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That's the spirit

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

By Jonathan Pitts

Sun Staff

November 30, 2001

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(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!

The poet Edgar Allan Poe made Fells Point his favorite haunt when he lived in bustling, brawling Baltimore Town, sweeping his black cape behind him as he strode. His favorite bar stood where The Horse You Rode In On saloon now stands. On the night he died - they found him in a gutter on Lombard Street! - he had taken drink at the tavern.

One night in the past few years, long after closing time, two barkeeps ridiculed Poe for the splashy debauchery he practiced, including the way he flounced the signature cape. At that very instant, a dozen barstools rattled, careered across the room and smashed against the wall.

Since then, at closing time, the barkeeps have a ritual. At closing time, they leave a shot of whisky - single-malt, no ice - at the end of the bar for Edgar Allan Poe. They call it the Edgar.

It was late, and I had waited long enough. I slipped away from the group in the shadows; they saw me no more! The flame of the old crow's lantern faded, slowly, till she and her ghost-walkers vanished.

I took my position across the street, behind a barbed-wire fence, and kept my watch on this bar. Hours seemed to pass, but I remained still. Finally, as the drinkery shuttered at 2, I scuttled across like a Fells Point crab, eased through the doorway and crept to the end of the bar.

There was the Edgar. I downed it in a gulp - so brisk, so bracing! - and left. No one seemed to see me.

Out there in the cobblestone streets, I had some solace. I'd never meet the ghoulish scribe, in the realm of the living or the dead, but we were men of identical spirits.

The final Fells Point Ghost Walks of 2001 are scheduled for tonight at 7 and 8 p.m. Reservations are required; call 410-675-6750. The tour, which costs $10 per person, lasts one hour. For information about coming tours and other Fells Point Preservation Society events, go to the society's Web site at www.preservationsociety.com.