Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Barnes Compton (1830-1898)
MSA SC 3520-1545

Extended Biography:

Barnes Compton was born on November 16, 1830, in Port Tobacco, Charles County, the son of William Penn (?-1838) and Mary Clarissa (Barnes) Compton (?-1833).  Both of these families had strong connections to the history of southern Maryland and its leading families, both Charles and St. Mary’s Counties.  Barnes Compton later traced his ancestry to politician Philip Key, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1779-1790 and Barnes’ maternal great-grandfather, in order to join the Sons of the American Revolution.  It was later written that "Barnes Compton was a gentleman of the truest sort and belonged to one of the oldest and bluest blooded families in Maryland.  He was a cavalier, one of a fine and fast-disappearing type."

Born into wealth and security on his family’s plantation, Barnes’ childhood quickly took a tragic turn.  His mother died when he was only three, and five years later he lost his father as well.  Guardianship of Barnes, the only surviving child of the couple, passed to his maternal grandfather, John Barnes.  He died as well in 1843, leaving Barnes sole heir to both  the Compton and Barnes estates, totaling eight properties and providing an income of over $5300 per annum by the time he reached majority.  When he took possession of his inheritance in 1851, he became the second largest slaveholder in Charles County.

Before that could happen though, adolescent Barnes watched as family members bickered over the rights of guardianship and inheritance.  Two months after his grandfather died, Barnes petitioned the Orphans Court of Charles County for guardianship to pass to his maternal uncle, Richard Barnes, rather than his paternal uncle, Wilson P. Compton.  Barnes’ testimony in court revealed the trials undergone by the fourteen year old boy.  He explained that he had “since his earliest infancy been in constant association with Richard Barnes and become attached to him, while to his other relations who have applied for his Guardianship [he was] a comparative stranger…and he could hardly think that thus applying they can be activated by any regard for the interests of the petitioner.”   Richard Barnes was a judge in the Orphans Court and with his wife Mary raised three children of their own and took in at least five others, many near Barnes’ age.  When the court overruled Barnes’ plea and granted guardianship to Wilson Compton, the young man fought against the ruling only to have the case dismissed in the Court of Appeals.

With Wilson Compton as his guardian, Barnes and his new family moved to Rosemary Lawn, a plantation inherited from his mother in Hill Top District, Charles County.  Along with his uncle, aunt and cousin, his paternal grandmother Elizabeth Penn Compton resided on Barnes’ estate.  Wilson immediately set to improving his nephew’s properties, over the next five years continuously petitioning the Orphans Court for permission to use part of Barnes' income for supplies and contractors.  The properties owned by Barnes were: Rosemary Lawn, Muncasters, Hill Top, Green Wood Farm, Rog’s Cold, Chimney House in Port Tobacco, and another plantation in Charles County large enough to have two separate houses for tenants.

The elder Compton took his duties seriously and protected his nephew’s inheritance at court.  He filed a caveat against John Barnes' will on behalf of ward Barnes Compton, declaring that 'non compos menti' (mental incompetence) negated John Barnes last testament and all property should pass to Barnes Compton.   In truth, the will left almost the entire property to Barnes, excepting $500 to William C. Barnes and the freedom to two slaves.  The order of the Orphans Court granting an allowance out of the estate of John Barnes so that the executors could pay for counsel in the caveat dispute was fought by Wilson Compton, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision (Compton vs. Barnes, 1846).  After disputing Barnes’ inheritance from his grandfather, Wilson Compton turned to the inheritance from his mother.  A pecuniary legacy of $3000 from Samuel Bond to his grandniece, Mary Barnes Compton, was placed in the hands of John Barnes, executor of Samuel Bond and guardian of his daughter.  In 1845 Wilson Compton filed in the Court of Chancery for this legacy to pass to his ward, Barnes Compton. The defendants claimed that the late William P. Compton, Mary's husband, had already spent the money. The Chancery Court ruled that Barnes Compton was entitled to relief, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the decree (Crain vs. Barnes, 1845; Barnes vs. Crain, 1849).

