Carroll Mansion becomes period house of mourning

October 22, 2006|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Charles Carroll, Barrister, and his wife, Margaret Tilghman, stare down from their portraits at the black-draped "coffin" in the parlor of Mount Clare like benign spirits contemplating their future.

"He died in March of 1783," says Michael Connolly, assistant director of Mount Clare Museum House, the well-preserved home of the Carrolls.

"So we used his death as sort of the basis of our interpretation of what was happening in the house at that time."

Charles Carroll, Barrister was the cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who signed the Declaration of Independence.

They were contemporaries, Connolly says. They were in business together. Both were patriots during the Revolution. Both were in the Continental Congress. And they moved in the same circles.

But Barrister never signed the Declaration of Independence. He is generally credited, though, with writing a Declaration of Rights for the states.

The current exhibit called, appropriately enough for the Halloween season, Beneath the Winding Sheet: Departing This Life in the 18th Century, pretty much turns the house into a large funeral parlor.

A concurrent show, Trinkets of Death, displays 18th and 19th century mourning jewelry and accessories and many remarkable hair art pieces.

Both run until Nov. 4.

"During the whole month of October," Connolly says, "we're talking about mourning practices, funerary practices, mostly in early America, mostly during the 18th century.

"It's a little bit of a different tour than we normally offer people," he says. "Some people are a little shocked by it. But I think most people are enjoying it.

"We've gone back and looked at diaries and letters and newspapers and things from the 18th century and the early 19th century to get a sense of how people acted and what customs they followed during this time period and that's what we're using for the exhibit."

Carroll was 60 when he died.

And this is about his funeral, as it were.

"Basically, yes," Connolly says.

Margaret lived on until 1817, when she was 75.

Both paintings in the parlor are by Charles Willson Peale, a Maryland painter who made about 60 portraits of George Washington. One sold last year for $21.3 million.

Her portrait shows her in the garden at Mount Clare.

"She was fairly famous for her gardening," Connolly says. "She was raising oranges and lemons here, even pineapples.

"They were raising about a hundred pineapples a year here at Mount Clare in 1770."

Margaret was 20 years younger than Charles Carroll when they married in 1763, he says. Carroll died 20 years later and Margaret never remarried. She remained a widow living at Mt. Clare until her death.

"They both died here," Connolly says. "The house has seen a few family deaths. That's the way old houses are."

The Barrister built Mount Clare as a summer home about 1760, which makes it one of the oldest houses in Baltimore.

"It's a great house," Connolly says. "It really is and it's very well intact from its original 1760 time frame. Particularly, considering for almost 50 years in the 19th century it was a rental property, it survives pretty well."

Mount Clare was quite a large, sprawling plantation house on top of a hill, about 350 feet from one end to the other. It remains imposing today, a big brick house among the trees atop a hill in Carroll Park, at 1500 Washington Blvd.

"Of course, it would be even bigger with the wings." Connolly says. "They existed probably until the 1870s."

He stops before a photograph of the Carroll family tomb in St. Anne's cemetery, in Annapolis.

Carroll was a vestryman at St. Paul's and the funeral service was held there.

"Later in the early 19th century his body was moved to Annapolis," Connolly says.

Connolly climbs the stairs to the exhibition of funerary jewelry on the second floor.

Pieces like these are created as a memorial to someone who's passed away, he says.

"These two in the center that are sort of football-shaped," he says, "those were created after Charles Carroll died, the Barrister.

"If you look closely in the background behind that image of the willow tree, you'll see there's woven hair. That's Charles Carroll's hair."

The willow tree, he explains, is a common symbol in mourning jewelry. It's the symbol of resurrection.

`They're both original pieces," he says. "They were frequently given to people invited to the funeral. To pallbearers you would give maybe a ring, but more often something of silver, a silver spoon."

Connolly leads the way to the parlor bedchamber, the Barrister's bedroom.

"This is really a depiction of a sick room in the 18th century," Connolly says. "Charles literally just died here, so he's still in bed."

"We have a makeshift desk set up there. We know he changed his will on his deathbed to leave the properties to James McCubbin Carroll," Connolly says.

But they don't know why: "He didn't leave a note telling us why the change was made."

A chair and a walking stick leaning up against it belonged to Charles, he says.

"Finally we have a bathtub here so he could bathe," Connolly says. "This is all conjecture, some activities that might be happening in the room at the time.

"After he died, the body would be washed and prepared, then wrapped in a winding sheet and the sheet is pinned around you and that's how you're buried."

And the Barrister is on his way to the cemetery.

And just before Halloween on Oct. 27 and 28, visitors can explore the house by candlelight and pay their respects to whomever they want every half-hour from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

carl.schoettler@baltsun.com

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