Slavery’s Survivor

Posted on 02.03.14 – Feature

Miss Ruthie was a nice old lady who liked to tell stories and eat sweets … and who had a remarkable past.

To most people, the practice of slavery in the United States is as distant as it is repugnant. The Civil War ended nearly a century and a half ago, putting a rest to the slavery question and providing a seismic cultural exclamation point to the national psyche.

But former slaves continued to live in many parts of the country, Frederick County included. One of those was a woman whom most local people just knew as the friendly old lady with a famous sense of humor and an infamous sweet tooth. But what most people didn’t know about Ruth Brown Bowie—“Miss Ruthie” as she was commonly known—was she was also something of an historical figure in the county.

When she died in 1955, she was believed to be the oldest person in Frederick County—anywhere from 105 to 110 years old, depending on which account was used. More significantly, she was believed to be the last surviving county resident born into slavery. That’s right: In the midst of the 1950s—in the days of Elvis and Ike and I Love Lucy—lived a woman who was once a slave.

Murky Records

There’s no official record of Ruth Brown’s birth in the mid-19th century. As a result, the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as 40 years old, but by the 1920 census she had somehow aged 25 years. “Nobody knows just how old Miss Ruthie is, least of all Miss Ruthie herself,” Betty Sullivan wrote for The Frederick Post in March 1955. Sullivan noted that Ruth couldn’t even remember celebrating a birthday as a child.

She is believed to have been born on the Asbury Mullinix Farm in Montgomery County. However, Kay Mehl wrote in the Sun Magazine in 1955 that Bowie was born elsewhere and “’just a toddler’ when sometime before the war she was sold in Montgomery County to a family named Mullinix.” The Asbury Mullinix farm was located at Long Road off Long Corner Road in Damascus. It was part of a small community called Mullinix Mill that has since burned down. Ruth’s parents were Letha and Wesley Brown.

Marilyn Veek, a research assistant at the Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz Public Library, found the description of Asbury Mullinix’s slaves in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. In those documents, slaves are listed by their description and owner, rather than their name. In 1850, Mullinix owned seven slaves, including females ages 28, 14 and 6 months. On the 1860 Slave Schedule, he owned nine slaves, including three females ages 11, 8 and 4.

“Since Ruth Bowie’s obituary indicates that she may have been born between 1845 and 1850, it is theoretically possible that she could be the female slave aged 6 months in 1850 and the female slave aged 11 years in 1860,” Veek says. Veek also notes that Ruth’s parents were listed in the regular 1860 census, which implies they may have been freed by then. That census also only lists them as having a single daughter, a 1-year-old named Ann. “One possibility is that they had been freed by Asbury Mullinix, but that their older children had not, and remained as slaves on his farm,” Veek says.

Bob Hilton, a great-great-grandson of Asbury Mullinix, offers another possibility. The Browns could have been freed slaves who still worked for the Mullinixes. “Asbury had a habit of freeing slaves at 30 years old,” Hilton says. “[But] they just never left the place.”

Hilton says Mullinix had a paternalistic view of his slaves, pointing to letters his ancestor exchanged with a doctor in Virginia. In the letters, the doctor argued that slaves aren’t human while Mullinix wrote that, yes, they are human, but they are like children who need to be cared for. The Browns were still living in the same area in the 1870 census and, adding to the mystery of Miss Ruthie, they are listed as having three daughters, Ellen, Mary and Susan. Ruth Brown’s name is not included.

The Life of a Slave

Letha Brown was a house servant and cook for the Mullinixes while Wesley was a field hand, and young Ruth was raised to follow her mother’s footsteps. “Well she remembers the days of her slavery when custom permitted owners to wield the whip ‘for the least little thing’ and little Ruthie often felt the sting of the switch,” Sullivan wrote.

Ruth’s experience with this came from her interactions with Asbury’s wife, Elizabeth Mullinix, whom she called “Ol’ Missy.” Hilton says he has no doubt that Ruth was beaten by Ol’ Missy. “She treated everybody like that, not just Ruth,” Hilton says. “Family stories say she was a crazy woman.”

For the most part, Ruth worked in the main house, according to published accounts. She would wash and iron clothes, clean house and take care of the Mullinix children. “Often she would sit on a three-legged stool, crooning to the baby while her mistress in long hooped skirts worked a spinning wheel across the room,” Mehl wrote.

During Ruth’s childhood, the Mullinix farm switched from growing tobacco to general farming. This meant that fewer slaves were needed to handle the workload. “Tobacco had blighted the land and general farming wasn’t as labor-intensive as tobacco farming,” Hilton says. So Mullinix reduced the number of slaves he owned. The ones he freed and who chose to remain on the farm helped with the raising of corn, wheat and cattle.

The Civil War

As the country split in two during the Civil War, Ruth had memories of soldiers riding along the country roads in Montgomery County. Some of them would camp near the Mullinix farm, steal horses or just generally frighten people.

Nearly a century later, Ruth still remembered the day soldiers broke into the main house looking for food. She heard them coming and hid behind a sugar barrel. One of the soldiers found her and yelled, “I’m hungry!” She couldn’t recall if the soldier was Union or Confederate. “They’s meat in the pot an’ bread in the box,” Ruth whispered in fright. The soldiers took the meat and bread and left without causing any more problems except that the family went hungry that night.

Another day that Ruth never forgot was April 14, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. What’s less certain is whether she attended the Gettysburg Address two years prior.

“Now she doesn’t know, but young friends say years ago she used to talk about that great day in Pennsylvania and they’re prone to believe that she was there,” Sullivan wrote.

Ruth stayed with the Mullinixes until she married Charles Bowie in 1880. He had fought in the war on the Union side. After the war ended, he returned to Frederick County to work for Dr. T. E.R. Miller until Bowie fell off a wagon, injuring his right arm so badly that it had to be amputated.

By the turn of the of century, the Bowies were listed as living in a log home along Lewistown Pike in Lewistown, which they would call home for most of the rest of their lives. They had four children together, but none of them lived to adulthood. Charles Bowie died in 1920.

The Frederick News reported that Ruth was older than 100 in 1946. The newspaper ran a short article noting that Ruth’s doctor had decided she was too old to continue living alone. Her sight and hearing were still considered normal, but she had recently hurt her hip and her doctor wasn’t sure that she could continue caring for herself. “The first hundred years aren’t the hardest. It’s after the first hundred years that things begin to get tough,” she told the newspaper.

The Frederick Emergency Hospital, now Montevue Assisted Living, became Ruth’s new home. She became a fixture there sitting in her low broad-armed chair and relating her quickly fading memories to her friends who would come to visit.

“For a woman who has had only one day’s schooling in her life, she is remarkably discriminating in her choice of words. There was almost a wink in her smile when she related that she had not gone back to school after her teacher had whipped her on the first day because she was so ‘full of devilishness,’” Mehl wrote.

When her friends visited, they would often bring her treats of chicken, sugar cakes and peppermint candies, which were Ruth’s favorite foods. “I like peppermint candy best,” Ruth told the Sun Magazine.

According to Diane Grove, administrator at Montevue Assisted Living, Ruth was discharged from the emergency hospital on May 22, 1955, at the age of 107. Later that year, in deteriorating health, she was apparently readmitted. She passed away on Nov. 23 and was buried at Creagerstown Lutheran Church Cemetery—the final resting place for a victim of one of history’s most disturbing chapters.