Who got Johns’ house?
December 8, 2010 |  by Dale Keiger

Henry S. Cohn, A&S ’67, is a thorough reader. So when recently he finished the reissue of Helen Hopkins Thom’s biography Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), he read the appendices. And there he encountered a mystery.

The third chapter of Thom’s book, titled simply “Elizabeth,” concerns what may have been Johns Hopkins’ only true love, his first cousin Elizabeth. They wanted to marry, but her father, Johns’ uncle Gerard, forbade the union. Elizabeth and Johns remained close for the rest of his life—one of Elizabeth’s obituaries described them as “intimate associates”—and on page 28 Thom wrote, “In his will Johns Hopkins left Elizabeth the house in which she lived, which had come to him from his father’s estate, and was located at the northeast corner of St. Paul and Franklin streets.” What a nice end to a sad story. But Cohn, the thorough reader, didn’t stop at the book’s last page. He continued through to the book’s second appendix, which happened to be Hopkins’ last will and testament. “It was in the back of the book,” Cohn says, “and when I read it eight times I couldn’t find anything about Elizabeth. So I decided to look into it further.”

When Cohn, a Connecticut superior court judge for the last 13 years, realized the record as established by Thom’s book—and a subsequent article written for Johns Hopkins Magazine in 1974 by then Hopkins archivist Kathryn Jacob, which repeated the story of the house—probably was incorrect, he began digging. He searched city directories, Gerard Hopkins’ and Johns Hopkins’ wills, deeds in the Maryland archives, maps of Baltimore, everything he could think of, and eventually worked his way to Francis P. O’Neill, reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society. O’Neill sent him a detailed letter confirming that there was no evidence that the house at 21 Franklin Street ever was willed to Elizabeth. O’Neill said Hopkins instead may have sold it to some of the cousins, though “proof of this is lacking.”

Current Hopkins archivist James Stimpert offers another theory: “One possible explanation is that Hopkins gave the house to [Elizabeth] prior to his death; perhaps she needed a place to live and Johns decided it wasn’t right to make her wait until his death before receiving what he intended to give her. If I remember correctly, Elizabeth isn’t mentioned in the will at all. Given that Hopkins went on for pages giving small sums and minor items of property to relatives, acquaintances, former servants, etc., it would have been unusual for him to have given nothing to his cousin.”

Says Cohn, “I just wanted to get the historical record correct, you know?” As to how Thom got it wrong, Cohn speculates that as a great-niece of Johns, she simply gave too much credence to family stories. “You get these family legends and they dominate things,” he says. “It just kind of snowballs.”