A tour of haunting history

Spooky: Westminster Hall and Burying Ground will welcome brave visitors for its Halloween tours.

October 31, 2003|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

Tales of screams from beneath the earth, human flesh hooks, body snatchers, corpses encasked in rum -- and the scariest part is that they're all true.

Life and death in Edgar Allan Poe's 19th-century Baltimore could be scarier than a Friday the 13th movie, and this evening there's a plot brewing to exhume these long-lost tales of horror -- including the author's real-life inspiration for his story on being buried alive -- at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground at Fayette and Greene streets.

That's where a tour of the cemetery and catacombs will be available to the public today for a not-too-scary fee -- $5 for adults and $3 for kids. It's a tour that won't be too ghoulish for the whole family, promises Mary Jo Rodney, director of the Westminster Preservation Trust.

"It's unique in the fact that it's historical, but it's also a little scary," she said. Visitors "can walk through the graveyard and experience living history and entertainment."

Halloween tours of the grounds -- including appearances by actors portraying the University of Maryland's resident grave robber and a famous general from the War of 1812 -- begin at 6 p.m. Guests will also be allowed to wander the graveyard where Poe is interred.

Stories of Poe's day will be told throughout the tour. And there's no shortage of macabre anecdotes.

During the 1830s, when Poe lived in Baltimore, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were rampant, explained tour guide Lu Ann Marshall.

Often, the sick would lapse into a coma and doctors would pronounce them dead from across the room so they wouldn't catch the dreaded plague themselves, Marshall said as she escorted a group of 30 librarians through the catacombs beneath the church building.

Burials in the mid-1800s took place quickly after the death, she said. But because of the imprecise hospital diagnoses some of those burials were premature.

The newspapers of the day made no bones about the problem. The coverage of the phenomenon and the fact that people walking in graveyards sometimes heard screaming from shallowly buried coffins inspired Poe to write his horror story "Berenice."

Marshall is a special projects manager for the university's School of Law, with which the burial grounds are affiliated. The catacombs where she conducted the tour were created when the church building that is now Westminster Hall was constructed on brick piers above part of the graveyard -- 60 years after the burial grounds were established in the late 1700s.

Tonight's Halloween tours will include theatrical readings of Poe's "Annabel Lee" and classical guitar performances of Nikita Koshkin's "The Usher Waltz," inspired by Poe's tale, "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Gen. John Stricker (portrayed by actor Buzz Chriest), hero of the War of 1812's Battle of North Point, will be near the refreshments table. The admission fee includes popcorn and cider.

Tony Tsendeas of Baltimore plays ghoulish Frank the Body Snatcher on the catacombs tours.

"He could get in and out of a grave in 30 minutes, and that was his big skill because he had to get in and out quickly," Marshall said of Frank the Body Snatcher, who illegally dug up corpses and sold them to medical schools in the early 1800s before medical schools could legally obtain cadavers.

Armed with a shovel and a hook, this "resurrection man" would steal into graveyards and find the soft earth of a freshly covered grave, Marshall said. After digging until he hit the top of the coffin, the Body Snatcher would pry open the top of the coffin, insert a hook under the chin of the corpse and pull the body out, then selling it to the night internist at the University of Maryland's medical school.

Frank got $2 for a "small one" and $5 for a "large one," Marshall said. Sometimes, the university would ship a corpse to a school that didn't have its own resurrection man.

The body would be shipped in a barrel of rum or whiskey, which gave Frank another way to earn some cash -- selling the alcohol to students after the body was removed, she noted.

Tours will begin when people enter Westminster Hall to eerie music being played by Count Dracula on a fully restored 1882 Johnson Pipe Organ.

As they enter the cemetery where Poe is buried, visitors will be met by volunteer tour guides dressed in period costumes or, perhaps, witch's garb.

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