Lost Soul

Three hundred years after his death, a murdered tax collector's body remains missing and his tombstone rests in pieces.

June 21, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

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.

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