Every Day I Learn Something New



Rabbit Holes and Toilet Bowls

I was talking to a friend who grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia the other day. We were discussing strange (insert scary) things that had happened to us when we were children and she told me about the strange-goings-on in the house she grew up in in Fairfax County.

It wasn’t an old house—built in the 1980’s. So, I asked her if she knew what was there before her house was built, and she didn’t.

So you know what I did next.

I went searching on the good old Google-machine for historic maps of Fairfax County. And I found the absolute best historic map that was overlaid with land boundaries and names of the property owners in 1860.

Since I didn’t know the address of where my friend grew up, I decided to look at the area where my husband’s office is instead–Tysons Corner–which is located in a heavily developed area of Fairfax County.

Tysons Corner, Virginia. The place of never-ending construction.

After a little detective work, I was able to locate the property owner in 1860—Lucrecia Merry. Now she sounds like an interesting woman. How can you not be with a name like that?

1860 map of fairfax county
Lucrecia Merry’s Property Line

And little did I know that this conversation with my friend about scary kid’s stories would take me down a rabbit hole that led from the Civil War, to one of the worst maritime accidents in history, to the California Gold Rush and back. Oh, how I do love historic rabbit holes.

And now, where to start?

Hmmm, Lucrecia sounds like a good place.

Lucrecia Case was born in New York State in 1819 and in 1848 married the dashing young Eliphalet Remington Merry, who four years her junior. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a picture of the undoubtedly lovely Lucrecia, but I was able to find a picture of the 1850’s babe Eliphalet.

1850’s Hotness

Lucrecia and Eli, as they called him, had four children together before Eli’s untimely death just 9 years after they were married. The first child, Piny, was born in 1849 and their second son, Eliphalet Remington Merry, Jr. was born in 1851.  Over the next few years they had another boy and girl.

The Merry family settled in Peach Grove, Virginia, which is what Tysons Corner was called before they called it Tysons Corner. It was known for its tasty peaches and Lucrecia’s 231 acre farm had a peach grove so plentiful that even my greedy son Anderson would have a hard time devouring it all. They built a large, beautiful house where they set to raise their young family.

Merry House
Eli could afford to raise his family in luxury. He was a dentist. Oh, yeah, and he was a 49er. Apparently, a pretty successful 49er.

He was one of the approximately 90,000 people who “rushed” to California in the mid 1800’s to try to find their wealth, their dreams, in the form of those little yellow nuggets.

Eli came from a prosperous family in upstate New York. His uncle was the inventor of the Remington Rifle. And Eli’s brother had moved to California earlier, it seems, to find his fortune. Eli decided to do the same.

He made several trips back and forth to California, but on his third trip home, Eli’s luck ran out. Filled with stories of adventure and missing his family, he boarded the ill-fated SS Central America in Panama for the trip back to the East Coast. The Central America was loaded with over 9 tons of California gold and 578 passengers and crew. After a brief stop in Cuba the ship rounded Florida and headed north.

Then misfortune struck the Ship of Gold. While off the coast of the Carolinas the ship was bombarded by a hurricane, and after the most heroic efforts of those on board, it sank on September 12, 1857.

425 people were lost. It was considered one of the worst maritime accidents in history and contributed to the economic panic of 1857.

Eli was one of the lost.

Lucrecia became a widow in her 30’s. But she stayed strong and a raised her family on her land.

And when the Civil War came to Bull Run, General Meade used her house as Union Headquarters. As a supporter of the Union, she received compensation from the federal government for the use of her house and supplies by the Union Army, once the war was over.

Lucrecia lived a long life. She was laid to rest less than a mile from her home in Virginia.

Tysons Corner would be unrecognizable to Lucrecia. Heck, it is almost unrecognizable every time I visit. Gone is the pretty white house. Gone are the pastures, the horses, the peach orchards. In 1947, a housing development was created out of the property the Merry family once owned. The house was untouched until sometime in the past few decades, when it was torn down to build shops and malls.

housing development
Housing development in 1947, which was built on the Merry property.