In the midst of these legal troubles, Barnes Compton grew into manhood as a Southern gentleman.  After attending Charles County District School No. 7 from 1841-1843, at age fourteen Barnes entered Charlotte Hall Military Academy.   He attended school and boarded there for the next four years, returning in the summer to Rosemary Lawn to observe his uncle’s progress on the plantation.  He was given an allowance for clothes and spending money each year, and even bought his own horse.  In December 1847 the court awarded $700 per annum for Barnes’ education at Princeton College, New Jersey.  While there he was named junior orator in the American Whig Society for the year 1850; later newspaper articles during his congressional office note his oratory skills.  Barnes graduated from Princeton with an A.B. degree in 1851 and afterwards returned to take over his inheritance.  Wilson Compton’s aggressive protection and improvement of Barnes’ estate paid off; between 1847 and 1851 the income from Barnes’ property more than doubled.

Though farming suited Barnes, he wanted to enter the more exciting world of politics.  Barnes ran for the state legislature in 1855 on the last Whig ticket, but was defeated by five votes.  He wed Miss Margaret Holliday Sothoron of St. Mary’s County, daughter of planter Colonel John Henry Sothoron, in 1858.  Their wedding was said to have been a “…grand affair with twelve groomsmen and as many bridesmaids.”   After honeymooning in Niagara it is most likely that the couple moved into Rosemary Lawn while Wilson Compton and his family moved to the Loch Leven estate.  Barnes and Wilson each bought a share of the latter house in 1857; in 1871 Barnes would sell his interest to his cousin William Compton, but when William went bankrupt his interest was sold at public auction to Henry Neale.

Barnes and Margaret settled into married life as plantation owners.  In 1860 they lived in Hill Top, MD, with their one-year old daughter Mary and 105 slaves .  He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1859 on a Democratic ticket. The 1861 session was held at Frederick, MD, instead of Annapolis for war related reasons, but Compton never reached the assembly.  He learned that a number of legislative members suspected of Confederate sympathies had been arrested by Federal authorities on reaching Frederick.  Compton turned around and escaped across the Potomac into Virginia until his term expired.  He returned home and lived without arrest until 1865, when he was imprisoned at the Old Capital in Washington for aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln.  The information proved false and Compton was released without charge after four days.

Though elected to the legislature in 1866, the constitutional convention of 1867 forced another election in which Compton was made president of the senate.   He was president again from 1870-1872, in which year he took office as state treasurer, a position he would hold until 1885. In 1874 he was also state tobacco inspector.

As state treasurer, Compton sat on the Board of Public Works with the governor and the comptroller of the treasury.  Maryland’s Board of Public Works was created by the 1864 Constitution to “[supervise] all Public Works in which the State may be interested as stockholder or creditor…and recommend such legislation as they shall deem necessary and requisite to promote or protect the interests of the State in the said Public Works.”   As such, the Board of Public Works in the 1870s oversaw the purchasing and selling of stocks in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, the construction of the House of Correction and State Normal School (the late State Penitentiary at Jessup, Anne Arundel County, and present Towson University), the construction of a new State Tobacco Warehouse, and repairs to the State House in Annapolis.

The first sign of trouble flared in the summer of 1875 as the Board directed the construction of the House of Correction.  On July 17, 1875 the individual members of the Board of Public Works—Governor James Black Groome, Treasurer Barnes Compton, and Comptroller Levin Woolford—filed  suits of libel against Charles C. and Albert K. Fulton, proprietors of the Baltimore American, claiming $20,000 each in damages. The conflict originated in a letter to the editor and follow-up article published in the American on June 26 and June 28, 1875.  Both charged the overseers of the new House of Correction in Jessup with mismanagement at best, political corruption at worst.

