Doctor, lawyer were among Washington County Historical Society's founders

January 21, 2011|Linda Irvin-Craig
  • John Philemon Smith was one of the Washington County Historical Society's 29 signatories of the Articles of Incorporation
Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a 12-part series about Washington County Historical Society's founders.

The Washington County Historical Society will celebrate its centennial year with special exhibits and lectures throughout 2011. A Mad Hatters' Ball, planned for April Fool's Day, will kick off the season with a gala birthday event.

As we continue to recall the society's 29 signatories of the Articles of Incorporation, this week we meet, Alexander Neill IV and John Philemon Smith.

Alexander Neill IV

Also on the founding board was Alexander Neill IV, a resident of what is now known as the Miller House, where both his father and grandfather had raised their families and conducted their law practices. He signed as the Notary of the Articles of Incorporation and was elected as one of original seven directors.

Neill was the third generation of his line to practice law and have his offices at the Miller House. Neill's great-grandfather, the first Alexander, was a merchant who had moved his family from Frederick, Md., to Hagerstown. The father and grandfather had each distinguished themselves by their community involvement.  

Admitted to the bar in 1903, Neill's education took place at Trinity College and Princeton University. He served as the legal adviser for City of Hagerstown mayor and council and had been mentioned as a candidate for State Senate. Unfortunately, this young man, who never married, lived only one year beyond his father. In 1911, the same year that the Washington County Historical Society was founded, Neill died prematurely at age 35 of a brain tumor, cutting short a promising career. 

His funeral was conducted from the home on West Washington Street and his obituary noted his assistance to the incorporation of the Historical Society.

John Philemon Smith

Sharpsburg resident John Philemon Smith, whose father's family came to Sharpsburg from Calvert County, Md., by way of Montgomery County, Md., was an educator by profession. His mother was Sarah Kretzer from one of the oldest families in town. Her brother, John, served as county commissioner for Washington County.

Smith demonstrated his love of history through his many avocations — collecting American Indian artifacts and cataloging them, researching family stories of the town and writing articles about historic events in the Sharpsburg area for all the small newspapers being published in the region and for the Hagerstown papers, as well. Many of his columns have been preserved in a publication called "Reminiscences of Sharpsburg 1763 to 1912."

Smith was 17 when he witnessed the Battle of Antietam, and for the rest of his life devoted his time to preserving and interpreting the single bloodiest battle in the Civil War. In 1886, he created a memorial that included pieces of shrapnel, buttons and other debris from the battlefield. The text seen in the box is from the 1867 dedication of Antietam National Cemetery. In the center of Smith's shadowbox is a miniature replica of the Private Soldier Monument that was installed at the cemetery in 1880. Smith gifted the shadowbox to the Maryland Historical Society.

His journal called "Register of Deaths in Sharpsburg and the Surrounding Neighborhood 1831 to 1943" gives some comparative documentation for an increased incidence of childhood deaths in the years immediately following the Battle of Antietam. This journal might have been started by Smith's father but was kept by Smith for many years and then handed off to a Fred Peterman in 1904 and later continued by Dillon Grove.

Smith was also fascinated with the work of James Rumsey, who had moved from Sharpsburg to Shepherdstown, W.Va., to continue the development of his steamboat that preceded the work of Stanley Fulton by about 20 years. Smith researched and wrote an account of this invention and the civil engineering skills of Rumsey. His account details the work that was done by the Catoctin Furnace and the Antietam Iron Works for the craft. Smith also served as a member of the Morgan Association of Jefferson County, W.Va.

He was a charter member and secretary of the board of Mountain View Cemetery in Sharpsburg,  a corresponding member of the Maryland Historical Society, the Academy of Natural Science of Baltimore and the Archaeological and Historical Society of Columbus, Ohio.

Smith also served with Masonic lodges in Sharpsburg and Boonsboro and contributed heavily to "A History of Washington County, Maryland," originally published in 1906 and ostensibly authored by Thomas J. C. Williams.  This two-volume tome is a "must read" for anyone embarking on genealogical research of a local family.  

Visitors to the Simms Jamieson Library at the Miller House have worn out many copies of it and its more recently published index.

Linda C. Irvin-Craig is executive director for the Washington County Historical Society. She can be reached at 301-797-8782 or

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