In the state capital you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a portrait of a lord, lady or other more important figure in Maryland history.
But the story of Lord Benjamin and his portrait is not one of those stories.
Because Lord Benjamin is a figment of a lawmaker’s impish imagination. A prank some might say went to an extreme. Others might say it was beneath the dignity and serious nature of the work of the General Assembly and Maryland Senate.
Others might say it was a victimless prank and that in the end harmed neither a person nor property.
“Look, you got to have a sense of humor around this place,” Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery, said as he stopped to talk to a reporter about the incident.
As Kramer spoke he reached into a bag to produce a tablet computer to show off the portrait. As he did so, he carefully avoided some of the antique furniture with signs warning not to sit.
“I’m already in trouble with the state archives,” he said. “Evidently it got some folks a little bit riled.”
First, in telling the story of the disappearance of a portrait of a faux lord that bears a striking resemblance to a certain senator from Montgomery County, it is important to note one thing: No historic artifacts were harmed or even moved — that would be wrong.
Kramer conjured the 18th century Lord Benjamin, “founder of Benjaminland later renamed Maryland,” as an April Fools prank.
“It was a little bit of history people just didn’t know anything about,” said Kramer. “For April Fools, it needed to be brought out that there’s just a little bit about Maryland history that folks didn’t understand.”
Kramer was all in.
He ordered a full costume, including a wig. The background including books and a gavel were inspired by a portrait of Thomas Stone, which hangs in the Senate Chamber across the room from where Kramer sits.
“Lord Benjamin’s” pose was inspired by the portrait of William Paca that hangs on the same wall as Johnson.
From there, Kramer posed for the photo in front of a fireplace hearth in his home. He used a computer program to turn the photo into what appears to be a painted portrait and sent if off to have a large print made.
Kramer built and painted a frame using nothing more than materials readily available from a big-box home improvement stores.
A large brass plaque tells the story of Lord Benjamin, who sent his men off to fight the fictitious “Battle of Cow-Pie Hill.” Lord Benjamin went home.
The State House and related office buildings across the street are both the seat of state government and, in part, a living museum to Maryland history. Nothing displayed in those buildings is done haphazardly. All of it is cared for and overseen by the State Archives.
The alcove in the James Senate Office building was once home to the official portrait of Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the longest-serving president of the upper chamber. But that nook has been empty since Miller’s portrait was moved to the back of the Senate chamber.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Kramer had just the idea to fill it.
So he came in one recent Sunday evening and installed his faux lord ancestor.
“I thought it could go days without anyone noticing it,” said Kramer. “We see these things hanging everywhere. I figured it would go days, maybe weeks and no one would notice it hanging on the wall there. It was noticed.”
By mid-Monday, the jig was up.
Did we mention the buildings are part government and part museum? One thing both establishments have in common are surveillance cameras just like the one that is on the wall next to the alcove that was Lord Ben’s temporary home.
“It didn’t last too long,” said Kramer. “It went up on Sunday night and by midday Monday, evidently our friends at the archives discovered it was on display. I’ve learned all of this now. I didn’t know that they oversee anything and everything that gets hung over there.”
The portrait was removed. Kramer said he was told someone from the state archives may have initially moved it.
“I have since been told that there’s just not a lot of humor with some of those folks and so be it,” said Kramer.
Kramer said some Maryland State Troopers came to “investigate” and quickly noticed the resemblance to the senator.
But soon the senator began to seek the return of Lord Benjamin.
I approached the Senate president and indicated I was going to start a “free Lord Benjamin” movement if it was not sprung from the holding cell,” said Kramer. “It is now in my office. It has been returned to me from the jail cell.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the last day or so, word of the portrait has made the rounds in Annapolis. Some have even visited Kramer’s office on the fourth floor of the Miller Senate Office Building to see it.
“I think there is some concern that it may start popping up in other places,” said Kramer. “I’ll say it’s exceedingly tempting.”