I’m not sure if you can tell, but I’m not the biggest fan of Tysons Corner. I mean, you have Mall I and Mall II. You have never ending buildings being built and the traffic is atrocious. And don’t forget the notorious Toilet Bowl building, which is my personal favorite.

toilet bowl building
Legend has it that if you put your ear against the Toilet Bowl building, you can hear a flushing sound.

But I think I’ll see Tysons Corner with a bit of a different eye now. Beyond the Malls and Tiffany’s and buildings shaped like toilet bowls, there is history. There were lives. If you can read the signs.

If you read the signs, you’ll see Merry Oaks Dr.

And Merry Lane.

Streets signs that hint of remnants of the past.

And then there is Lucrecia.

I’m going to have to go visit her I think. Fight the traffic, the noise, and close my eyes to see the past. And bring her some peach blossoms.

For more info on the SS Central America See:


Ambrose, Part Deux

I have obsessions. Some rush in and bounce about my head in a frenzy and then disappear as fast as they came, leaving very little leftover thoughts in their wake. Others hang around for years and years and pop up every day or two to say “Hello, my pretty!”

My two main real obsessions have to be history and genealogy. (I have other obsessions like books, my kids, my dogs, traveling, scary things, the ocean, parks, caves, and the current OJ Simpson miniseries, but history and genealogy are probably my top two.)

As for genealogy, I love to investigate anyone’s. I don’t care. Strangers, friends, brother-in-law.

I was obsessed with my own genealogy for a very long time, but as it expanded and got larger and larger and stretched back so many generations, it became less personal and more like a bunch of sterile data. Unless there are interesting stories I can uncover, it just becomes an overwhelming mass of 10,000+ people that are crowded into a room that the fire marshal has posted: 300 PEOPLE MAXIMUM.

So, my obsession has turned to my husband’s genealogy. It’s perfect for me. It is nice, small, and sometimes hard to figure out—just like Carlos. *clears throat*

I mean it is strong, rugged, and intellectually challenging. Is that a little better?

Actually, it is a bit of both.

Before Carlos met me, I don’t think he gave much thought to his family history. He has some latent memories of what his father told him when he was young of long-ago-relatives—sometimes the memories are wrong and sometimes they are slightly right. Or the most frustrating of all, sometimes after I find out something through extensive research, Carlos will say “Oh yes, that’s right. I remember my dad telling me that.”

Can you see the murder love in my eyes?

Well, work on his mother’s side of the family has proceeded relatively well, but his dad’s side has been more of a challenge. Three things have made my detective work on this line somewhat difficult (but with difficulty comes great reward):

  1. The last name Smith. It sucks in the world of genealogy.
  2. Carlos not knowing even his grandparents’ names on his father’s side. Leave that to me, and
  3. African-American genealogy, especially prior to the Civil War. It can be frustrating.

But on the flip side, two things that have worked for me is my love for a great mystery to solve and the fact that the Smith family lived in Baltimore for generations. A fact that we never knew, but always makes me smile knowing that somehow Carlos found his way back home to Maryland.

So, yesterday when I was writing about Ambrose Bierce, it made me think of the other Ambrose that is front and center in my Smith family detective work.

Ambrose Smith.

My husband’s great-grandfather, and a man, who up until about a year ago, we never could have named nor claimed. Through a lot of digging and work online and at the Maryland State Archives, this is what I know:

Ambrose Smith was born in about 1845. Some records say in Baltimore, while others say Virginia or Snow Hill Maryland, which is on the Eastern Shore close to Assateague.

He married Laura Brown, March 16, 1876 (140 years ago this month) in Baltimore at what is now the Orchard Street United Methodist Church. Built in 1837, it is the oldest structure in Baltimore that was constructed by African-Americans.

Orchard St.
Orchard Street United Methodist Church

Ambrose and Laura had three children – William, James, and Mary.

