“In the catacombs where ghostly bodies lie, in the silence you hear the screams go by.” ~Jackie Mae
by Jackie Mae
Westminster Hall was approaching. I looked along the long row of iron fencing as I approached from the west side. Dusk wasn’t far away and the setting sun played with the shadows and my imagination.
I could almost hear the children running, playing amongst the buildings from long ago. I heard the faint noise from a few rambling Model Ts going down the street with their distinct honk. Ladies in their feather-capped hats, long skirts flowing swishing in the occasional mud puddle. Men donned their bowler hats rushing to catch a street car.
Somehow the building standing tall and forbidding beyond the iron fence was calling to me; to walk among the many thousands that had come before. Did it want me to see and feel as others had before me or did it want something more sinister from me? I was compelled, I walked on.
The Iron Gate slowly opened for me. A faint whiff of boxwoods, this I always associated with “old,” reaffirmed in my mind that I was walking among the dead. A few feet in, Edgar Allan Poe’s tombstone sat. Alongside him, his beloved wife, Virginia, and his aunt, Maria Clemm lay. They were his best supporters.
Unfortunately, shortly before his untimely death, he was about to be married to Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, who came from a wealthy family. Her family was very much against the union, and had, in fact, ended their engagement many years before.
There is much speculation as to what happened to Mr. Poe in the hours leading up to his death. One of the more popular possibilities is that Mr. Poe was a victim of cooping. This was a, not so uncommon, practice in the corrupt political system in the 1800s. Men would force their victims to change clothes and repeatedly vote for the candidate they wanted to win. Edgar Allan Poe was indeed found barely conscious with strange clothing on near a polling station.
I looked up from my wanderings and saw the entrance to the catacombs. The large wooden door, arched at the top, gave an eerie echo as we entered. No, I would not have gone alone on this journey down inside the catacombs. I clutched my partner as we stepped down into what felt like a hole that would swallow me whole.
Darkness had taken over the city and the sights and sounds of present day faded away in the dark shadows of the catacombs. I’m not sure what I expected but the stark silence and the smell of the still, stale air, gave me the feeling of being in another time and place.
I came up short when I saw a grotesque head on the tombstone before me. The eyes were downcast but as I moved forward it seemed to follow me. I stopped and looked back. No, it had not moved, the eyes were still downcast exactly as I had first seen it. Yet as I moved once again, I got the feeling it was watching me. The hairs on the back on my neck were nudging me to hurry and catch up to the rest of the group.
Rejoining the group, I was struck by a small child’s tomb. I felt a distinct chill all around me as I was reminded that many children did not live to adulthood. Childhood illnesses along with unhealthy eating habits meant many young lives were cut far too short.
Some of the occupants here in this seemingly peaceful place were victimized even in death. There was a need; you see, “men of science” needed cadavers to practice with. And there were those, with less than redeeming qualities, who dug recently deceased members of society and brought them to the School of Medicine on the corner of Lombard and Greene Street. Many of these grave-digging men turned a pretty penny in this profession. Oddly enough, when renovations were made in the 1990s at University of Maryland, School of Medicine, Davidge Hall, they found some poor souls still resting within the walls waiting.
Walking on, as the shadows were closing in on me, I snapped photo after photo just so I could see if anything strange would appear. Low and behold I was stunned to see what appeared to be orbs in many of the photos. Not dust on the lens, as I first tried to convince myself, but orbs, most likely. I will never know for sure.
As our tour concluded, I took one last look in the upstairs window. No, it couldn’t be—could it? You should visit Westminster Hall Burial Grounds in the evening, just before dark. Be sure you don’t come alone.
I am most grateful to our tour guide, Lu Ann Marshall, who gave an excellent presentation, giving the background history leading up to present day. She weaved myths and legends into the story giving a truly wonderful experience for all.
Westminster Hall Burial Grounds, 515 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, MD 21201 Please go to http://www.westminsterhall.org/ or call 410.706.2072 to book your own tour.