Looking to mark history at the local Rite Aid

On the lookout for overlooked Baltimore history

When he visited Baltimore a few months ago, I told Andy Carroll, a young man on a mission — you might call him a Monuments Man — that he ought to commission a plaque to mark the site of Spiro T. Agnew's no-contest plea. I don't think such a thing exists, but it should.

The criminal plea that led to the resignation of a vice president of the United States ought to be recognized.

Agnew, who served a heartbeat away from President Richard Nixon after having been Maryland governor and Baltimore County executive in the 1960s, was a first-class political crook (and always well-tanned). He had been taking kickbacks for years, and federal authorities finally caught up with him in October 1973.

In what was then Courtroom No. 3 on the fifth floor of what was then the federal courthouse in Baltimore — and what is now Courthouse East of the Baltimore Circuit Court, 111 N. Calvert St. — Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to a tax evasion charge. He resigned the vice presidency that day. It was in all the papers, and a seminal moment from the 1970s and the Watergate era.

There ought to be a brass plaque — or maybe something in Naugahyde or polyester — marking the spot and the historic event that took place there.

Andy Carroll, earnest student of the American story and champion of unmarked historic sites, is the man for the job.

Author of "Here Is Where: Discovering America's Great Forgotten History," published last year by Random House, Carroll crosses the country in search of sites tied to historic events but long gone or overlooked. He tells the stories of men and women who did things worthy of recognition but whose names only made it into history's footnotes.

Some of what Carroll discovered is odd and obscure — the spot, for instance, "where Abraham Lincoln's son was saved by the brother of Lincoln's assassin." Some of what he found was tragic, an event people probably wanted to forget — the site, for instance, of the Sultana steamship explosion in 1865 on the Mississippi River, said to be America's deadliest maritime disaster. Some of it is eye-opening — the town in Virginia "where an African-American woman was jailed after refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus, prompting a Supreme Court desegregation case more than 10 years before Rosa Parks's arrest."

While my idea for an Agnew memorial in Courthouse East appealed to Carroll, he already has a Baltimore project underway.

In fact, he's been trying for several years to get some recognition for a courageous 18th-century woman named Mary Katherine Goddard, and not just because she was the city's first postmaster or because she published Baltimore's only newspaper during the Revolutionary War. It's what she did on Jan. 18, 1777, that most impressed Carroll.

On that date, Goddard, who operated a print shop on East Baltimore Street, published the first certified copy of the Declaration of Independence with the names of all who had signed it. That's according to her official biography in the Archives of Maryland.

"Mary Katherine Goddard risked her life to publish the Declaration of Independence during the Revolutionary War, and she is a heroic American figure deserving of more attention."

Those are the words Carroll used in a letter to Rite Aid Corp. while doing his research.

He wrote to the pharmacy chain because Carroll is convinced that Goddard's print shop had been located at what is today a sprawling Rite Aid store at 125 E. Baltimore St. He wanted a poster or plaque displayed in the store. He didn't want money from the company, just permission to do his thing.

A few years ago, Carroll says, he had tentative approval from the company to mark the site in some way — a sassy woman deserves a brassy plaque — but the project has not moved from there. He's hoping an appeal to a new management team at Rite Aid will result in on-site recognition for Goddard.

While the accounts I've read from The Baltimore Sun's archives and library put Goddard's print shop a couple of blocks to the east of the Rite Aid, Carroll is convinced that he found the correct spot, with the help of the Maryland Historical Society.

So we should mark it and remember Mary Katherine Goddard — if not by Jan. 18, then maybe by July 4.

Meanwhile, I can think of other sites around here that would fit into Carroll's project: the spot where the Catonsville Nine burned draft board records in protest of the Vietnam War in 1968; the table in the George Peabody Library where novelist John Dos Passos frequently worked; the spot (near the Baltimore Arena) where some palooka threw a still-burning cigar that started the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 — and the readers of this column are certainly welcome to submit their ideas.

Remember: Carroll is looking for overlooked history. It doesn't have to be pretty — see Agnew, Spiro; nolo contendere — it just has to be historic.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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