Black Magic Woman
I'm in Pikesville's Druid Ridge Cemetery, standing before the Agnus family plot -- final resting place of Felix Agnus, esteemed Union Army general and publisher of the Baltimore American newspaper. Agnus died in 1925, but for more than 40 years thereafter generations of local high school and college kids were drawn to this spot -- not on sunny afternoons, mind you, but in the gloom of midnight. They came not to pay homage to a noble Baltimorean, but to visit the life-size bronze statue that once adorned the Agnus plot. The seated figure draped with a vast cowl was known as Black Aggie, and she was "haunted," you see, capable of doing everything from snuffing out your life to helping you lose your virginity. If the evil forces were arrayed just right, the story went, Black Aggie's eyes would glow red and her metal arms would clutch you in an icy embrace.
Well, such are the legends. Joining me at the Agnus plot is a trio of local filmmakers -- Joshua Bell, 24; William "Kush" Kushnerick, 48; and Toni Mangione, 22 -- who hope to get to the bottom of Aggie's tales. Last fall, their company, GTL Productions, began to film a video documentary on Baltimore's most infamous lady and the history and horror that surround her.
"When I was growing up [in Dundalk], I heard stories that Black Aggie was an evil entity you could conjure up in a mirror," Bell says. Curious to learn more, he did an Internet search for "Black Aggie" and was "blown away" to discover a Web site tracing her origins to Baltimore. She seemed perfect fodder for a video documentary. (The trio bristles at the notion that their indie "Black Aggie Project" is reminiscent of the successful Maryland-based indie film The Blair Witch Project. "We use a tripod," Mangione asserts.) They did discover, however, that a Baltimore screenwriter is currently shopping an Aggie-based horror film around Hollywood.
So far, Bell, Kushnerick, and Mangione have interviewed a half-dozen folks who visited the Pikesville monument back in the day, including a retired cop who recalls painting the Aggie's eyes red in the '50s (he put ground glass in the paint to add sparkle), and an 85-year-old historian whose nocturnal visits to the statue began in the '40s. Some came to be scared; others had more prurient motivations: One tale had it that if you sat in Aggie's lap at midnight you would loose you virginity within 24 hours. "Of course," Mangione notes, "that brought hordes of people out."
This observation leads us to another Aggie myth: that nothing would grow in her shadow. "Well, if you had thousands of college kids tromping around you," Kushnerick says, "nothing would grow in your shadow either."
But there's more to this tale than fraternity stunts and beer-drenched tomfoolery. Completed in 1907, Aggie is an unauthorized freehand copy of a statue Henry Adams (grandson of President John Quincy Adams) commissioned from Augustus St.-Gaudens in the 1880s. Completed in 1891, this original was placed on the grave of Henry Adams' wife, Marian, in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Cemetery. (Marian Adams killed herself with cyanide in 1885; her husband was buried beside her in 1918.) The statue's name, "Grief," was bestowed upon it by none other than Mark Twain; according to Bell, the original "has never been molested or rumored to be haunted."
The moniker of "Grief"'s Pikesville cousin is obviously derived from Agnus, but how and when Black Aggie came to be seen as haunted is not clear; the spooky tales may date back to the '20s. In any event, in 1967 Aggie's rowdy nighttime trespassers -- who left graffiti and trash in their wake -- got to be too much. At the cemetery owner's urging, Felix Agnus' decedents gave the statue to the Smithsonian. Hesitant to display the bootleg bronze, the curators relegated Black Aggie to an outdoor storage lot.
Twelve years ago, she was rescued from obscurity by the General Services Administration, which placed the statue in the courtyard of a federal courthouse in Washington. This is where I find her, sitting in a groomed flower patch near where courthouse employees take their lunch breaks. The hooded figure is a tad ominous, but not all that scary, and the workers with whom I speak know nothing of her checkered history. Perhaps Aggie has finally been exorcised of evil. After decades of abuse, the bronze lady is finally resting in peace.
Did you have a close encounter with Black Aggie? Contact GTL Productions at (410) 284-4233 or GTLProductions@aol.com to share your tale.
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