An 18th-century death relived at Mount Clare


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October 20, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Perhaps we had better lower our voices.

We've come to Mount Clare in Southwest Baltimore's Carroll Park to pay our respects to Charles Carroll the Barrister, framer of Maryland's Declaration of Rights, legislator and farmer, who died -- probably from malaria, a common malady in 18th- and 19th-century tidewater Maryland -- on March 23, 1783.

Life came to a close for the prominent Marylander in his second-floor bedchamber in this house. He was 60.

His black coffin, with the Carroll hatchment, his coat of arms, carefully arranged on its closed lid, rested on a bier in Mount Clare's elegant parlor.

It was in this room, over the next three days, that his wife of 20 years, Margaret Tilghman Carroll, greeted mourners.

A brief service was held for Carroll in this room before his remains were removed and transported to Annapolis, where they were interred in the Carroll family tomb in the churchyard of St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

Fast-forward 224 years, and on a fine autumn morning, we're in the hands of Jane D. Woltereck, executive director of Mount Clare Museum House, and Carolyn B. Adams, curator, who both enthusiastically explain to a visitor the significance of the house that is dressed in mourning for the exhibit Beneath the Winding Sheet: Departing this Life in the 18th Century.

"With this exhibit, we're showing the customs, practices and superstitions, some which are still around, of how death was treated in the 18th century," Woltereck said.

All mirrors in the house were covered by white gauze because "vanity was considered inappropriate in the presence of death," wrote Mike Connolly, whose research of 18th-century mourning customs was used to accurately decorate Mount Clare.

Additionally, all clocks were stopped, denoting the moment of death, while a swag of black crepe wreathed Carroll's portrait. The room's piano was closed, as well as the desk in Carroll's office.

"All forms of vanity and enjoyment were stopped," Woltereck said.

A larger hatchment with Carroll's side of the family crest painted black, signifying death, was hung on the exterior of the mansion, along with more black crepe.

Woltereck said that gifts of black gloves, handkerchiefs, scarves, fans, or mourning jewelry decorated with weeping willows (symbols of death) and containing locks of the deceased's hair were given to those who came to pay their respects.

Silver spoons were given as remembrances to those who had cared for the deceased in his final illness.

Because the restorative arts hadn't quite yet reached the technological level they would in the 19th century, Carroll lay unembalmed in his casket.

"There were also lots of flowers to mask the smell of the decaying body. There was also a real fear of being buried alive. After three days, they knew he was gone, and they could no longer stand the smell," said Adams.

Connolly's research also produced interesting data on the phrases "dead ringer" and "graveyard shift."

A bell would be tied to the hand of the deceased so that if he miraculously awoke from his death slumber, he could ring it and be rescued from the grave. Graveyard shift is a term for those who gathered to watch the grave at night.

"It truly was a cult of death," Adams said.

In re-creating the death chamber for the exhibit, Carroll's "corpse" is wrapped in a white shroud -- "beneath the winding sheet," it was called -- and rests on pillows on his four-poster mahogany bed. "This is not the bed the Barrister died in. The actual bed is at Homewood House, the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a cousin," Woltereck pointed out.

The room contains rudimentary medical equipment, including a spring lancet resting on a piece of bloodied cotton cloth.

The device was used to bleed patients, which was a popular medical technique of the time, and probably contributed to the death of George Washington, medical historians have concluded.

In the room is Carroll's medical book, which was published in 1716, and contains many herbal remedies. An apothecary box with bottles containing other remedies -- syrup of rhubarb, for example, and hive syrup -- sits on a cabinet of drawers near his bed.

A washstand used to cool him and a bathtub stand near the fireplace. Writing materials and glasses sit on a Pembroke table at the foot of the bed.

"In his medical book, Carroll made a mark that pointed to various remedies for syphilis," Adams said.

"Watchers, who were most often women, stayed with the sick person both day and night while attending to their needs," Woltereck said.

After Carroll's death, his body was washed and then wrapped in a sheet held together with brass or copper straight pins before being placed in the coffin.

Mourners concluded their visit in the dining room, where they dined on oysters, cakes, pies and other foods that had been placed on the "groaning board," or buffet.

"It wasn't uncommon for families to incur debt while providing the best food and wine," Adams said.

Three generations of Carrolls occupied Mount Clare, which was built in 1760. In 1890, Carroll heirs sold the property to the city of Baltimore.

Today, the house is the crown jewel of Carroll Park, and since 1917, it has been under the custodianship of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Maryland.

"Beneath the Winding Sheet: Departing this Life in the 18th Century" will continue at Mount Clare, 1500 Washington Blvd., until Nov. 2. Information: 410-837-3262.

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