“Death Came Softly”: Rev. Cornelius L. Keedy, Hagerstown, Maryland

Cabinet card photograph of Rev. Cornelius L. Keedy by B. W. T. Phreaner, Hagerstown, Md.

Those are the first words of the headline on Rev. C. L. Keedy’s obituary in the Hagerstown Daily Mail of 25 March 1911. The paper made much of the gentle manner of Rev. Keedy’s passing. It was what used to be known as a “good death”: peaceful and without suffering.

This notion of the good Christian death was very different from mid-19th century accounts that stressed, says  historian Patricia Jalland, the spiritual nature of suffering and its ability to bring dying sinners to God :

“The ordeal could provide punishment for past sins, while also purifying, testing and strengthening the Christian faith of sufferer and attendants. . .[Christan writers’] emphasis was usually on the spiritual struggle and ultimate triumph rather than the physical ordeal” (Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 51-53)

At the end of the Victorian period, however,”the evangelical model of the good death declined in influence. . . . The decline in Evangelical piety and passion in the late Victorian period was paralleled with an increase in anxiety about the physical suffering of dying” (Death, 53).

Those who mourned Cornelius Keedy, Lutheran minister, physician and long-time president and proprietor of Hagerstown Female Seminary, could take comfort in the ease of his passing.

He had died  “sitting in his natural position when he was in the habit of reading, the paper in his hand, his arm on the table. His features were composed and peaceful, indicating that death was instantaneous, occurring without a struggle or any pain.”

This easy death might be taken as an indication that the longtime Lutheran educator had, in Christian terms, found his heavenly reward for an exemplary life. The obituary writer described him as “widely known” and “prominent in religious and educational circles;” the writer claims that “the news of his death produced a shock throughout the community”–but we really don’t know what kind of a man he was.

Cornelius Keedy (1834-1911) was one of eight children born near Rohrersville, Md. to prosperous Washington County farmers Daniel Keedy (1799-1876) and Sophia (Miller) Keedy (1809-1880). Rev. Keedy graduated from Gettysburg College in 1857 and was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1859. He  served Lutheran congregations in Johnstown, Waynesboro, and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Barren Hill, Pa.

He married Elizabeth Wyatt Marbourg (1840-1920), daughter of successful Johnstown merchant Alexander Marbourg, in 1860.

In 1863 Keedy earned a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. He practiced, according to his obituary, for about five years in Washington, Iowa, where some of his wife’s relations had settled.

But it was as president and owner of the Hagerstown Female Seminary,  later renamed Kee-Mar College, that Rev. Keedy was chiefly known.

The school, located at E. Antietam and King streets, had been established in 1853 by the Maryland Synod of the Lutheran Church.  Keedy purchased it in 1878, and according to J. Thomas Scharf, “continued to improve it until it has become one of the most beautiful and attractive places in any of the middle states” (J. Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland, v. 2, 1882, p. 1159).

“The seminary stands upon a commanding eminence just east of Hagerstown, from which may be had a magnificent view of hill and dale and of the town outstretched below. The main edifice is an imposing brick structure, four stories in height, and built in the Romanesque style. There are three wings of equal height with the main building. The grounds, comprising an area of 11 acres, are thickly set with upwards of one hundred handsome evergreens, and about five hundred trees of other varieties. Choice shrubbery marks in graceful lines numerous picturesque divisions of the inclosoure, and over the entire surface is spread a bright carpet of rich green-sward.”

The school had a fairly serious and  ambitious curriculum for its young women,  including ancient and modern languages, English literature, and music.

Mrs. Keedy served as principal, and she may have also had a considerable financial stake in the school. F. J. Halm published a song entitled The Hagerstown Female Seminary March,” dedicated to Mrs. Keedy, in 1877.

Hagerstown Female Seminary was created as part of a wave of enthusiasm about women’s education that swept the Lutheran church after David F. Bittle published his 111-page “Plea for Female Education” in 1851 (Richard W. Solberg, Lutheran Higher Education in North America (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985, p. 102). Rev. Bittle even resigned his pastorate to raise funds and support for the proposed school.

After the college closed in 1911, the buildings were occupied by Washington County Hospital. The structures on the site were demolished in 2012, and the city is currently considering how to use the open space.

