By James H. Johnston
Francis Scott Key started his law practice in Frederick, Maryland and shared an office with his brother-in-law, future Chief Justice Roger Taney. Later, Key moved to Washington D.C. and practiced before the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. He is, of course, most famous for writing the words of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The occasion for the poem was Key’s witnessing British ships shelling Fort McHenry in Baltimore. He watched from one of the ships on which he was detained while trying to get the British to release a client of his. Key’s poem was later put to the tune of an old drinking song and became “The National Anthem.”
But this wasn’t a one-time foray into poetry for Key. He wrote it regularly, sometimes for amusement. For example, he filed this facetious habeas corpus petition with Judge James Morsell* of the Circuit Court:
May it please your honor to hear the petition
Of a poor old mare in a miserable condition,
Who has come this cold night to beg that your honor
Will consider her ease and take pity upon her.
Her master has turned her out in the street,
And the stones are too hard to lie down on, or eat;
Entertainment for horses she sees every where,
But, alas! there is none, as it seems, for a mare.
She has wandered about, cold, hungry, and weary,
And canâ€™t even get in the Penitentiary.
For the watchmen all swear it is more than they dare,
Or Mr. Edes either, to put the mayor there.
So she went to a lawyer to know what to do,
And was told she must come and lay her case before you,
That you an injunction or ha. cor. would grant;
And if that means hay and corn, it is just what I want.
Your petitioner, therefore, prays that your honor will not fail;
To send her to a stable and her master to jail;
And such other relief to grant as your honor may think meet,
Such as chopped straw or oats, for an old mare to eat.
With a trough full of these and a rack full of hay,
Your petitioner will ever, as in duty bound, pray.
Key turned to poetry on more serious occasions as well. When Judge Morsell’s wife died, Key dedicated this short poem to her. He entitled it “Mrs. Mary Ann Morsell, Who Departed This Life, April 1831, in the 32d Year of Her Age” and sent it to the Judge.
“A little while,” this narrow house prepared
By grief and love, shall hold the blessed dead;
“A little while,” and she who sleeps below
Shall hear the call to rise and live forever.
“A little while,” and ye who pour your tears
On this cold grave, shall waken in your own.
And ye shall see her, in robes of light,
And hear her song of triumph. Would ye then
Partake with her the bliss of that new life?
Tread now the path she brightly marked before ye!
Choose now her Lord! Live now her life! And yours
Shall be her hope and victory in death.
After Key died, his poems were published in book form as Poems of the Late Francis S. Key, Esq., Author of “The Star Spangled Banner” with an Introductory Letter by Chief Justice Taney. (Robert Carter and Brothers, New York, 1857, available online at Google Books). Mary Ann Morsell’s family had the poem with minor changes chiseled into a tablet that lies over her grave at Zion Episcopal Church in Charles Town, West Virginia. Roger Perry is a retired lawyer in Charles Town today, a member of the congregation at Zion, and a descendant of Judge James and Mary Ann Morsell. He says that the poem has become known simply as “In a Little While.” He inherited a chair, which he still has, that Key supposedly used when he visited the Judge and they played music together.
* For more on Judge Morsell, see “A First Step for Racial Equality in the Circuit Court of Washington”.