April 22nd, 2013

The British are Coming! Spreading the News about the War of 1812

USS_Constitution_vs_GuerriereIn the Spring of 1813, exactly 200 years ago, war came to the upper Chesapeake Bay. The War of 1812, declared nearly a year before by President James Madison and followed by an ill-fated invasion of Canada, surely seemed far removed to many Marylanders. But rumors of war changed to all-too-real smoke and flame with the arrival of British forces commanded by Admiral Sir George Cockburn.

Cockburn’s orders were quite clear—he was to wreak havoc and punish Americans as part of an amphibious campaign that would eventually reach from Norfolk to Havre de Grace. The sight of a British flag soon struck fear in the hearts of Marylanders up and down the Chesapeake.

While the war would continue for months to come and lead to the burning of Washington, the battle of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and ultimately the British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, Chesapeake Bay residents faced the worst of the British onslaught beginning in April 1813.

On Monday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m., join accomplished historian Mike Dixon for “Spread the News: The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake,” offering a look at how news and information was shared in an era before the instant communication we take for granted today.

Two centuries previously, the British campaign directly impacted Cecil County residents. Dixon will share anecdotes from local residents of the day, as well as details about the British rampages on the Sassafras River, Frenchtown, Elkton,  Principio and Havre de Grace—where much of the riverfront town was put to the torch despite the efforts of the heroic John O’Neill.

Mr. Dixon will be exploring how reports of the British campaign spread like wildfire, causing panic in some quarters, and in others prompting the local militia to organize a defense. He will also share some of the new discoveries that have come to light about the location of the earthworks at Elk Landing, the local historic site that played a key role in the defense of Elkton or “Head of Elk,” as it was then called.

“The times in these parts has been troublesome,” wrote militia Captain Andrew Hall of the 30th Maryland Regiment that took part in the defense of Elkton. “Our waters has been polluted with the English since last spring and is yet. They’re blockading all our seaport towns which causes merchandise of all sorts to be very high … on the 28th (of April) the British landed at Frenchtown two miles below Elkton and set it on fire, and consumed it to ashes and would have destroyed Elkton if they had not got cowed by the shot of one cannonball from a small battery thrown up at (Elk Landing).”

The War 1812 is sometimes called the Second War of Independence or even the Forgotten War, although so much of the action took place almost in our backyards here in Cecil County. After this talk, you’ll know and appreciate far more about what the War of 1812 meant for those who lived in Cecil County two centuries before.

Registration is requested due to limited seating for this talk, so please call 410-996-1134 or click here to sign up.

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March 4th, 2013

Jailing the Johnston Gang with Bruce Mowday

bruce-johnston-srBruce Mowday is the author of Jailing the Johnston Gang: Bringing Serial Murderers to Justice. He will be speaking at 7pm on March 13th at the Elkton Central Library. During the height of the Johnston Gang’s criminal activities, Mr. Mowday was a reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. He was often there when police investigated the latest crime scene and he covered the gang members’ trials. We thought we’d ask him a few questions about the book and his experiences covering our region’s most infamous criminal gang.

The Johnston Gang was active in the 1970s in Cecil County and Chester County, Pa. Can you sum up their criminal activity that ended ultimately in several murders?
The members of the Johnston Gang would steal anything that would bring them money. There were more John Deere tractors stolen in the Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania area than the rest of the nation combined. They also stole Corvettes. When law enforcement began to use a federal grand jury to investigate the gang, the Johnston  brothers began to murder witnesses, including members of their own family, to escape punishment.

What was the most interesting fact you learned about the Johnston Gang and their crime ring?
I’m not sure about the most interesting fact, but I’ll tell you about what I still don’t understand. How can anyone put a gun to the back of the head of a family member and pull the trigger? How can uncles take out a contract on the life of their nephew? I don’t understand those morals.

Many people in Cecil County recall the manhunt for prison escapee Norman Johnston in the 1990s. What was his role in the gang?
Norman was the youngest of the three Johnston brothers. Bruce Johnston Sr. was the eldest and David Johnston was the middle brother. Norman was more of the follower of the three and did as his older brothers said. Bruce, as the eldest, was in charge for the most part. I always thought David was the smartest and most certainly the most ruthless.

The film “At Close Range” (starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken) depicts the Johnston Gang’s exploits and makes mention of Rising Sun. Do you think the movie is accurate?
The movie is accurate in parts but it is most definitely Hollywoodized. Some of the scenes are composite accounts of several incidents and some of the scenes never took place. Also, Bruce Johnston Jr. was made more sympathetic than he was. Hollywood was looking for someone that the audience could like but there wasn’t any such person in the gang, including Johnston Jr.

What book project are you working on now?
My book on Jim Herr, founder of Herr Foods, will be released in September by Barricade Books of Fort Lee, N.J. I have an October deadline for my book on Gettysburg, Defending Pickett’s Charge. I’ve been working on the book for several years and it should be available by the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.

Many thanks to Bruce Mowday, and we look forward to hearing much more at his upcoming program – sign up by clicking this link or call 410-996-5600 ext. 481.

What are your family’s memories of the Johnston Gang?

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