The Strange Case of James Burnite SeBastian, DDS

Without the full story, you have to read between the lines, and this cabinet card photograph inscribed “Yours, J. B. SeBastian” offered lots of room to do just that.

The portrait, taken at the 17 W. Lexington Street studio of William Ashman (1863-1902), displays all the typical characteristics of a post-1900 card photograph: Oversized, simple black textured mount, understated advertising mark, plain background uncluttered by scenic backdrop or papier mache rocks and balustrades.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d found yet another graduate of the University of Maryland Dental Department.

He was listed among the 1902 graduates of the program in the commencement announcement published in the journal Dental Cosmos. I quickly found census and directory listings in Baltimore from 1903 on for a James Burnite Sebastian, dentist, born in Delaware about 1875.

He had an undistinguished career as a dentist, eventually buying a two-story, two-bay row house at 3521 Greenmount Avenue, just east of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, in a now-faded neighborhood called Waverly. The ca. 1920 house stands today, virtually unchanged.

Dr. Sebastian served in the US Army Dental Corps Reserves. In these records, his origin was listed as Wilmington, Delaware, born 18 October 1875. His wife, Caroline, applied in 1947 for an Army-provided headstone in Lorraine Park Cemetery, Baltimore, on the basis of his service, using this date of birth.

Things became odder from there, however.

I couldn’t find anything on Dr. Sebastian earlier than 1902.

After trying a number of different possible spellings and variations, I found the surname Bastian. Thanks to the efforts of a family historian on Ancestry.com, I then found an obituary for a Delaware farmer named George M. Bastian (1832-1909) that listed a son, a Baltimore dentist named James Burnite Bastian.

But what the what??

James Burnite Bastian, or J. Burnite Bastian, was already three years old in the 1870 census–not in Wilmington, Delaware, but near a small rural peach-growing and peach-packing town named Felton, in Kent County, Delaware. He was born a good seven or eight years earlier than he’d claimed.

This same portrait, under the name James B. Bastian, appears on page 133 in the 1902 year book for the professional schools of the University of Maryland, Bones, Molars and Briefs.

Why the name change? And why fudge his age–something more usual with women of the period?

His family was a perfectly respectable one: farmer George M. Bastian rated a sketch of his life and family history in volume two of the Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware.

This history suggested a clue to James’ change of surname. The sketch mentioned that the family traced its roots to a vague “Count Sebastian” who had fled some sort of unspecified royal persecution in the 18th century.

They had settled in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. George M. Bastian worked as a carpenter in Tioga County, Pa., eventually saving enough to buy a small farm in Delaware, where he and his wife, Rachel (Brion) Bastian (1836-1919), raised 10 children. George and Rachel Bastian are buried in Hopkins Cemetery, Felton, Delaware.

So James had reinvented himself in the city as a younger man with the legendary family surname, telling his classmates that he was 25 when in fact he was about 32 years old at the time he graduated from dental school. His signature on the back of this portrait connects the two parts of the surname with a capital “s” and a capital “b,” suggesting the self-consciousness of the change.

Vanity, thy name is SeBastian.

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