This cabinet card photograph, taken at the Hagerstown studio of Bascom W. T. Phreaner (1845-1932) is dated in pen on the reverse “1861-1862,” but Keedy’s white hair and wrinkles suggest a later date. Phreaner maintained a photographic studio in Hagerstown from 1866 to 1901.

For this portrait, the photographer chose a vignetted, head-and-shoulders composition, with the sitter facing a quarter turn away from the camera. The pose created deep shadows above eyes that look slightly upward, as if Keedy were thinking about his many responsibilities: four children to educate and provide for, and a school full of 150 lively adolescent young ladies to watch over.

Rev. Cornelius L. Keedy and Elizabeth Marbourg Keedy are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown. Their children were Sarah (Keedy) Updegraff, James Marbourg Keedy, Wyatt M. Keedy, and Cornelius King Keedy.

My thanks to the wonderful Washington County Free Library and to the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership for the research on Hagerstown Female Seminary posted on their blog [re]Develop Hagerstown.

Standing Where Jefferson Stood: William M. Chase Stereoview of Jefferson Rock

Stereoview of Jefferson RockThe excitement I felt upon acquiring this circa 1870s view of a man standing on Jefferson Rock above Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia was not really about the location. It was about the man. The stereoview was published by William Moody Chase (1817-1901), and the man in the view is the prolific Baltimore purveyor of stereoviews himself.

I would not have known what William M. Chase looked like if it were not for the work of Ross Kelbaugh. His invaluable Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900 includes rarely seen reproductions of some of the works in his own collection.

One of Kelbaugh’s stereoviews depicts William M. Chase and his younger colleague and sometime collaborator and partner David Bachrach encamped on a stereoview photography expedition. Chase’s long beard, lanky figure, and the distinctive straw hat he wore all match those seen in this view, as well as in the view of Chase and Bachrach’s “Artist Corps” encampment at Niagara Falls.

Those familiar with Harper’s Ferry and with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia know the shale outcropping became a place of pilgrimage because Jefferson is believed to have stood on this rock in October 1783 while looking out upon the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. In the 1780s he famously wrote that:

“the passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their juncture they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea” (Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 27).

The eye was then drawn, says Jefferson, eastward down the Potomac toward the lovely and fertile lands around Frederick, Maryland:

“The distant finishing which Nature has given to the picture is of a very different character. . . . It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to the eye, through the cleft a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below” (Notes, pp. 27-28).

Historian Pamela Regis places Jefferson’s book at the heart of “American self-creation and self-definition” (Regis, Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevècoeur, and the Influence of Natural History, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, p. 3).

“The country itself,” says Regis, “needed to be written into existence,” and the Notes, she argues, were among a small but influential group of such fundamentally creative early American prose works (Describing, p. 3).

Jefferson described the view in terms that an educated 18th century gentleman would understand: America was a worthy location for the rebirth of republicanism because it  fulfilled the highest aesthetic standards of the era.

The view was sublime and beautiful, full of both the wildest and noblest scenery, but also of useful rivers, abundant natural resources and broad, fertile lands ready for the plow.

Jefferson’s artful eye and pen composed the view into a land that had all that was required for the establishment of a new society grounded in the best traditions of the old world–a society that would be egalitarian, educated, prosperous and self-governing. Together, says Regis, texts such as these constituted “the description of a ground on which [republican] politics could hold sway” (Describing, p. 4).

With the spread of railroads and middle class prosperity, the shale rock formation that Jefferson is believed to have stood upon became an early tourist attraction. The depredations of weather and visitors necessitated stabilization, and between 1855 and 1860 the uppermost slab of the formation was placed on four stone pillars (“Thomas Jefferson at Harpers Ferry,” National Park Service).

After the Civil War, Jefferson Rock became subsumed into a larger tourism that included pilgrimages to “John Brown’s Fort” and wealthy visitors escaping the heat of the Washington, DC summer to enjoy the mountains, walks and scenery around the town (Paul A. Schackel, Archaeeology and Created Memory: Public History in a National Park, New York: Klewer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2000, pp. 66-68).

Stereoviews of John Brown’s “Fort,” the ruins of the government armory, and other Harper’s Ferry sites made famous by the war joined views of Jefferson Rock in appealing to middle class hunger to see the places that made America a nation.

In standing where Jefferson stood, seeing what Jefferson made visible, William Chase took part in Jefferson’s descriptive creation of the nation.  Mass reproduction of Chase’s views enabled Americans in all walks of life, north and south, to do the same in a time when the nation sorely needed to recall a common vision of itself.

