The Preston Family Papers document three generations of a family who lived in Baltimore and Baltimore County from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The Preston and McNeal families enjoyed the privileges of the upper middle class: education at private schools, travel to Europe, and the social connections of prominent citizens of the city. For both families, the Catholic faith was an important part of their daily lives.
William P. Preston (1811-1880) was born in Virginia. In his late teens he lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and by 1839 was an attorney in Baltimore. On August 12, 1846, at St. John's Catholic Church in Philadelphia, he married Margaret "Madge" Wickham Smith (1815-1895), daughter of Andrew Smith and Anne Wickham of Frederick County, Maryland. In her youth, Madge attended St. Joseph's Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and spent time with her older sister, Louisa, who lived in Mountain View, Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. Once married, Madge spent much of her time managing the farm at Pleasant Plains and their residence in Baltimore, raising her daughter, and writing about her daily life.
William Preston's law practice required him to travel frequently to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The Prestons maintained a residence and law office in Baltimore and a farm, Pleasant Plains, near Towson, Maryland, in Baltimore County. Among their family friends were the philanthropist Johns Hopkins and A.S. Abell, founder of the Baltimore Sun. Active in the politics of his day, William Preston ran for Congress in 1859. Shortly before the 1859 election, Preston was attacked and hit over the head, possibly by the Baltimore street gang, the Plug Uglies. He was seriously injured and for the rest of his life may have suffered physical and mental difficulties as a result. The incident is remembered in a line from the song "Plug Uglies!!": "There's their Billy Preston, they beat him out of sight…." The injury may have precipitated his spousal abuse of Madge Preston and also the initiation of her diary writing in 1860. In her diaries, Madge wrote of a personality change that is displayed in his angry outbursts towards her. William was also an ardent supporter of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. In 1863 he visited Gettysburg shortly after the battle and described the scene in detail to his wife. The Prestons expressed strong Confederate sentiments throughout their diaries and correspondence.
The Prestons had one daughter, May Preston McNeal (1849-1913), who, like her mother, attended St. Joseph's Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a Catholic boarding school for girls. May and Madge often corresponded while May was away at school during the Civil War. They frequently discuss daily life at school and at home, including the slaves and free black and white servants that lived at Pleasant Plains and at their Baltimore residence. May Preston had a personal slave, Kitty Mason, whom she left at home while attending school. Other slaves and free blacks at Pleasant Plains mentioned in family diaries and letters include Elizabeth "Lizzie" Johnson, Jim, Uncle Isaac Woodlands, and Aunt Nancy Woodlands. Following May's graduation in 1867, May and Madge toured Europe for several months. They visited France, Germany, England, and Italy.
May married Joshua "Van" Vansant McNeal (1846-1917) on May 19, 1873. He was the son of a Baltimore Catholic family. Van spent his early career in insurance and the remainder working for the railroad. He retired in 1916 as a vice president and treasurer of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. From 1880 to 1893, the McNeals lived in Indianapolis and then returned to Baltimore for the remainder of their lives.
The McNeals had eight children. Mark (1874-1934), Stella (1877-1965), James Preston Wickham (1878-1954), and Marie (1885-19?) survived to adulthood; four others died in childhood. Mark was a Jesuit priest and taught in Japan. Stella never married and lived with her parents until their deaths; she resided with a nephew in Connecticut at her death. James was a lawyer who married and had one son and two grandchildren; he resided in New Haven at his death. Marie married Renato Tittoni (1882-1943), a U.S. Marine Corps officer, in 1909; they had one son, Tommaso Preston (1912-1937).