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Grave Circumstances

Sentiment, Skullduggery, and Eerie Sights in Baltimore's Cities of the Dead

Tom Chalkley
Tom Chalkley
Tom Chalkley

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/31/2001

I live at the edge of the Most Holy Redeemer cemetery in Gardenville--resting place of thousands of Roman Catholic Baltimoreans, a sloping lawn so vast it shows up on satellite photographs. People sometimes ask whether growing up beside a graveyard has a weird effect on children. If anything, it teaches them that mortality is a normal part of the landscape. "Why are graveyards supposed to be spooky?" my 6-year-old asks. From her perspective, it's a fair question. Most Holy Redeemer is a tidy, sunny, peaceful part of her world.

Here, the lonely, anonymous feeling that's common to most graveyards is relieved somewhat by the presence of photographs on many of the headstones. The pictures, set in oval medallions, typically show the deceased as they appeared in youth or midlife; a few are wedding portraits. Nearly all the photographs appear on older stones bearing Italian names; the practice is said to have come over from the old country. The photo-enhanced monument of Mr. and Mrs. Shidlowski is a prominent exception. My guess is that Mrs. S. had Italian parents.

As cemeteries go, Most Holy Redeemer is a lively place. At least one Hollywood production (Home for the Holidays) and one episode of Homicide used the cemetery as a backdrop. No week goes by without funerals, and visitors constantly prowl the lanes looking for loved ones. Mother's and Father's days, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Easter are especially active, providing a brisk trade for neighbors who sell grave decorations from their front lawns.

The plastic flowers, bows, and gewgaws fade and fray over time, and blow from their intended graves. I've seen Dumpsters filled with them. Nonbiodegradable fake flowers have always struck me as a strange way to honor those who are returning to dust, but traditions needn't make sense--nor must they exhibit good taste.

Some commemorative customs are unlikely to crop up at Most Holy Redeemer. At Baltimore's many Jewish cemeteries, visitors sometimes leave pebbles and rocks on top of gravestones, a folkway so deep-seated that there's not even a standard legend to explain it. The Jewish Book of Why, by Alfred Kolatch, offers only that it is "a symbolic act indicating that members of a family or friends have not forgotten the deceased."

Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Northwest Baltimore suggests a possible clue in Scripture, noting that the Old Testament hero Jacob placed a stone over his wife Rachel's tomb. "We don't know why, probably to keep animals away--that would be an anthropological interpretation," he says, then adds a more rabbinical note: "The stones are reminders of our souls. The material of the stones is imperishable, as are our souls."

At Mikro Kodesh Cemetery on Bowley's Lane, the majority of the gravestones are pebble-free. Still, it's not hard to find a massive granite slab graced by a single, incongruously tiny stone, placed top and center, or by two pebbles positioned symmetrically. A few monuments have every available flat surface crowded with rocks of all descriptions, ranging up to the size of bricks. Unlike plastic flowers (which are rare at Jewish cemeteries), the rocks don't easily blow away to litter the grounds. Some thoughtful folks, however, worry that fallen stones might get caught by lawn mowers. They prefer to leave tufts of grass as their calling cards. Either way, it's a beautifully austere tradition.

On the far extreme from austerity, there's one gravestone at Mount Auburn Cemetery that is regularly dressed in clothing and showered with gifts. The last time I visited the old African-American burial ground in Westport, I found the pale monument of the Holsey family decked out with a small white cap, a short-sleeved white shirt, a gown of blue-and-white batik, and five strings of beads. It looked like a small Moslem woman, faceless inside her burka.

The Holsey plot hearkens to Africa, unlike the rest of Mount Auburn, where decorations tend to be the conventional, store-bought kind. Next to the shrouded monument stands a stunted tree festooned with ribbons, plastic flowers, and gallon jugs full of water. Dried-up oranges lie in the grass and on top of three smaller Holsey-family markers, two of which are inscribed with phrases in a Nigerian language and embellished with ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. I'm told that visitors sometimes leave Tootsie Rolls.

No one leaves candy for Filippo Marino. The marker for young Filippo (1899-1903) stands alone beside a footpath in the woods of Herring Run Park. For years it lay nearby on the forest floor, but recently a thoughtful passerby took the trouble to stand the little monument up and brush it off. It's obvious that the stone doesn't belong here in the woods. Months ago, one of our neighborhood leaders told me that it came from a graveyard in Clifton Park. I've since learned that there used to be other gravestones piled here as part of a rubble fill. After neighbors complained, the city plowed soil over them.

