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June 3, 2009

Answer found 200 years later to burning question


Cokesbury College in Abingdon, the first Methodist college in the world and the first college in Harford County, was established in 1785 and burned to the ground 10 years later, in what was thought to be an act of arson.

After more than 200 years as a cold case with no one pegged as the arsonist, one Harford County resident believes she has solved this whodunit.

Bonnie McCubbin, 22, who grew up in Bel Air, studied the mystery of who burned Cokesbury College to the ground for her undergraduate thesis project at St Mary’s College of Maryland, known to students as the St. Mary’s Project.

“At first, I couldn’t believe it,” McCubbin said of possibly unveiling the arsonist in this ancient case. “I was a little shocked. I never set out to accuse anyone of arson; I just was trying to investigate more of the history of the subject and, all of a sudden, I had this huge accusation land in my lap and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was a wonderful project.”

After two years of research and uncovering facts, McCubbin, a double major in anthropology and history who graduated this spring, concluded James O’Kelly, a Methodist dissident who had been causing problems for the Methodist Church, was responsible for burning down Cokesbury College in an act designed to destroy the church and upset Francis Asbury, one of the college’s founders.

McCubbin came to this conclusion in her project titled “The Mystery Unearthed: Cokesbury College,” based on a combination of evidence including historical documents, correspondences and archaeological evidence from a 1968 excavation of the Cokesbury College site.

McCubbin is scheduled to present her project for the third time immediately following the 10:30 a.m. worship service Sunday at Cokesbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Abingdon, which stands adjacent to the site of the old college. Her presentation will be in conjunction with the 224th anniversary of when Asbury laid the foundation stones for the college in 1785.

Cokesbury College and McCubbin’s findings

Cokesbury College, a college for high education under control of the Methodist Church, was founded in 1785 by the Rev. Thomas Coke, the superintendent of Methodism in the United States, and Bishop Francis Asbury, the pioneer bishop of Dover, Del., according to C. Milton Wright’s book, “Our Harford History.”

“At a conference of the church in 1783, it was decided that the college should be located in Harford County and that its name should be ‘Cokesbury’ compounded from the names of the two bishops,” Wright wrote.

He wrote the site for the college was chosen in a short time to be “a high knoll, beautiful spot in the town of Abingdon, overlooking Bush River and Chesapeake Bay.”

Asbury was named the first president of the college that stood three stories high at 108 feet long and 40 feet wide in the middle of six acres, according to Wright.

Although the college suffered difficult times with finances and procuring efficient teachers, the college was still able to flourish up until 1795, when it burned.

“An enrollment of 70 pupils, exclusive of those in the preparatory school, was reported in 1792,” Wright wrote. “Tuition rates were set at that time at $16.88 per pupil, with an extra $60 a year for a boarding student.”

On Dec. 4, 1795, Cokesbury College was burned to the ground in what was believed to be an act of arson.

The governor of Maryland at the time, John Stone, offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the arsonist, but no one was ever found to be responsible for the fire.

“I wanted to know why no one was ever found to have done this,” McCubbin said. “No historians have looked into this topic.”

McCubbin said she suspected O’Kelly was responsible for the arson because Cokesbury embodied, at least in the mind of O’Kelly, everything that the Methodist Church stood for and everything that O’Kelly was rebelling against.

She said O’Kelly pulled away from the Methodist Church in 1792 to form his own religious denomination called the Republican Methodist Church because he had issues with the structure and practices of the Methodist Church as a whole.

“O’Kelly thought Asbury had too much power and control,” McCubbin said. “There were issues with O’Kelly for a long time since he joined the Methodist Church clergy in 1789. He started causing problems and tried rallying other clergy to pull away from the church.”

A key piece of evidence that helped McCubbin come to her conclusion was a letter Asbury wrote to a colleague in New York in which Asbury addressed the O’Kelly schism and the burning of the college.

In the letter, O’Kelly’s animosity toward Asbury is outlined because O’Kelly had accused Asbury of not following the discipline rulebook of United Methodist Church as he should.

“O’Kelly had the motive to burn Cokesbury College, a rigid institution that embodied everything the Methodist Church stood for and Asbury was personally invested in its development and success,” McCubbin wrote in her senior thesis. “Burning Cokesbury would have been a symbolic act.”

Asbury never accuses O’Kelly of being the arsonist, but he hints at it through the letter, which was written as a riddle to decode.

In the letter, McCubbin said Asbury creates a parallel between Psalm 1 in the Bible and O’Kelly by saying O’Kelly is like a chaff, the outer shell or husk of wheat that must be removed to access the valuable grain inside.

