Green Mount tour resurrects history

October 14, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The bold-faced names of the 19th century are all here -- the Sheppards, the Pratts, the Abells --resting in a vast garden graveyard surrounded by some of East Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods.

And Wayne Schaumburg knows exactly where to find them.

Since 1985, the recently retired city schoolteacher has been leading October and May walking tours of Green Mount Cemetery, where "Baltimore's best are laid to rest," as he likes to say.

Nestled among the greenery in the 68-acre necropolis are eight Maryland governors, seven Baltimore mayors, countless local luminaries and one presidential assassin.

"The history of Baltimore is in that cemetery," Schaumburg said yesterday, after finishing up a two-hour tour with more than 40 people. "It is literally a Who's Who of 19th-century Baltimore."

More than 66,000 people have been buried at Green Mount since its opening in 1839 on the former country estate of merchant Robert Oliver. It is the fourth "urban-rural" cemetery founded in the country, part of the Victorian trend of establishing burial sites in park-like settings so as to minimize the terror of death, Schaumburg said.

Indeed, October visitors to Green Mount looking for pre-Halloween spookiness may be disappointed by the pleasant sanctuary of rolling hills dotted with numerous white obelisks, Egyptian symbols of eternal life.

"There are almost no ghost stories at all about Green Mount," Schaumburg said. "Maybe because this is an upper crust of folks buried here."

If their spirits did emerge at night, it would make for a rather well-heeled gathering of ghosts; among the other names listed on Schaumburg's grave tour are Hopkins, Latrobe, Walters, Patterson, Garrett and Jacobs.

Schaumburg uses the burial monuments -- some of them adorned with sculptures by leading artists of the day -- as a jumping-off point for mini-history lessons, but always ones liberally spiked with intimate anecdotes and gossip.

And after 22 years, he's got the punch lines down pat.

"We have the best kind of politicians here," he quipped at the start of yesterday morning's tour. "They can't say anything."

Still, Schaumburg makes a point of giving voice to some of Baltimore's lesser-known political luminaries. For example, former governor and mayor Thomas Swann, whose name these days may be linked primarily with the discovery of arsenic in an eponymous South Baltimore park.

Schaumburg reminded his audience that Swann financed the purchase of the city's first public park -- at Druid Hill -- with "trolley tax" revenues from the streetcar lines he established in the mid-19th century.

At Enoch Pratt's grave, Schaumburg assumed a familiar pose, leaning up along the huge brown-granite monument, and told tales of the philanthropist's legendary tight-fistedness. "Pratt would take the back roads to avoid plunking pennies down on the tolls of York Road."

The crowd of history buffs and graveyard enthusiasts ate up the trivia.

When Schaumburg told how Napoleon Bonaparte successfully persuaded his brother, Jerome, to dump heiress Elizabeth Patterson -- "that woman from Baltimore," as Napoleon supposedly put it -- a woman in the group yelled out, "I hope he died of some horrid disease!"

Patting Patterson's tomb, Schaumburg assures the woman that Jerome got his comeuppance. "They saw each other later on, and she walked right past him," he said. "Because she always maintained her good looks and slim figure. Just walked right past him and didn't say a word."

Some in the crowd made serendipitous graveside connections to Old Baltimore. When Schaumburg pointed out the burial monument of coffee merchant Thornton Rollins, Steve Pfeifer shouted out with delight.

He lives in the Belt's Wharf Landing condominiums of Fells Point, once a warehouse used by Rollins. "It's cool that you see the grave, and then [Schaumburg] gives you the background of how these things affected Baltimore," Pfeifer said.

Others came to Green Mount yesterday on more personal missions. Mary Lee Christie, 71, clutched a sheet of paper with the names of a dozen of her late husband's relatives, all of them buried at the cemetery.

"I always wanted to visit every grave of every member of my family," she said. "Just to be able to say I have been able to see them and to say a prayer there."

After 15 years and visits to dozens of graves, Christie had Green Mount last on her list. "I'm so happy," she said. "It's just a wonderful feeling knowing I've done it today."

The last grave on Schaumburg's tour is not even marked. Somewhere under the family plot of a distinguished Maryland family is interred the body of John Wilkes Booth -- Abraham Lincoln's assassin.

After securing permission in 1869 to bury his notorious brother, Edwin Booth decided a burial monument was unnecessary.

"That made the cemetery very happy," Schaumburg said. "Because they didn't want this to become a Confederate shrine, and have Unionists desecrate it."

Those bearing cameras didn't leave empty-handed, however. John Wilkes' name is inscribed on the back of the family monument.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Schaumburg's final Green Mount tours this year are Oct. 20 and Oct. 27. The $15 per person slots are already booked, he said, but interested people can contact him at his Web site: http:--home .earthlink.net/~wschaumburg.

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