An urban mystery

May 29, 1998|By Helen Jean Burn

The place is easy to miss; all you see from the street is a 10-foot wall topped by iron spikes. The surrounding ground has been used as a dump. If you walk around, you'll find that the wall encloses a rectangular space some 40 feet by 60 feet. On one side is a padlocked metal door. Behind that door, according to "The Very Quiet Baltimoreans," Jane B. Wilson's book about the city's old cemeteries, are buried William Patterson and nearly all of his immediate family.

Patterson is remembered as the man who gave the city the land for Patterson Park. Generally forgotten are his other contributions to Baltimore's early growth through his work in shipping, banking, insurance and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The cemetery is here, on high ground in southeast Waverly, on what once was one of Patterson's country estates. The property, Coldstream, consisted of 56 acres between York and Harford roads and was the site, until 1924, of a venerable mansion. Now the area is heavily industrial. Still, if you stand in front of the cemetery entrance on a clear day and look southward beyond the factories, you can see Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where Patterson's ships docked.

Irish immigrant

In 1766 at age 14, he came alone from Ireland to work in the Philadelphia counting house of a shipping merchant. By the time of the American Revolution he had saved enough money to outfit two ships and launch himself into international trade. Throughout the war, he made a great deal of money shipping goods in and out of the Caribbean.

At war's end, he brought his profits to Baltimore. He married a daughter of William Spear, who owned a long pier stretching from Pratt Street to the ship channel.

One of Patterson's 13 children, his son Robert, married Mary Caton, a granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. And Patterson's daughter Elizabeth became the wife of a handsome French naval officer who showed up in Baltimore in 1803: Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome Bonaparte.

That's what brought me to this walled burial ground. For years I've been working on a biography of Elizabeth Patterson, better known as Betsy Bonaparte. I had a genealogical chart of Betsy's siblings and their offspring, but questions remained, and I wanted to get into the Patterson cemetery to gather data from the tombstones.

Betsy is not among them. Her father virtually disowned her because, he said, "She has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together, and her folly and misconduct have occasioned me a train of expense that first and last has cost me much money."

After a year and a half of marriage, Jerome abandoned her when his brother offered to make him a king.

Family matters

Madame Bonaparte, as she was known, lived to be 94 and refused to be buried with any of her family. She said, "I have lived alone, and when I die, I shall lie alone." She does, in a solitary plot in Greenmount Cemetery. The inscription on her tomb says: "After life's fitful fever, she sleeps well."

As for William Patterson, he mentioned the burial ground in the same will that castigated Betsy for her disobedience. He left Coldstream to his son Joseph, who sold it to his brother Edward.

The Sun reported on July 27, 1925, that the last survivor of the Edward Patterson line had offered Baltimore the small plot of land that includes the cemetery, but the offer was refused. So, who owns the cemetery now? Who has a key to the burial grounds?

Burial grounds are not taxed, so information about them is hard to come by.

I wrote to City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. Ten days later a man named David Smith called me from the city's Northeast Service Center, which is located near the grave yard. Mr. Smith had been assigned to help me get inside the burial ground. The job proved more difficult, and more mysterious, than expected. When he climbed up to look over the wall, he was surprised to find that the grounds have been maintained. Also, the padlock was new and resolutely tamperproof.

By now, many people were waiting in line to help, from the archivist at the Patterson family's old church (First and Franklin Street Presbyterian) to a crew of researchers from the Baltimore County Genealogical Society, as well as a half-dozen intrigued acquaintances gathered during my weeks of telephone research. Ladders were mentioned, but I shrank from an assault, preferring to allow Betsy's parents, her sadly lost infant sisters, and the brothers grown rich in their father's businesses, to rest quietly until we can learn the identity of their mysterious caretaker.

Helen Jean Burn writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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