A Life of Honor and Piety: Mary Latrobe Onderdonk

This cabinet card portrait, inscribed “Mrs. Onderdonk,” was taken at Richard Walzl’s (1843-1899) Baltimore studio, located at 46 N. Charles Street from 1873 to 1881 (Kelbaugh, Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900).

The cherub and camera motif on the reverse was popular on studio photograph advertising ca. 1866-1874.

Mrs. Onderdonk wears a large artificial hairpiece, a fashion of the 1850s that persisted through the 1870s. The hairpiece, made of human hair, is worn as a braided coronet with two long “lovelocks.”

I was able to confirm the identify of the sitter by comparing the portrait to two group photographs in which she appears, taken at the Saint James School near Hagerstown, an institution with which she was closely associated for 47 years.

Mrs. Mary Onderdonk, born Mary Elizabeth Latrobe, was christened at Christ Episcopal Church, Chase and St. Paul streets, Baltimore, on 15 March 1837.

Born in Salem, New Jersey, she was the second of five children and the first daughter of civil engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe Jr. (1806-1878) and Maria Eleanor “Ellen” Hazlehurst Latrobe (1807-1872).

In 1868 or 1869, she married a widowed teacher with two teen-aged sons, Henry Onderdonk (1822-1895). Onderdonk, formerly head of the Maryland Agricultural College, was about to take on the rebuilding, both literal and figurative, of the College of Saint James near Hagerstown, in Washington County, Maryland.

Mary would be his help-meet.

Founded by the Episcopal Church in 1842 as Saint James Hall on part of the General Samuel Ringgold estate,  Fountain Rock, the school had been abandoned in 1864, after General Jubal Early’s forces occupied the grounds and some of the buildings and arrested the school’s head, Dr. Kerfoot.

Onderdonk reopened the old college as a boys’ preparatory institution, and through his and Mary’s unrelenting labors, and that of their son Adrian,  today it endures as the thriving Saint James School.

In June 1885, the Hagerstown Herald and Torchlight reported on Onderdonk’s commencement address, in which he recalled the early days after their arrival, when “the buildings [were] so ruined and dilapiated as to be uninhabitable.”

The new Mrs. Onderdonk took on the task of helping her husband revive and run the school and care for the boys. The nearest town, Williamsport, was five miles away, and the school was almost nine miles from Hagerstown.  With little financial support forthcoming from the school’s trustees, the Onderdonks used $5,000 of their own money on the effort.

For a woman brought up in a well-to-do household in Baltimore, rebuilding must have meant hard physical labor in less-than-ideal conditions, including everything from cooking, cleaning, laundry and sewing to nursing sick students.

By 1877, when the Illustrated Atlas of Washington County was published, the school was well established as an excellent educational institution, and worthy of illustration as one of the highlights of the area.

Mary’s hard work, determination and organizational skills were surely an unacknowledged part of this success.

But her work did not stop at the edge of the school grounds. As wife of a prominent county citizen, she was expected to take part in the larger life of the county and the local Epsicopal church.

Hagerstown papers mention Mary Onderdonk as a leader of the Dorcas Society, which sewed for the poor and indigent, and as an active member of the board of the Washington County Orphans’ Home.

She bore her husband two sons, Latrobe Onderdonk (1872-1883), and Adrian Holmes Onderdonk (1877-1956), who became the revered long-time headmaster of the school in 1903.

Omitting mention of Mary’s work as her husband’s partner in the school’s revival, her obituary in the Hagerstown Daily Mail notes the stock feminine qualities  associated with the good Victorian woman: her regular attendance at chapel, her “noble and upright character” and “lovable and kindly disposition.”

Mary (1836-1916 and Henry Onderdonk (1822-1895) are buried in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. Each year the school honors a student–and remembers Mary Onderdonk–with the Mary Latrobe Onderdonk Memorial Prize for Sound School Citizenship.

Additional Sources:

Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography, William C. Darrah (Gettysburg, Pa.: W.C. Darrah, 1981)

Saint James School: One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (Hagerstown: Saint James School, 1967)

History of Western Maryland, vol. 1, John Thomas Scharf (Philadelphia, Pa.: L. H. Everts, 1882)

Dressed for the Photographer, Joan Severa (Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1995)

Mary Onderdonk’s obituary provided courtesy of the Washington County Free Library