Flushing out buried privies

Outhouse hunter unearths `mother lode' at construction site on Fleet Street

November 29, 2005|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

As hobbies go, privy hunting is not pretty. It's not like, say, remodeling a '55 Chevy. It takes a different searching soul to dedicate months to digging 8 feet down into century-old outhouses in search of ... what? And do we really want to unearth what is buried in those old pits? These aren't ancient art galleries, after all.

Introducing Spencer Henderson, Baltimore privy hunter, different soul.

Equipped with a rake and shovel, sensible work clothes, a "Police K-9" visor and a vibrant mustache, the 55-year-old Henderson spent his summer in the trenches of Fells Point. There, on a construction site off Fleet Street, Henderson found four 19th-century privies near the future site of $500,000 townhouses.

"I was looking for the `mother lode' and found it!" says Henderson, a driver for an adult day care center. "I've been a treasure hunter all my life."

Civil War coins. A rare, 1892 "Cleve and Steve" bottle - the nicknames of President Grover Cleveland and his running mate, Adlai Stevenson. Colonial-era pipes. Baby shoes. Perfume bottles. Clay marbles.

"Spencer," says his friend, Tony Walker, "is looking for magic in these privies, and he's finding magic."

Walker and his wife, Melinda, own Gallery ID8 on Fleet Street in Fells Point. Their art gallery is a block away from Henderson's Fleet Street dig, and Walker has been more than happy to showcase his friend's found treasures, in the same space as paintings and sculptures.

At his gallery one night with Henderson, Walker lifted a cracked Monumental Brewing bottle with an embossed slug plate. The Baltimore beer company operated on nearby South Wolfe Street from 1900 to 1920; the company is long gone but bottles have survived. An intact Monumental Brewing bottle might go for $10 in collectors' Internet circles. Not a lot of money, granted.

But money is not the only object.

"This is Baltimore's history. There are a lot of stories here. Who owned these things? What were they talking about back then?" Walker says. "Spence and I would have loved to have smoked a pipe with those guys."

That's privy talk for you. These outhouses were once standard equipment on home sites. Before Baltimore's sewer system was built, around 1915, homes were routinely equipped with outdoor toilets located at a practical walking distance. These stone, brick or oak, 8- to 10-foot-deep, barreled-out pits were also trashcans for whiskey and perfume bottles, kitchen plates, coins and buttons.

Generations later, this outdoor plumbing began attracting privy hunters, a subset of bottle collectors and metal-detecting hobbyists. Underground Baltimore apparently is potholed with old privies. "The Frustrations (And Joys) of Baltimore Privy Digging," read a headline on a 2001 story on the Potomac Bottle Collector's Web site. "Archaeologist Discusses Significance of Privies," read an Evening Sun headline in 1989. And in 1988, much ink was devoted to a newly renovated 19th-century privy on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, which even had vintage graffiti.

Across town in a cleared lot, a sign says "Ruppert Homes." The $500,000 townhouses are under construction in the 2000 block of Fleet St., where portable toilets stand at attention. In August, Henderson was doing what he does: looking on the ground for treasures.

"I'm the type of guy who's always looking on the ground. I always find something. Yesterday, I found a claw hammer, a socket wrench and 25 cents, although [the quarter] was bent," he says. "I bent it back."

This looking on the ground business was something his late father taught him. Don't never look up because there won't be money in the air. It's on the ground. The late Lester Henderson, a coal miner from Kentucky, spent a lifetime working under ground. His son, Spencer, works at ground level and below. He's worked other sites exclusively in Fells Point, spending months digging at home and road-construction sites. He sells what stuff he can on eBay.

"In the biggest find of my life," Henderson initially found a pile of five old coins at the Fleet Street construction site. He began digging after he received permission from the developer, he says. In time, Henderson got to the bottom of four privies. He put aside his shovel and rake and used his hands to comb through the dirt. He found a wooden floor and underneath, more coins and buttons; any privy hunter knows coins and buttons are the first things to fall or shake loose when one is using a privy.

There was more. Henderson discovered smoking pipes and pipe stems (possibly from the 1700s), perfume bottles, a 19th-century London gin bottle, the Monumental Beer bottle and the "Cleve and Steve" bottle. Might be old whiskey bottles in the haul, too. Henderson unearthed chipped and broken kitchenware, including Ironstone kitchen plates with "the Maryland Pattern." It's apparently rare to find intact plates and glassware.

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