Ambrose and his family lived in the area between the Raven’s stadium and the Inner Harbor for most of his life and was a laborer by trade.

Ambrose’s parents, which I am trying to confirm, may be Thomas and Jane Smith of Baltimore, MD.

That is all I know.

I want to know more. I will keep on searching. I know he has a story to tell.

Ambrose’s son, James is the grandfather Carlos never knew. Whose name he never knew. Whose name I found on Carlos’ dad’s social security application.

James Ambrose Smith.

James Ambrose Smith and Elizabeth Pembleton of Baltimore, Maryland who moved and raised their children in Philadelphia. And one of those children was my husband’s dad.

It is because of people like Ambrose and his wife Laura and their ancestors, who worked and loved and struggled and made it through some of the most difficult periods in American history, that I am lucky enough to have my nice, strong, rugged, intellectually challenging, and sometimes forgetful husband. I’m grateful for that.

Thank you Ambrose.

The Devil is in the Details

I was catching up on my reading over this past weekend, and the author of the book I was reading quoted from The Devil’s Dictionary. A dormant, tiny memory was plucked in my head when I read the words “Devil’s Dictionary”, but I didn’t know who wrote it or exactly what it was about. So I did some research and came across a quite interesting fellow (whom, you can guess, my overly intelligent daughter already knew all about):

His name is Ambrose Bierce. (Why don’t people name their sons Ambrose anymore? It is derived from Greek, meaning immortal/divine. And it makes me think of tiny marsh mellows, and fruit, and coconut, and summer. Go figure.)

And you guessed it, he is from Ohio.

He was a civil war veteran who became a famous literary figure, journalist, and satirist. He wrote short stories about the civil war that were highly realistic and psychological thrillers that were ahead of their time in writing style. I’m currently reading through his short stories and was entranced by one of his most famous, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. You can read it here:

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge


Ambrose Bierce and his mustache.

But he might be most famous for his work, The Devil’s Dictionary, where he humorously and slashingly (that’s a word, I swear!) defines common English words.

I worked my way through many of the definitions this weekend and was very amused, but one I read this morning made my daughter and I laugh:

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

             He saw a ghost.
It occupied—that dismal thing!—
The path that he was following.
Before he’d time to stop and fly,
An earthquake trifled with the eye
              That saw a ghost.
He fell as fall the early good;
Unmoved that awful vision stood.
The stars that danced before his ken
He wildly brushed away, and then
               He saw a post.

                         – Jared Macphester

Accounting for the uncommon behavior of ghosts, Heine mentions somebody’s ingenious theory to the effect that they are as much afraid of us as we of them. Not quite, if I may judge from such tables of comparative speed as I am able to compile from memories of my own experience.

There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or “in his habit as he lived.” To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grip on the very tap-root of this flourishing faith.

This struck my daughter, KJ and I as hilarious:

KJ: “I never thought about this; why do all the ghosts on the TV shows and in ghost stories have on clothes? Because that is what they died in?”

Me: “Maybe so. But what if they died having sex? Shouldn’t they be a naked ghost? Or at least a ghost with only socks on if it was a man who died during sex?”

KJ: “Yeah! And what about the autoerodic asphyxiation deaths? Where are the ghosts floating around with a ball gag in their mouth? You don’t want to be that ghost. That would be embarrassing.”

Me: “You sure don’t. Maybe that why we haven’t seen David Carradine’s ghost…”

Makes you think, right? Or too soon?


Warm Weekend and Ye Olde Witches

Cold weekends are the worst. Especially for someone like me who is always itching to get out of the house and have an adventure. So when I checked the weather and found out it was going to be in the 40’s last weekend I scrambled over to my computer to see what Carlos and I could get into.

My search ended with Point Lookout, Maryland. No surprise there, since I just watch a PBS documentary about the Potomac River and it ended with the Potomac spilling into the Chesapeake Bay at the southernmost point of Maryland–Point Lookout.

So I had to go.