It took a little detective work to confirm that, indeed, this stray headstone came from the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, which occupies a wind-swept hillside in the midst of the Clifton Park Golf Course. According to Jane Bromley Wilson's indispensable The Very Quiet Baltimoreans: A Guide to the Historic Cemeteries and Burial Sites of Baltimore, this modest plot--listed in the book as a "vanished cemetery"--used to hold so many Italian and Portuguese immigrants that some people called it the "dago cemetery." The entry notes that "little remains but a few stones around a small stand of trees," and that "tombstones removed in the mid-1980s were reportedly dumped in Herring Run."

According to records at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Filippo Marino was buried on Jan. 4, 1903. No word about his baptism or parentage--but that's not the end of the story.

The Rev. Richard Lawrence, St. Vincent de Paul's pastor, was surprised to hear the ethnic slur about the cemetery, but he snorted when I told him that the standard reference work on Baltimore cemeteries lists it as "vanished." He told me to look all the way around the old polo-pony barn that serves as a Clifton Park utility building. Sure enough, I found about 30 gravestones, piled or laid flat in four distinct clusters, all overgrown with weed trees and rough turf. Many Italian names are represented among the stones, some of which have oval-shaped cavities where photographs used to be affixed.

Lawrence explained that from the 1950s through the mid-'70s, the cemetery was subjected to vandalism, much of it inflicted by a teenage gang with a ghoulish initiation ritual. Would-be members had to sneak into the graveyard at night and remove a body from one of the mausolea (Lawrence uses the correct plural for mausoleum) that used to line one edge of the property. The corpse would be dumped on the ninth tee of the golf course, adjacent to the cemetery. Finally, the candidate was required to spend the night in the very tomb that he'd robbed. "Many a time I got calls out there to reclaim bodies from the green," the priest recalls. He confesses that he fantasized about hiding out among the tombs with a portable PA, waiting until one of the miscreants settled in for his gruesome nap, then booming out, "What are you doing in my house?"

For years the church and the city (which owns the golf course) had wrangled over selling the property, disposing of the bodies, and squelching the vandals. Conditions worsened. Some human remains were set on fire. In the late '70s, a golfer was horrified to find a recently buried infant on the ninth tee. After more fruitless meetings with the city, Lawrence says, the church got the authority to tear down the mausolea, bury the bodies, and stockpile the gravestones so vandals and thieves wouldn't know where to dig.

Lawrence himself did much of the work, but he also got a last laugh. One day, he says, he was digging a hole for one of the evicted corpses when along came a pair of youthful trespassers. "I'm stripped to the waist, covered with sweat and dirt, and these two kids were taking a shortcut, which they knew they weren't supposed to. They came up and said, 'What are you doing, mister?' I looked up real blankly and said, 'Diggin' a grave.' They asked, 'Who's it for?' And I looked straight at 'em and said, 'I don't know. I haven't decided yet.' They gave me one of the scaredest looks I've ever seen on a face and took off." Lawrence chuckles. "I don't know, the devil made me do it."

The gang activities at St. Vincent de Paul rank with the ugliest grave desecrations in Baltimore history, but some might argue that a more cold-blooded crime was committed nearby in the 1950s, on the 2300 block of Belair Road. Founded there in 1852, the Laurel Colored Cemetery was once the preferred burial place for the city's African-American civic leaders, clergy, and Civil War veterans. By 1929, however, Laurel had deteriorated; in 1937, the Belair Road Improvement Association petitioned the city to sell the property. Fifteen years later, its condition was still scandalous, with high weeds, sunken graves, and lurking vagrants. Richard Lelonek, chairperson of the Belair-Edison Improvement Association's board, still remembers the grotesque conditions. "You had innocent children going in there," he says, "playing with human skulls and whatnot." In 1952, the company that owned the site went bankrupt.

Seeing an opportunity, seven employees of the city's Law Department formed a private firm called the McKamer Realty Co. and bought Laurel for $100 in 1957. Conveniently, one of the partners, Carl Bacharach, was also a member of the state House of Delegates. With fellow delegate (and future governor) Marvin Mandel, he successfully sponsored legislation that allowed McKamer to close the graveyard and remove the bodies. Some relatives of the deceased only learned of the cemetery's destruction when they happened to drive by and see bulldozers knocking over gravestones.

