George Alfred Townsend’s The Entailed Hat

Time for something a little lighter!  I recently finished reading a literary curiosity, THE ENTAILED HAT, or Patty Cannon’s Times: a romance by George Alfred Townsend.  It was published in 1884 but is long out of print.  

Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1830, It has two plots.  One is a beauty-and-the-beast story about how circumstances cause a beautiful young woman to wed an ugly man who wears a very ugly hat.  The other is an action-adventure story, which graduallly takes over the novel, about an attempted rescue of victims of a criminal gang that kidnaps and sells black people, both enslaved and free.

George Alfred Townsend

The author was a best-selling writer of his time.  He was reportedly the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War and achieved fame for his reporting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

Later he become one of the first syndicated newspaper columnists and a fiction writer.  He used the pen name Gath, based on the Biblical version, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Askalon.”

The Entailed Hat is considered his best novel.  His character Meshach Milburn of Princess Anne, Somerset County, wears a hat passed down by his family through the eldest sons since the 17th century.  It is extremely ugly and makes him an object of ridicule, but he stubbornly continues to wear it out of family pride.

One day a pretty little girl, Vesta Custis, gives him a rose to put in his hat.  He is so touched that he falls in love with her and waits for her to grow up  so her can marry her.  

Although an uneducated backwoodsman (a “forester”) low on the social scale, Milburn quietly builds up a fortune over the years.   

At the same time, Vesta’s father, Judge Custis, invests the family fortune in a failed enterprise to smelt iron from low-grade “swamp ore.”   He finally gets to the point where he uses the same property twice for security on different loans, which means that he is in jeopardy of criminal charges as well as bankruptcy.

Milburn buys up all the judge’s IOUs and offers an exchange—a write-off of all his debts in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  The judge refuses.

Here the novel takes an unexpected turn.  Vesta interviews Milburn, evaluates the situation and concludes that he would be an adequate, non-abusive husband and that the benefits of marriage would exceed the costs.

Soon after the marriage, Milburn falls ill with fever and Vesta takes charge of his affairs.  She also takes charge of her father’s affairs.  Her example causes her father to reform and give up his bad habits.  She teaches Milburn social graces to make him acceptable in polite society—although she can’t persuade him to give up his hat.

About this time some of Vesta’s slaves and Milburn’s free black employee, Samson Hat, are kidnaped by members of Patty Cannon’s gang.  Patty Cannon was a real person, and her gang, operating near the Maryland-Delaware border, was once the terror of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Townsend’s portrait of the sociopathic Patty Cannon is chilling.  He depicts a person without compassion or conscience, who yet has her own kind of charm and charisma.

Also chilling is his depiction of how Cannon’s henchman, Joe Johnston, lures the naive teenage boy, Levin Dennis, into joining the band and then starts to groom him for a life of crime.

Click to enlarge.

Patty Cannon is eventually captured and dies in prison before being brought to trial.  As with Jeffrey Epstein, the fact that she will not testify is a relief to all the prominent people with whom she did business.

Jimmy Phœbus, a swarthy ethnic Greek, is the closest thing the novel has to an action hero.  People see him as on the borderline between white and black.  He is good friends with the black man, Samson Hat.  The Cannon gang capture him and decide he is dark enough to sell as a slave.  But he escapes and outwits them in the end.

Townsend didn’t idealize the black characters, but he doesn’t caricature them either.  They all have their own points of view and their own distinct personalities.

Interestingly, he sympathetically depicts a young white man in love with a young slave woman.  But the ancestry of the particular slave woman is more than half white, which would make it more acceptable.. The reader’s mental picture of the couple would resemble Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Click to enlarge.

The Custis slaves are treated as members of the family, much like the family servants in British Victorian novels.  There is an abolitionist character who is presented sympathetically, but the reader is left with the impression that, on the whole, slavery in Maryland wasn’t all that bad. 

But the Eastern Shore is where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman grew up in slavery and Tubman returned via the Underground Railroad to lead other enslaved people to freedom.  Maybe slavery in Maryland wasn’t as bad on average as in Mississippi or Spanish Cuba, but that doesn’t mean it was tolerable..

Townsend was a great descriptive writer.  He was a native of the region he writes about.  His descriptions of scenery and historic buildings and his sidelights on Maryland history would be interesting to anyone who is interested in American regional history.

The book is hard to get, and I thank Judith Judson for lending me her copy.

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