Museum will focus on legal history

Courthouse in city to display significant Maryland artifacts

January 14, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When Benjamin Brown accidentally fired a pistol in the cabin of a ship docked off Peru in 1859, he had no way of knowing he would make legal history in his native Maryland.

But he did.

The shot killed a shipmate, Brown was convicted of manslaughter, and his fight for freedom eventually reached Abraham Lincoln, who signed a presidential pardon forgiving the $666 fine that Brown couldn't pay after he served a three-year prison term in Baltimore City Jail.

The pardon signed by the Great Emancipator in 1863 is expected to be the centerpiece of a museum set to open in the spring on the second floor of the Garmatz Federal Courthouse on West Lombard Street in Baltimore.

The museum - two rooms in what was a law library - probably will include the Lincoln pardon, Marylander Roger B. Taney's oath of office as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and a 1790 lawsuit seeking back pay that became the first federal case filed in the state.

The museum cost about $300,000 in renovations, probably will be open two days a week, and is intended to teach people about Maryland's distant past and its recent history.

U.S. District Court Administrative Judge Catherine C. Blake, who is working on the project, said she hopes the museum will emphasize the historical significance of the cases filed over the years in Maryland's federal court.

"It's not just the history of the courthouse that we're looking at. It's the history of the state of Maryland, it's the history of the city of Baltimore that should be on display here," Blake said.

Baltimore's federal courthouse is where Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned, former Gov. Marvin Mandel was sent to federal prison on mail fraud and racketeering charges, and the Catonsville Nine - a group that included brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, two Roman Catholic priests - was convicted for antiwar activities.

"Any historian or librarian could have a field day going through what's available in that courthouse," said George Beall, who as U.S. attorney from 1970 to 1975 oversaw the investigation that prompted Agnew to resign as part of a plea bargain in 1973.

Robert W. Schoeberlein, associate director of special collections for the Maryland State Archives, said the court's collection of legal papers - many of them housed on the fourth floor in a walk-in vault - have "great potential."

"Everything's been pretty well preserved," Schoeberlein said.

He said the most historically significant artifact might be Lincoln's pardon of Brown, in part because Brown was an African-American whose freedom hung in the balance during the Civil War: "I think it speaks volumes about Lincoln and his sympathy for this young African-American sailor at a time when the fate of all African-Americans was at issue," he said.

The pardon - handwritten in a beautiful script with Lincoln's signature at the bottom - probably will be placed near the entrance to the main display room. A replica of the pardon will hang in the courthouse lobby.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz, who secured federal funding for the project before he stepped down as chief judge last year, said he hopes the museum will include explanations of the history behind some of the most significant cases, including the prosecution of Southern sympathizers during the Civil War and antiwar activists during the Vietnam War.

"It should make us appreciate both the law and the honorable tradition of civil disobedience," Motz said.

Felicia C. Cannon, chief clerk of the U.S. District Court, said many details about the museum remain to be worked out, such as the opening date, the hours of operation and the other artifacts that will be highlighted in the museum's display cases.

Blake and Motz said that another case likely to be highlighted - because of its role in U.S. history and its constitutional implications - is that of John Merryman.

Merryman, a Baltimore County militia leader, was imprisoned in Fort McHenry in 1861 after he was accused of burning a bridge in Parkton to prevent Union troops from passing from Pennsylvania through Baltimore.

Chief Justice Taney ordered Lincoln to free Merryman, ruling in Ex Parte Merryman that his arrest by military authorities violated constitutional safeguards against the illegal detention of citizens, said R.J. "Rocky" Rockefeller, director of reference services for the state archives.

Merryman was charged with treason, remanded to the custody of civilian authorities and posted bail. The prosecutor dropped the charge before the case was tried, Reynolds said.

"It became a political issue with the government at the time reluctant to prosecute anyone for treason. It was too controversial," Rockefeller said. "And of course, the chance of Merryman getting a Southern-sympathizing jury in Baltimore was still pretty high."

Rockefeller and Schoeberlein said the Merryman case might offer a valuable lesson, given concerns about civil liberties as the nation fights terrorism.

"Whenever we round up people during times in our history, cases like Merryman come back to us," Schoeberlein said. "It shows how relevant history can be."

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