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Belle Boyd museum celebrates 5 years

August 18, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - In 1992, the home of this city's most famous daughter was a decrepit apartment house about to be turned into a parking lot. Sunday, the Berkeley County Historical Society celebrated the five-year anniversary of its purchase of the Belle Boyd House.

Since the house at 126 E. Race St. was saved from the bulldozer, more than $50,000 in restoration work has been done, according to historical society President Don Woods.

Cindy Geppi, of Baltimore, was on hand Sunday to portray one of the Confederacy's most famous female spies. Boyd gained notoriety early in the war by shooting a Union soldier at another home in town that was later torn down, Woods explained.

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The Boyd family lived in the East Race Street house for about five years after her father Ben built it in 1853, Woods said. The house is now the society's headquarters, a Civil War and local history museum, home to local archives, a genealogy center and bookstore.

Sunday's open house drew scores of visitors, among them Renay Conlin, the commissioner for West Virginia's Department of Culture and History.

Boyd's life rivaled the fictional Scarlett O'Hara of "Gone With the Wind." On July 4, 1861, she shot the Yankee soldier, who was trying to wrest a Confederate flag from her mother. Boyd was jailed briefly, but her action was deemed justified.

It would not be her last time behind bars.

In 1862 Boyd was arrested for passing secrets to a Union spy she thought was working for the South. She was jailed in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington.

Warned to stay away from Martinsburg, she returned in 1863 to attend to her ailing mother and was arrested again. She nearly died of typhoid fever during her imprisonment, Woods said.

In 1864, she was carrying a message from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to London when her ship was overtaken at sea. Woods said a naval lieutenant, Sam Harding, "was so taken by Belle that he proposed."

She agreed, but only on the condition that he turn over naval codes, help the captain of her blockade runner escape and that Harding join the Confederate army.

On her return to the United States she was banished to Canada, but soon went to London, where she and Harding were married.

Boyd returned to the United States in 1867, parlaying her fame as a spy into a career as an actress and author. The marriage with Harding, however, didn't last. She married twice more and had five children.

Born in 1843 in the Bunker Hill, W.Va., area, Boyd died in 1900 at the age of 57 in Kilbourn, Wis., where she is buried.

Boyd's other homes in the county are gone, but the East Race Street house was saved from demolition when the society bought it for $85,000. The $20,000 down payment was donated by the late Lloyd Mason Jr. of Cumberland, Md.

Woods said all the renovations and most of the mortgage are paid off. Still to be renovated in the two-story Greek Revival style home are the hallways, which Woods estimates will cost $10,000 to restore.

In addition to Civil War artifacts and period dresses, one room of Boyd's house is devoted to memorabilia from the career of baseball Hall of Famer Hack Wilson. The Chicago Cub, who banged out 56 homers and 190 RBIs in 1930, was not a native of Martinsburg, but later lived here.

The home's kitchen is devoted to the history of Berkeley County schools, with slate tablets and a McGuffey's Reader among the items on display.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Private tours can also be arranged by calling the society at 267-4713.

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