The June 26th letter to the editor, signed Anti-Monopoly, criticized the poor choice of land without clay or lumber—both were needed to construct the new buildings—but revealed a more questionable action by the Democratic Board of Public Works.  Instead of directly buying the land for the House of Correction from the owner, the government allowed it to first pass to a "prominant Republican from Anne Arundel County" for $12,000; only then did the Trustees charged with buying the land for the state purchase the site from this Republican for $13,000.  What, asked Anti-Monopoly, happened to that $1000?  The purchase became even more disturbing as land records revealed that these two purchases—from Martin P. Scott to George T. Warfield, then from Warfield to Trustees George William Brown, George S. Brown and Robert T. Baldwin—both occurred on December 3, 1874.  This made the passage through a middleman, one who had also held political office, seem planned rather than coincidental.

The follow-up piece by the Baltimore American on June 28th could not answer any of Anti-Monopoly's queries, but divulged an additional misstep of the Board.  Mr. Henry E. Loane, Democratic delegate from Baltimore City in 1874 and 1876, received the contract for building the House of Correction.  The American affirmed that another person offered to do the work for several thousand less, but was rejected.  Perhaps, the newspaper wondered, rumors were true and the lower bidder took instead the superintendent's position at $2500.  Either way, some type of party favoritism seemed suspect. "In these days of 'rings' and 'ringmasters,'" concluded the article, "a coincidence like this is certain to provoke comment."

George A. Frederick was the Architect for the House of Correction--especially interesting since he and the same persons of the Board of Public Works overspent on the State House by $70,000 only two years later. Codling & Loane, the builders, received at least $53,548 in payment for work done and materials furnished for the project. An E.E. Anderson also appears in the Paying Warrants and received $3000 for his work done on the House of Correction grounds.  None of these persons was identified as the supervisor at Jessup.

Forming yet another strange twist in this case, Trustee George William Brown intended to put in a proposal for the building contract, but on May 13, 1875, the Board rejected Brown & Co. because it had failed to present the names of all in the firm and had not substantiated a bond with the bid.  Two other companies, J.H. Horton & Co. and Thomas Binyion & Co., also failed in this requirement, leaving Codling & Loane with the contract.  Perhaps one of these was the lower bidders mentioned in the American that instead was employed as superintendent.

After the officials filed their suits against the Fultons, the case was settled in open court on February 17, 1876.  The Hagerstown Mail chastised the Board for failing to be open to public criticism, a requirement of American officeholders.  A day after the court agreement, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Board of Public Works was expected to petition for an extra $200,000 over the $250,000 appropriation in order to complete the House of Correction as planned.   Though optimistic at staying on budget in 1876, Comptroller Woolford’s 1877 Annual Report recognized that nearly the whole of the budget had been spent and “a considerable sum will be necessary to furnish the building and provide heat, water and light, so as to fit the institution for the reception of prisoners.”  That considerable sum was expected to total $25,000 in 1878 and another $86,000 in 1879.  Unfortunately for Compton and his associates, their remaining years on the Board would be just as financially controversial as the time spent on the House of Correction project.

On March 30, 1876, Governor Groome signed into law an act appropriating $32,000 for repairs and improvements to the State House.  After a year of delays while the Board of Public Works focused on the House of Correction and State Normal School, George A. Frederick, architect for the repairs to the State House, was finally instructed to contract with various builders in April 1877.  Compton and the Board worked with Frederick on the House of Correction and re-commissioned him for this state venture.  Once work began, Frederick and the Board quickly realized that the building was in much worse condition than imagined.  The cellar was too small to hold a heater, the floors had settled unevenly and were unsafe, and the roof was covered with tin which leaked and rotted the wood underneath.  Once the building was stripped to address these repairs, it needed to be plastered and painted.  And as Groome testified on behalf of the Board of Public Works, having redone the entire building, it would seem awkward to simply put back the old furniture.  “We could have finished in a plain, simple and Quaker-like way,” he said, “But…if we did the work slovenly and in a plain manner, we did not think we would be justified in exceeding the appropriation.”