Although newspaper accounts of the time report that all the dead were removed, The Very Quiet Baltimoreans states that, out of more than 3,000 recorded burials, just 400 to 500 identified remains were relocated to a site in Carroll County, near the African-American hamlet of Johnsville. A number of Civil War veterans' graves had previously been moved to West Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery.

Ultimately, McKamer Realty seems to have lost money on the parcel, which it sold in 1958 for $15,500, the price the firm had paid just to exhume and re-bury the remains. The property was developed as a shopping center that has, for the last two decades, suffered a remarkable rate of turnover among its tenants--a fact that struck me long before I learned about Laurel Cemetery. The current occupants are a Food Depot and a Maxway store.

Earlier this month I asked the manager at the Food Depot if the store had experienced any supernatural problems. "No," he said blandly. "Heard any stories from the neighborhood?" "There have been a few stories," he allowed, about "bad luck in the area--but not ghosts." He knew about the long-gone graveyard, however, and said there were still a few stones to be found among the trees on the edge of the parking lot. I looked but found nothing. I spoke to a few folks sitting on porches and called a number of the neighborhood's community leaders. Some remembered the cemetery, but nobody else even mentioned bad luck.

Green Mount Cemetery, crown jewel of Baltimore graveyards, owes its fame to its famous residents: governors of Maryland, mayors of Baltimore, philanthropists Johns Hopkins and Enoch Pratt, the scandalous Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, and many others. Biographies of its tenants abound, but tales about the cemetery itself are surprisingly few, considering the Gothic/romantic vibe of the place.

In the nonfiction department, Green Mount's best burial story is that of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, whose remains were secretly interred in an unmarked grave to forestall vandalism. As 19th-century morality frowned on Christian burial for unrepentant murderers, the rector who presided at Booth's funeral was, according to The Very Quiet Baltimoreans, "placed under ban of his church" for his transgression. Cemetery officials preserve the secrecy concerning the grave site, but it's assumed to be near the obelisk that honors Booth's family. Perversely, the unknown grave is the cemetery's hottest attraction.

Another yarn might have been inspired by Green Mount's air of Victorian melancholy. It's well known that most of the cemetery grounds originally belonged to Robert Oliver, one of Baltimore's early merchant princes; his mansion stood where the Gothic chapel stands today. As recounted in The Evening Sun 80 years ago, a "pretty and tragic legend" has it that one of Oliver's daughters fell in love with an unsuitable young man. In defiance of her father's wishes, she slipped off periodically to romantic trysts. When he found out about his daughter's disobedience, Oliver confined her to home and "declared that if ever the ardent and distasteful youth put foot on Green Mount again he would kill him." Undaunted, the girl disguised herself one evening in her brother's clothes and stole off to another forbidden rendezvous. On her return trip, she was sneaking back across the lawn, still cross-dressed, when her father (or, in some versions, the family gardener) spied her, mistook her for the banished boyfriend, and shot her dead. "[S]tricken with remorse," The Evening Sun recounted, "he declared that the girl must be buried where she fell, and so Green Mount became forever a city of the dead."

Several years later, an indignant descendant of the Oliver family wrote to the newspaper to debunk the story, pointing out that Robert Oliver had four daughters, two of whom died as young children and two of whom grew up and married. None was buried at Green Mount. Robert Oliver himself was originally buried elsewhere, then relocated to Green Mount. Officially, at least, he's the only Oliver on the site.

If there are such things as spooks, perhaps graveyards are the last place to look for them. Cemeteries, after all, are where the dead are properly "laid to rest"--or are supposed to be. Even at the Laurel Cemetery site, where the remains of hundreds may yet lie beneath a parking lot, I found little rumor of unquiet souls. And last year around this time, when two other City Paper writers and I fanned out in search of fresh ghost tales, we found none set in cemeteries.

However, soon after our ghost-story story went to press last year, my friend Andy Todaro passed on a rather cheerfully spooky incident involving the well-groomed Parkwood Cemetery on Taylor Avenue. Andy's two sisters had been out shopping together, with the older sister's two small children along for the ride. The younger sister had been recently widowed. On their way home, the women decided to stop by the cemetery to visit the grave of the late husband. They didn't tell the children where they were going, or why.

As soon as they got out of the car, the kids dashed off in the direction of their uncle's grave, some distance from the road. The sisters watched with concern as the children began hopping up and down and laughing at the grave site. They rushed over to intervene, and the children turned to them, pointing at the empty air. "It was Uncle Chris!" they said, "He was right here!"

Happy Hallowe'en.

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