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June 15, 2009

A Student Sleuth Haunts the Grounds Where a College Once Burned

Bonnie Chronicle Photo.jpg (45210 bytes)(Photograph by Joey Pulone)

Bonnie J. McCubbin, a young researcher who just graduated from St. Mary's College of Maryland, says she might have solved an old mystery: Who burned down Cokesbury College, a pioneering Methodist institution near Baltimore, in 1795? Ms. McCubbin (above, in a composite photo) visits the cemetery that now occupies the site of the campus.

Last week, on the 224th anniversary of the laying of Cokesbury College's cornerstone, Bonnie J. McCubbin drove to the little church that was once the institution's chapel and told the congregation that she might have solved a two-centuries-old mystery: Who set the fire that destroyed the pioneering Methodist college one December night in 1795?

Ms. McCubbin, who graduated last month from St. Mary's College of Maryland with majors in history and anthropology, grew up not far from the Baltimore suburb of Abingdon, Md. — the town Cokesbury's founders chose for its location on the post road between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Raised as a Methodist, she had heard of the college both because it had once been nearby and because those founders included the first two bishops of the Methodist movement in America, Frances Asbury and Thomas Coke. But she had no idea that an assignment in a historic-preservation course would lead her deep into rifts that opened up in the church's first years, or into long-unopened boxes of artifacts stored in a preservation official's basement, or to what she concluded was a clue to the identity of the arsonist.

The assignment seemed simple enough: Prepare a mock nomination for a site eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Ms. McCubbin chose Cokesbury. "The early information actually came pretty easily," she says. Among other things, she learned that part of the site where the college's three-story building once stood had been excavated in the 1960s at the suggestion of the church's pastor. By then the church's cemetery had long since expanded over the site, and bricks from the college building turned up regularly when graves were being dug.

But when Ms. McCubbin went to look for a report on the excavation, she couldn't find one. "I ended up contacting the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, which is supposed to be the repository for all state excavations. They said, 'We don't have a site report. We don't believe one was ever created. But we know who has the artifacts.'"

Two boxes of scorched bricks, wrought-iron nails, and shards of pottery and glass turned out to be in the basement of the Calvert County historic-preservation officer, Kirstie Uunila, who had once planned to write about them but had never gotten around to it. Ms. Uunila, the student discovered, had once worked with Julie King, the St. Mary's anthropology professor teaching Ms. McCubbin's course, and had lived for several years near Abingdon — hence her interest. She had not only the artifacts but also the field notes from the excavation.

The artifacts themselves aren't especially interesting, Ms. McCubbin says, but the field notes — by the late Dewey M. Beegle, a biblical-history scholar from Wesley Theological Seminary, in Washington — are another matter. Among other things, they revealed that Beegle hadn't found the college building where he had expected to. During a centennial ceremony, in 1895, stones were placed to mark what were believed to be the four corners of the building, but they weren't in the right locations. Beegle finally unearthed the foundations with his third trench, and later the corner markers were moved to show where the building had really been.

As she became more and more curious about the college, Ms. McCubbin began thinking of making it the topic of a senior thesis. She worked with the state archaeological lab to get the artifacts properly cleaned and stored — they're now at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. — and began learning everything she could about Cokesbury's brief history and untimely demise. She did so much research that her thesis ended up being more than 100 pages long, and her conversation is so rich with context that it seems there's no angle she has not thought to explore.

The idea for the college dated to 1780, she says. Asbury and another Methodist preacher made a formal proposal at a conference called in 1784 to organize the brand-new denomination, and fellow clergymen pledged $5,000 to the project — "a huge sum of money at that time," Ms. McCubbin says. Construction began the following year.

"As soon as a roof was overhead, the first group of preparatory students entered, and in 1787 the first group of regular students," who ranged widely in age, says Ms. McCubbin. "It was a college, but not like what we mean by college today." The institution was intended to educate orphans and the sons of itinerant Methodist preachers, who often traveled thousands of miles a year. More than half of the students were there on scholarships.

Details about life at the college are scarce. Ms. McCubbin believes there were 25 to 75 students, many of whom lived in town, although some lived on the third floor of the building. The second floor held classrooms, and the first had a room for the president as well as a center hall. "They had all kinds of strict rules," she says. "The rules forbade play of any sort. Only one student could bathe at a time, and only under the supervision of the headmaster, and never in the river."

Although Asbury was not the institution's president, he visited regularly to check on students' progress and donated much of his personal library to the college. "Cokesbury became his pride and joy," Ms. McCubbin says, but it was also a source of worry — he was constantly seeking money to pay the college's bills, and the institution fell further and further into debt.

Meanwhile, Asbury was fending off attacks by preachers unhappy with his leadership of the Methodist church. The most serious of those attacks, Ms. McCubbin says, was mounted by James O'Kelly, a preacher who traveled widely in Virginia and North Carolina. Among his other complaints, O'Kelly said that education was a waste of money and that preachers ought to be able to refuse appointments by the church's bishops.

By 1794, she says, less than a decade after it opened its doors, "the school had fallen on major difficulties" and had cut back its upper-level offerings. Also, it no longer boarded students. That's why no one was in the building on the evening of December 7, 1795, when townspeople were roused by cries of a fire at the college. The building, Ms. McCubbin says, was gutted. The bell was saved — it was later used at Goucher College and is now in a museum at the Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, in Baltimore — but little else.

"In newspaper articles at the time, people said it was arson," Ms. McCubbin says, but none of the printed accounts gave any evidence or explanation for the claim. Nor was there an obvious explanation. Fire insurance was in its infancy, she says, and wouldn't have been available outside of major cities, which ruled out the motive of setting fire to the college to pay its debts. She dismissed lightning, too — rare in Maryland in December — and set about looking for other clues.

She didn't have much to work with. But among Asbury's letters she did find one that refers to the fire in what she believes is a riddle, perhaps written because the bishop was afraid that his letter would be read by someone other than the person for whom it was intended: "As to the Baltimore burning, after a little shock at first it seems no more to me than as much chaff. ... I only wish to know who burned Cokesbury, which I shall ever believe was done wickedly, and I am sure it will come out at the day of Judgment. I have written circumstantially, I am weak."

Ms. McCubbin believes Asbury was making a veiled reference to his loudest critic. "Before that," she says, he had "talked about James O'Kelly and how he thought he was wicked. If you piece together the schism and O'Kelly's idea that education was useless, you see this picture begin to emerge where Asbury is accusing O'Kelly of being the arsonist."

Unfortunately, she says, there is no record of where O'Kelly was at the time — in fact, very little is known about him. "I won't say that O'Kelly burned Cokesbury," says Ms. McCubbin. "I say that Asbury says that O'Kelly burned Cokesbury, and that it's by a preponderance of evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt."

"There's definitely more work that can be done on all this," she says, noting that proving anything about a 200-year-old fire is an all but insurmountable task. And as much as she enjoyed her research, she says, she will most likely not pursue it herself — this fall, she'll begin studying for the ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary.

"God had other plans for me," Ms. McCubbin says. So for now her thesis stands as the most comprehensive exploration of Cokesbury College's demise. Anyone wishing to challenge it will have to put as much effort, or more, into a 200-year-old mystery.