And they certainly exceeded the appropriation.  The budget of $32,000 more than tripled to $111,388.29.  In 1878 the House of Delegates appointed a Select Committee to Investigate the Repairs upon the State House.  They heard testimony from the Board of Public Works, Frederick, and all contractors involved in the repairs.  After concluding that it was not the 1876 Legislature’s fault for appropriating so little money—they had no way of knowing the extent of the building’s damage—and pardoning the Board of Public Works for simply insuring the safety of elected officials, the Select Committee placed blame squarely on the architect, George Frederick.  While the government officials were not to blame for failing to realize the magnitude of the repairs until the building was torn apart, Frederick should not have put in such a low bid.  The Committee questioned both the Board and Frederick on the 5% commission for the project, implying that he added costs in order to raise his compensation.  While the government begrudgingly paid the contractors and suppliers, Frederick never received payment for working on the State House.

Compton remained treasurer until 1885.  More work was done on the State House, including a complete repair of the dome by Joseph M. Marshall and improvements to the grounds.  Compton resigned as treasurer after winning the 1884 election for the U.S. House of Representatives for Maryland’s 5th District.  He was elected consecutively until the contested election of 1889 but retook his seat after one year and held it until 1894.  Compton took an active role in both Congressional and state affairs.  In 1890 he accepted the chairmanship of the Democratic State Central Committee, then in 1892 was the chairman of Maryland’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.   In 1894 President Cleveland appointed Compton Naval Officer of the Port of Baltimore, a position that required Compton to resign his post as chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee.

Compton’s elections were far more contentious than his actions in Congress.  His friendship and association with Senator Arthur P. Gorman placed Compton within the perceived “ring” of Democrats that controlled the Maryland politics.  During his 1888 election the Evening Capital bemoaned the fact that the “ring” prevented any other Democrat from running against Compton for the nomination.  Instead, “antiring” Democrats were forced to vote for a Republican candidate.  A year later, Compton unexpectedly lost the 5th District seat to Republican Sydney E. Mudd.   Mudd claimed that he had been deprived of votes as election officials rejected qualified voters and Democrats from Baltimore impersonating U.S. Deputy Marshalls intimidated colored voters in Anne Arundel County.  The committee investigating voter fraud ruled in favor of Mudd, but Compton won the seat back the next year.

Outside of his political career, Compton taught practical agriculture at Maryland Agricultural College and sat on the board of trustees for Charlotte Hall Academy, the School Commission of Charles County, and the Maryland Insane Asylum.  In 1890 he had been appointed Director of the Citizens National Bank of Laurel, a position he held until his death, and in 1898 was made president of the Guarantee Building and Loan Association of Baltimore.

Unable to maintain their plantation after emancipation, the Comptons sold Rosemary Lawn in 1872 and moved to Baltimore with their two daughters and soon to be four sons.  They settled permanently in Laurel, Prince George’s County, MD, in 1880.  Sons John Henry and Barnes became assistant treasurer and clerk of B&O Railroad, respectively; Key was an agent of the Bay Line at Norfolk and William Penn, a graduate of Georgetown University, a physician in Washington D.C.

The elder Barnes’ heart had long been affecting him, but he fell ill to double vision and head pain in November of 1898.  On December 2nd Barnes died of paralysis.  After his death he was buried in Baltimore’s Loudon Cemetery.  Margaret Compton was an invalid when her husband died, and she too passed away on June 12, 1900.  She gave her furniture, stocks and bonds, personal savings, her house on Washington Avenue in Laurel and the farm "Lochlevlin" to her six children: Mary Barnes, John Henry Sothoron, Key, William Penn, Elizabeth S. Reese, and Barnes.

In perhaps a coincidental twist of irony, just below Barnes' obituary in the Annapolis Evening Capital was an article on the construction of new heated buildings and the installation of electricity at the House of Correction.  Not surprisingly, the cost was considerably more than expected.

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