That's the Spirit

The ghostly haunts of Fells Point leave one wanderer wondering, nothing more?

November 30, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

(With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe.)

True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say I am mad? Yes, I had vowed to call upon my brethren in the world beyond, in that empire of apparitions where the pain, illness and the misery of daily corporeal existence afflict us no more. No more, I say! To that end I proceeded logically, with a clear mind and exquisite precision.

I stowed myself in the hold of a Norfolk garbage barge - no one detected! - and suffered seasickness as we motored up the bay to Fells Point in Baltimore Town, where the spirits are said to be alive, where they live an everlastingly frisky, animated life. Indeed, they are said to play tricks upon the living in Fells Point, and even, sometimes, are served intoxicants free of charge at closing time - the fly giving gift to the spider!

I arrived at length and plotted to tour the byzantine neighborhood. When the dowager lady in the peasant dress picked up her tin lantern to lead us - a dozen all - through the rough and cobbled lanes, did she not offer each of us a sprig of white verbena? "Pin the blossoms on you anywheres," she cackled, "and the spirits won't see you." Did I not surreptitiously crush mine between thumb and forefinger, then leave it in a yellow metal box marked "City Paper"?

The old fishwife - in the employ of the Preservation Society of Fells Point - was to offer us a chance - for a paltry 10 dollars, ha-ha! - to encounter some of the seamen, whores and roustabouts who have left this worldly plane but not yet proceeded to the next. My desire to meet them was keen - keen as the edge of a knife! - as if I would be meeting the family I never had.

The Fells Point Ghost Walk set forth from the Preservation Society on Ann Street, and promised a tour of the amply haunted "three B's" of Fells Point: brothels, bars and boarding houses. So impoverished, so sensitive to the slightest sensations of this worldly plane, as I have always been, I could only find refuge here, in the spectral comfort of the phantasmic.

I followed in the shadows - without verbena, I say! - a few steps behind the group, listening to the harridan, one Denise Whitman of Fells Point, who co-directs the walk. "There's a world of spirits here we sometimes see," she said, adding that the ghost-detecting equipment of the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association - yes, there is such a group! - had found many locations that gave off such vibrations that it burned up and was incapacitated.

She stopped at 1724 Lancaster St. and told the yarn of Aunt Julia. An old woman who had lived in the same block all her life, Julia died several years ago, and a man bought the house with contents included. One night, he stood on a wobbly stool in an ill-advised effort to seal a crack in the plaster. It began to tip over. What kept it, and him, upright, was the feel of two strong hands on the back of his legs. Old Aunt Julia had almost daily told her nieces and nephews never to get on that unsteady stool. At the same location, when Julia was still alive, she paid the children a shiny new penny for each room they cleaned. Now, when the inhabitant tidies a room, he finds, without exception, a shiny penny in the middle of the floor.

Inwardly I begged the spirits, malevolent or kindly, to see me. Around the corner at the Whistling Oyster bar - which has been featured on TV's America's Most Haunted - the crone said a black gentleman in Colonial attire can often be seen sweeping and cleaning after hours. The fastidious servant also moved an ash bucket around the rooms so frequently the owner gave up keeping track of it. Alas, the apparition never showed.

Across the street on Broadway, she proclaimed, very few know the origin of the name of Bertha's restaurant. One of the new owners looked in the attic to find a stained-glass sign that read "Bertha Bartholomew." No one recognized the name, but they named the establishment after it, and the sign is still on the premises. One night, an owner climbed to the second floor after hours and heard a rhythmic whack-whack-whacking. He looked into the room and saw a little girl in Victorian dress, skipping rope.

The tales I heard, fascinating as they were, chilled me to the core. I wanted only to speak with these humans in limbo: Edward Fell the Younger, that dashing ladies' man who strolled the streets in Colonial garb. The sea merchant whose daughter eloped with a roustabout sailor far beneath his station, still keeping watch - with never-ending vigilance! - with a gun across his lap. The grisly murder that took place in a boarding house, leaving such frightfully bloody walls and ceilings that the blood will not go away, no matter how many coats of paint are applied!

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