We also decided to stop at St. Mary’s City along the way because we have cruised by it a few times, both on our bikes and in our car, but we never had a chance to stop and see Maryland’s first colonial settlement and capital. And as you know,

History + Outdoors + Cruising = I’m There!

And then I said, “Hey, you know that rock that supposed to have a witch’s hand print on it is also in St. Mary’s County. Let’s go there, too!” And Carlos, always down for whatever, says, “Cool beans!”

That’s Carlos’ favorite saying.

And that is how we roll on a Saturday.

So we ended up winding our way over back roads to the small town of Leonardtown, Maryland in St. Mary’s County.

It is a historic town that has been around since the 1600’s and was a invaded by both the British in the war of 1812 and the Union Navy in the Civil War. And it is the location of the legend of Moll Dyer.

As the legend goes, Moll Dyer was a resident of Leonardtown. On a freezing cold winter night in the late 1600’s, Moll, accused of witchcraft, was chased from her home by the local residents.

Side-note: While writing this part on Moll Dyer, my phone rang and it was a call from Leonardtown, MD! It was a woman with a strange, flat-effect sounding tone to her voice. It was a wrong number….WEIRD!!

Days later, poor Moll was found dead on the ground, frozen and clinging to a large stone. When her body was removed, the townsfolk found that her frozen hand had left an imprint on the stone.

Legend also says that with Moll’s last breath she cursed the town…

And over the years the land around where her cabin stood would no longer grow crops.

And a white dog is said to cause car accidents on the road near where her cabin once stood.

And some have seen an apparition of a women in white near the location of her cabin.

And the stone.

The stone sat in a ravine by her cabin for 200 years till it was moved to sit next to the old jail, which is now the St. Mary’s Historical Society in Leonardtown.


Info on the Old Leonardtown Jail


The Moll Dyer Rock

OK, ok. I can say I was a bit disappointed. In my mind there was an actual hand print. Like a hand painting that you see in prehistoric caves.

But uh, no.

So I fiddled with the picture a bit.

Moll Rock

Is it clearer now?

I guess people in the 17th century had a better imagination than I do.

So after leaving Leonardtown, we headed straight to Historic St. Mary’s City. It was not staffed during the winter, but we were able to walk among the buildings, including the State House that was built in 1676, where you can sit in the stocks and pretend you are being punished for not keeping the Sabbath day holy.


Then, while gazing at the colonial torture devices used to keep those bad colonials in line, another witch appeared.

Rebecca Fowler.

Oh, no, that definitely sounds like the name of someone accused of witchcraft back in the day.

Poor Becky.

Rebecca and her husband had been indentured servants in Calvert County, Maryland in the mid-1600’s and, after working off their indenturetude (if that is even a word, and spellcheck is telling me that it isn’t), they married and bought land of their own, called Fowler’s Delight (how sweet!).

But alas, some asshole accused her of witchcraft, and in the witchcraft-crazed-time of this period, the townsfolk believed him. I mean, he was sick, it had to be her fault!

So, poor Rebecca went on trial in the St. Mary’s State House and the jury found her guilty of being led by the “Divell (to practice) certaine evil & dyabolicall artes called witchcrafts”. And on October 3, 1685, she was sentenced to hang by the neck until she was dead.


Couldn’t they have just put her in the stocks for a couple of days?

All I know is that that fool had better been REALLY sick!

After leaving Moll and Rebecca behind, we did finally end up in Point Lookout, Maryland. It is a very nice state park and we plan on going back to camp and fish and take advantage of the beach. But funny enough, we didn’t take any pictures of the destination we planned to go to in the first place.


Rags and Breaking Down Racial Barriers

I was talking to to my sister Debbie on the phone and I was telling her that my son Anderson is the stingiest person that I know when it comes to money. He works part time while going to college, and he makes pretty good money, but he refuses to spend it on anything at all.

Let me tell you; his shoes are a mess.

Like a holey, holy mess.