“He was saying O’Kelly is like chaff in that he gets blown away by anything and that he is worthless because chaff isn’t worth anything in wheat,” she said. “Asbury said he believes the burning was done wickedly and that the truth will come out on the Day of Judgment. I knew Asbury was writing in riddle. I put the pieces together and saw that Asbury believed that O’Kelly was the arsonist for this fire.”

In addition to the letter and O’Kelly’s contempt for the Methodist Church, McCubbin also used an “anonymous pamphlet” O’Kelly sent out accusing the Methodist Church of various things as evidence he was guilty of the arson.

She said the pamphlets accused education of being useless and accused the church of misappropriating funds, which there is no additional evidence to support in any other records, according to McCubbin.

There were a total of four interactions between the church and O’Kelly in regard to this pamphlet.

“You really get a good feeling of O’Kelly’s character,” she said. “Cokesbury was very symbolic and embodied the rigidness of the church as a whole with strict guidelines for the students. Since Asbury was so invested in it, to destroy Cokesbury was akin to destroying the church — it got at the heart of the church.”

How the project came about

McCubbin began looking into the history of Cokesbury College for a historic preservation class in the fall of 2007. She said the assignment was to find a site that was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places and present a mock nomination for that site.

“I discovered most of the things around St. Mary’s College were already listed,” she said. “I had to visit the site and needed something I could access very easily, so I looked around Harford County and came upon Cokesbury College in a list of sites. I remembered hearing about it when I was younger.”

McCubbin began looking into an archeological excavation of the Cokesbury site that was performed in 1968.

“Normally, an architect writes up a report detailing everything they did, but a report couldn’t be found,” she said.

She said she traveled to the Maryland Archeological Conservation, or MAC, Lab, in Calvert County, the repository for all artifacts from excavations in Maryland. The lab reported that a write-up on the excavation was never completed and put McCubbin in touch with Kristi Uunila, the now historic preservation officer for Calvert County, who had the artifacts from the excavation of Cokesbury College.

Uunila had planned to look into these artifacts for a master dissertation, but never did, according to McCubbin.

“They had been sitting around in the basement for several years,” McCubbin said.

McCubbin said she began working with the MAC Lab to get the artifacts washed and into climate-controlled storage at Drew University in Madison, N.J., the archives for the United Methodist Church.

“That began the project,” she said.

But soon after the start of the project, when McCubbin discovered the college might have been burned to the ground in an act of arson, she realized this project was bigger than a one-semester project.

With such a large project on her hands, McCubbin decided to take on this project as her St. Mary’s Project.

The St. Mary’s Project is typically a yearlong independent research project required of most students at the college. Most of the projects include both written and oral components. According to a press release from the college, students are assigned to work with faculty advisers who oversee the project from start to finish.

McCubbin’s project was overseen by Julie King, an archeologist and associate professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who also taught the historic preservation class where McCubbin’s project was born.

“I didn’t know too much about Cokesbury because most of my work is in Southern Maryland. When the project was first proposed, I wasn’t too sure how it would turn out, but I just let her [McCubbin] go on her own,” King said. “I was very proud of her at the end of the year. Look to hear from Bonnie McCubbin in the future.”

King referred to McCubbin’s project as an intersection of a great whodunit story with religion and education.

“It’s not just an interesting subject matter, she is an interesting presenter,” she said. “She [McCubbin] presents a compelling case. The people at the time probably knew O’Kelly did it.”

McCubbin said she continued to work on the project through the spring 2007 semester without credit hours and began working more intensely in the fall 2008 doing a lot more research and visiting archives all up and down the East Coast.

Her findings and project were complete this spring, when McCubbin presented the project at a student paper conference in Millersville, Pa., hosted by Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honors society.

McCubbin said she also presented her project during the St. Mary’s Project Days at the college, where all students who completed an undergraduate senior thesis present their projects to the larger community.

With such a huge development in her possession, McCubbin said she is letting the discovery and excitement settle before seeking to get it published in some form.

“I’ll keep investigating it,” she said. “I don’t think by any means it’s done. It was a lot of fun to work on. I really enjoyed it; it’s been a fascinating journey.”

As McCubbin looks to the future of her project, she also has plans to continue her education by beginning a master’s program to obtain her master of divinity, the degree needed to become a pastor, in the fall at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., but her senior thesis project will not be far from her mind.

“It is my hope that this project will pique the interest of both scholars and the general public, bringing back to the forefront the impact and influence Cokesbury College had not only on the Methodist Church, but also to the nation, Maryland and the Abingdon community,” McCubbin wrote in the author’s notes and acknowledgments section of her senior thesis. “When I started the project in the fall of 2007, I never imagined that it would turn into this.”