Christopher Rousby, they [probably] wouldn't have taken the house," King said.

So the tombstone was taken off outdoor display. It was already suffering the effects of 40-odd Michigan winters. And if the tombstone was going, museum staff figured, so should Rousby's remains.

Story's errors

The museum got a court's permission to exhume the body, Prebys said, and to study it. A mortuary scientist found incomplete skeletons, including two skulls. "We found there were at least bones from three different people," Prebys said. None, he said, were those of a Caucasian male.

"We had no idea where they came from," he said. That meant they had no idea where to return them. So a court gave the museum permission to have the bones cremated. The museum staff held a funeral and reburied the ashes at Susquehanna.

No one knows where Rousby's remains are. His tombstone, meanwhile, stayed on a shelf in storage in Michigan, forgotten for nearly two decades.

At the Ford museum, the tour of Susquehanna, which remained on display, no longer spoke of the murdered tax collector. Instead it told a story of antebellum Maryland and life in a border state as the Civil War was breaking out.

"For Americans, it kind of takes the idea of Tara and puts it on its head," Prebys said, referring to the plantation in Gone With the Wind. "It's not a grand, grand house, but it's fairly typical of what the average slaveholder had. They had their money in slaves and horses."

So how did a 100-year-old house transform, through the lens of history, into a 350-year-old house? The tombstone, clearly dating to the 1680s, was automatically linked to the house. Oral histories perpetuated the error. The Carroll family, which built the house in the 19th century, knew how old it was, but their descendants either had died or moved, leaving no link to the past.

Meanwhile, a prominent historical architect of the early 20th century, Henry Chandlee Forman, helped solidify the myth when he dated the house to 1654, King said.

And when the naval base came through and erased the once-thriving community where Susquehanna was located, it meant the stories passed from one generation to the next began to fade, too.

"This was a story that was told all over the place. In the 1930s, everyone knew the Christopher Rousby story," King said. "It's as if the story disappeared from the landscape."

Return to Maryland

Kocen knew the story of Rousby, and in 2001 she and her husband traveled to Dearborn to see the tombstone. "I wanted it," she says, though she knows now that a museum can't just turn a centuries-old artifact over to a private citizen.

For two days, she and her husband waited to view the stone, but it could not be found. On the third day, "they realized we weren't leaving until we saw the stone," she said. Soon, she was able to take pictures of the 5-inch-thick, desktop-sized grave marker and its fading inscriptions.

Kocen, though, wanted to see the stone back in Southern Maryland. She contacted anthropologist King, who had studied Rousby and Susquehanna for years. At Kocen's urging, King secured the stone's return to Maryland. In June 2002, Kocen was on hand when two oversized wooden crates containing its pieces were delivered.

"Considering what it's been through, it's in pretty good shape," King said.

In safe hands

Apparently not good enough, though. The Navy would like to restore and display the stone, said public affairs officer John Romer, but "the funding is not available."

Retired Rear Adm. L.F. "Gus" Eggert, head of the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Association, which is building an expanded museum on the base, said his facility isn't a proper home for the artifact.

"We're interested in historic aviation, and that's really what it amounts to," Eggert said. "I don't need a tombstone here."

King hopes that a suitable spot can be found. But as a historian, she is just pleased that the tombstone is safe, in the event that someone finds the right place for it five, 50 or 100 years from now.

"There are tens of thousands of stories we could tell with the objects in this building," King said. "We can only tell a few because of space, time and expense.

"If it is not displayed now," she said, "at least it is protected."

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