Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Mansion, a General, and a Cannonball: Part Three

Early in 1815, the townspeople of Thompsontown, Pennsylvania, gathered around a large metal ball in the middle of the street.

“What could it be?” said one man wearing red suspenders.

Another man walked carefully around it. “It must have fallen from the sky.”

“Oh, something terrible is going to happen,” said a woman in a calico dress. Read More

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” said a tall, thin man. “See here, I’ll move it.” He grabbed the ball and… couldn’t budge it.
Thompsontown, before Oct. 1906 

“Let me try,” a sturdy young lad pushed his way through the crowd. Grasping it on both sides, he rolled it, but also couldn’t lift it.

Already standing next to the ball, short but stocky Mrs. Kessler laughed and stooped down. She managed to raise it a few inches off the ground before dropping it again.

Just then, Louis and Frederick Evans arrived driving a wagon with a team of horses.

“The Evans brothers! You’re back! Glad to see you. Do you know what this thing is?” asked a white-bearded gentleman.

“Why sure, that’s a cannonball. Dang thing rolled off our wagon last night. We came back to get it.” With that word, the two lifted the cannonball onto the wagon while the astonished crowd silently watched. Turning to them, Frederick said, “Meet me tonight at McGarey’s Tavern. I’ll tell you all about how we got it. Right now my brother and I need to get back home.”  Both jumped back up on the seat of the wagon. Louis picked up the reins and the brothers headed for the road that led out of town.


The fictionized account above is based on what historians recorded long ago. One of the cannonballs which flew into Fort McHenry during the September 14, 1814 bombardment, the night Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star Spangled Banner," did not explode, but rolled around in the fort. Captain Frederick Evans from Thompsontown extinguished the still spitting fuse then later removed the gunpowder from inside.

Upon arriving home after the war, Captain Evans and his brother, now Brigadier General Lewis Evans, drove through Thompsontown in the middle of the night with the cannonball in a wooden box in their wagon. The cannonball broke out of the box and rolled to the ground. Being so late, the brothers left it until morning. When they came back for it, the townspeople had gathered around it speculating about what it was. Mrs. Kessler did actually pick it up even though it weighed over 150 pounds.*

The brothers put the cannonball on display at the family sawmill where it stayed until the sawmill and its contents came up for sale in 1917. Mr. Bower, a descendant of Captain Frederick Evans, purchased it for $150. One of Mr. Bower's sons bought it in 1937 for $40 at his father's estate sale and loaned it for an indefinite time period to Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland, for exhibition.

The cannonball measured 18 inches in diameter according to the 1937 documentation from George A. Palmer, then superintendent of Fort McHenry. Mr. Palmer called it an “excellent specimen and very rare.” In a letter to Mr. Bower, Mr. Palmer said it had been sand blasted to remove the rust and treated with linseed oil.

Mr. and Mrs. O’Day, who owned the General Evans House for a time, saw the cannonball at Fort McHenry in 1998. The fort keeps it in a Plexiglass case to protect the name, “Capt. Frederick Evans,” engraved on it. Mr. Seth Moseby, who now possesses the General Evans House, says that Mr. Bower eventually turned over ownership of the cannonball to Fort McHenry.

Here is a picture of a reproduction of the cannonballs fired on Fort McHenry. John's Military History Page
History of that Part of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys
Juniata County Historical Society records, Evans file, accessed June 29, 2016.
Mott, Jane Cannon. "Famed Bomb had a Home in Thompsontown." Landmarks, Legends and Folklore of the Juniata Valley, The Sentinel, 1999.
*Ellie & Hungerford wrote the weight as 186 lbs. Documentation from Fort Henry reads 158 lbs. Winey relates that Captain Evans took the gun powder out of it. 

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