Old gravestone just might mark the spot

Captain's burial place raises debate

July 08, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun reporter

Capt. John Worthington hasn't had the most restful of postmortem experiences.

The rich tobacco planter and early Colonial politician was buried in 1701 just north of Annapolis across the Severn River. He was nearly forgotten for 200 years while his grave gathered moss under brambles. Then, in the 1920s, his remains were placed in a new coffin.

Now, his descendants are questioning a plan that would, they say, disturb his most recent resting place - at a historic church in downtown Annapolis.

"If his body is there, I would not be happy about having it moved again," said family historian Thomas Worthington.

The Worthington family believes its ancestor was reburied at St. Anne's Church, whose construction he supervised until his death, under a stone that bears his name. Church records indicate that there are no remains there - and officials are talking about moving the marker.

The Worthington marker's latest travel would be part of a church conservation project to move five gravestones in the yard. The family says that the marker should be with the remains.

Church officials say that if it is shown that Worthington's remains are under the stone, they will reconsider their plans.

Family members will have the chance to make their case tonight at an Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission hearing.

The markers being considered for the move date from about 1700, many so faded the writing is nearly impossible to make out, and they rest flat on the ground along the eve line on the south side of St. Anne's Church, the oldest church in the city. Water runs off the roof and splashes them regularly, eating away at the limestone and marble. Some are cracked, a result of their age, lawn mowers and foot traffic.

"We do want to try to preserve these," said Bill Wilbert, who is in charge of the church's facilities. "It's historic, and you want to be good stewards of it."

St. Anne's Church decided last year to move the markers to more prominent locations on the north side of the church, and to raise them with concrete platforms about 2 1/2 inches off the ground and tilt them to save them from further pedestrian and water damage. Some have been badly repaired in the past, though Wilbert said church officials don't know who made the changes.

Of the 14 markers around the church now, these five are in the worst condition, Wilbert said.

"They're some of the older ones," he said. "They're up against the building, and not the best location. People have decided that's a great location to park their strollers."

Most of the markers were moved to the site from the original burial locations, he said. Of the five, only Amos Garrett, first mayor of Annapolis, may have been originally buried at St. Anne's, but the church is fairly certain he is not buried under his marker, because it is so close to the building.

Nobody has been buried in the churchyard - at least not initially - since 1783, Wilbert said. Most have been moved to St. Anne's cemetery around College Creek.

Addison Worthington and his cousin Thomas have photographs and an account from a late friend, a member of the Brice family who owned the land when John Worthington's marker was moved in 1929, to support their claims. His friend saw the bones being removed from the original grave and accompanied the stone and remains as they were brought to St. Anne's, Thomas Worthington said.

The church was unaware of this, said August Deimel, communications director for the church.

"It seems to be at least plausible that that's the case," he said. "We're taking his concerns seriously, but we're still investigating."

The church will do its best to figure out whether there are remains under the marker without actually digging, he said. If it turns out there are, the church will have to re-evaluate its plan.

In addition to Worthington's marker, the others are for Nicholas Gassaway, Maj. Gen. John Hammond, Henry Ridgley and Garrett, one of the richest men in Maryland at the time.

"These are the folks who kind of set up the system," said a local historian, Jane McWilliams.

Gassaway was one of the earliest people to arrive in Anne Arundel County, coming as a teenage indentured servant or apprentice and growing into a major force in Maryland society.

Hammond, a merchant active in trans-Atlantic trade as well as a legislator and a justice, was related to Worthington by marriage. Ridgley was an area politician.

Worthington was a tobacco planter and a merchant who owned a great deal of land, mostly in Anne Arundel County. He served in the lower house of the state legislature for many years. The majority of his descendants never left the area.

Those descendants would like to see Captain John, as they call him, undisturbed. But the most important thing is not the markers or remains, but John Worthington, the person, Addison Worthington said.

"When someone dies, remember them for what they did," he said.

karen.shih@baltsun.com

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