Last weekend, in a bit of serendipitous luck, I visited the village of Port Tobacco and saw that the home of Chimney House was having an open house. Oddly enough, I had met the realtors for Chimney House last August while antiquing with Herb Collins in Tappahannock, VA. Jay and his wife Mary Lilly are not only the realtors for Chimney House, but Mr. Lilly is also the president of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco. I was invited in by the Lillys and we proceeded to tour the house. At the end of the day, I was in awe of Chimney House’s size, beauty, and impeccable furnishings. Here are some of the pictures I took of the of the house:
Now, Chimney House is more than just a period building in historic Port Tobacco, Maryland. It also connects to George Atzerodt who made his home and business in Port Tobacco. In 1857, George Atzerodt and his brother John moved to Port Tobacco and began operating a carriage shop in town.
When the war came, the brothers closed down the business as John found a job working for the Maryland Provost Marshal as a detective. Living in Port Tobacco, George found himself in the company of a twice widowed woman by the name of Elizabeth Adams Boswell. She is better known to assassination historians as Rose Wheeler, an amalgamation of her former husbands’ last names (Charles Wheeler and Henry Rose). George had one child by Mrs. Wheeler, a girl named Edith. George and Rose lived together as common law man and wife until George was pulled into Booth’s conspiracy. Mrs. Wheeler even visited George at the Arsenal Penitentiary before he was executed for his involvement in the tragedy at Washington.
So where does Chimney House play a role? Well, at one point columnist and author George Alfred Townsend, better known by his nom de plume: GATH, visited and sketched Chimney House in Port Tobacco. In his sketch of the house, GATH included a small outbuilding near the Chimney House which he attributed to be the Atzerodts’ carriage shop. With very few others of his day taking an interest in George’s life prior to his non attempt on Andrew Johnson, GATH’s drawing has been taken as correct. With Chimney House lasting the tests of time, people could point to the area behind the house as the location of George’s former shop.
However, between 2007 and 2010 Port Tobacco underwent a major archaeological project funded in part by a $60,000 Preserve America grant from the NPS. Though no longer updated, the website for the Port Tobacco Archaeological Project has some tremendous information regarding the wonderful work that was done there. One area that the project leaders wanted to work on was to attempt to find the Atzerodts’ carriage shop. On a cold December day in 2007, the team made a few shovel test pits (STPs) behind Chimney House looking for evidence of the former carriage shop structure.
That was near the end of the season, and the workers restarted their work in March of 2008. Here is a report of their efforts:
“Yesterday we set out to finish what we had started. It was warm and sunny so the conditions seemed right. But it did not take us long to realize that the rear yard of the Chimney House is just too marshy for shovel testing to work. Determined, we excavated a few STPs but soon hit wet clays and sands with little soil development above them. The digging was difficult, the screening was difficult, and there just was not enough artifact content to draw any conclusions. We stopped digging and spent a bit of time wondering why anyone would build in this marshy area.”
The archaeological team was starting to have doubts about the long-held “behind Chimney House” theory. Here’s another look into their thought processes from September of 2008 after still coming up empty behind Chimney House:
“Look at the sketch again. Notice anything else odd about it? In all the photos we have of Chimney House, not one of them has a covered front porch on it or even what appear to be remnants of one. If this sketch was done in 1885 and our earliest photographs of the house are in the early 1900’s (roughly 1910), then it was torn down before. Could this be a journalist’s imagination just trying to make the house look in better condition than it was? Remember that most of Port Tobacco was in shambles after the Civil War as people migrated out of town. Is the repair/paint shop located behind Chimney House?”
With no archaeological evidence to support it, the team did not believe the Atzerodts’ shop was behind Chimney House. In September of 2010, as the team leader was completing his report for the Preserve America grant, he reported his belief of the true location of the Atzerodts’ carriage shop:
“Today, while working on our final report for the Preserve America grant, which funded our exploration of Civil War era Port Tobacco, I put together several bits of information that resulted in the formulation of a hypothesis: the Atzerodt carriage shop and the house in which George Atzerodt lived with Mrs. Elizabeth Wheeler might have been leased from wheelwright Griffin Carter, and that property lies on the east side of Chapel Point Road, where we have not undertaken any archaeological investigations, directly across from the road that runs west to the courthouse.”
The red arrow marks the land behind Chimney House where the team found no evidence of any shops whatsoever. The green arrow points out the general area where the team leader now suspects George Atzerodt’s shop actually was.
However, even if George’s shop was not behind Chimney House, it is my belief that Rose Wheeler, her daughters including Edith, and maybe even George himself, slept in Chimney House. Mrs. Wheeler’s maiden name was Boswell. Her brother, William Boswell, purchased Chimney House in 1859 and it didn’t leave the family until 1904 when it was sold by his daughter. In the 1870 and 1880 census, one of Mrs. Wheeler’s daughters from her first marriage is living with William Boswell in Chimney House. To me, it seems reasonable that William Boswell would invite his twice widowed sister and her children to live with him in Chimney House, at least for a while. Whether he would allow George Atzerodt into his home would be a different matter.
Chimney House is a truly beautiful piece of history in Port Tobacco, and yet another interesting sidebar in the Lincoln assassination story.
Port Tobacco Archaeological Project
Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco
Times of Port Tobacco by John and Roberta Wearmouth
Thomas A. Jones, Chief Agent of the Confederate Secret Service in Maryland by John and Roberta Wearmouth