But it has gotten really bad. He was walking around outside in the 3 feet of blizzard snow with his holey, holy mess shoes. He was out in the woods behind our house looking for a flash drive…I didn’t even ask. He pulled his shoes off when he came back inside and not only did he have holes in his shoes, but he didn’t have any socks on! My head exploded.

All I know is that that cheap son of mine better buy some damn shoes!

I told Debbie this. And she said, “tell Anderson he doesn’t want to end up like Rags.”



Now why does that sound familiar?

And then the sister, the one who I have to spoon feed memories to, reminded me of a one-time local fixture in the Dayton area I had forgotten about–Rags

You see, Rags was a kind of mystery man. A homeless man on the streets of Dayton who dressed in what at one time might have been clothes and shoes made of ripped up rags wrapped around his feet. Even in winter. Even in the Blizzard of 1978. Oh, that was a Blizzard, I tell you.

This is Rags…


He was a recluse and a character. He seemed to prefer the streets and never stayed in homeless shelters. He was a fixture at the Dayton Library (oh, how I loved that library!) It wasn’t till after his death in 1980 that anyone in Dayton even knew his real name. But he left a lasting impression to the people he encountered the 10 years he lived on the streets of Dayton. And when he died, the citizens of Dayton gave him a proper funeral.

A proper funeral for Elias Joseph Barauskas, WWII Veteran, US Army. Born in 1919 in Waterbury, Connecticut to Lithuanian immigrants.

Elias Joseph Barauskas. Or did he prefer Rags. Anonymous.

What a life he lived. But what was he leaving behind?

Was it the war? Was he running from the law? Did he shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die?

When his brother was notified of his death, he said that Elias had left a hospital in Kentucky and they never heard from him again. Only a tiny clue, but a clue nonetheless.

But one thing I know, he is a hero. And even 36 years after his death he is still spoken of and remembered by all who encountered him.

Memorials to Rags on Find a Grave

And while researching Rags, my little trail of gems led me to another hero who walked the same streets of Dayton–Lucius Rice.

He was a barrier breaking police officer in the City of Dayton. Officer Rice was not the first black police officer in Dayton but he was one of the first, and the first to be promoted to detective. He joined the force in 1909 and in 1915 became one half of a black cop/white cop police team–the very first of its time. Think Danny Glover/Mel Gibson (wait, Mel Gibson pisses me off)…think Crockett and Tubbs…just not in Miami, but in Dayton. So think, no yachts, no fancy cars, no Easter-egg-colored outfits.

This is Lucius Rice.


He was born in 1879; fourteen years after the Civil War’s end. He was born in South Carolina, but he and his family jetted out of there. They were like “too, hot”, “too many racists”, “Let’s go to Dayton; it’ll be better there.” Ha

So handsome Lucius joined the police force. Was the Tubbs to his Crockett. And was bad ass. And you know it had to be hard being a black man telling people what to do and what not to do. He was promoted to supervisor in the police department. More telling people what to do that probably didn’t want to hear it.

But he was fearless.

In 1926 he attempted to apprehend a suspect wanted by the police. A shootout started. Lucius was shot in the stomach. As he fell to the ground, he shot and killed the assailant.

Bad ass.

And he survived.

Then in 1939, he and his partner Crockett Yendes were in pursuit of a suspected murderer. Again a shootout ensued. Again Lucius was shot in the stomach.

Bad ass. Fearless Bad ass.

But this time Lucius died.

He left behind a wife and two kids.

He left behind a legacy.

He was a hero.

Lucius Rice Police Memorial

Elias and Lucius. Both had different paths in life that brought them to the streets of Dayton. Both were heroes. Both deserve to be remembered.

Elias and Lucius.

This is were Anderson’s holey, holy mess shoes led me today.


Update: I found out today that Lucius Rice’s wife Dora was also a ground breaker. She was the first black police woman in the City of Dayton. She served for 10 years, starting in 1929 and left the force for heath reasons only 10 months before her husband was killed. Their son Robert Rice went to college and became a teacher. He also served in the Army in WWII. Just like Rags.

All things are cyclical.  


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