With festival on deck, 5 tales from Fells Point's privateering past

Did you know Fells Point once had a red light district?

From a refreshing snowball to the Orioles' return to the diamond, spring's true arrival in Baltimore comes in many shapes and sizes. This weekend in Fells Point, the indication comes in the form of pirates and privateers — the harmless, re-enacting kind — who will take over the neighborhood for the 11th annual Privateer Festival.

The eye-and-ear-catching aspects of some attendees — outfits, props and exaggerated accents to name a few — have led some to label it a pirate celebration, but this is not merely a costume party. The Privateer Festival aims to educate others on the city's rich maritime history, while still keeping things lighthearted, according to Joy Giordano, the festival's organizer.

A “privateer,” by the way, is a privately owned ship commissioned by a government to fight enemies, and also shorthand for “privateersman,” or a sailor or captain of such a boat.

“We utilize the Privateer Festival as an opportunity to embrace the history of Fells Point, which very much encompasses the privateers and what they stood for,” Giordano said. “But it also brings in the fun side of the pirate theme. It's a nice blend of both.”

Presented by the community organization Fell's Point Main Street (of which Giordano is the executive director), the festival will feature hands-on activities, battle re-enactments, live music, food vendors, dockside ship tours and more.

There is even a “Pyrate Invasion” bar crawl on Saturday (3 p.m.-1 a.m.) with 18 bars around the neighborhood offering drink specials. (Tickets are $10; for more information, go to missiontix.com.)

Cliff Long — a regular Privateer Festival performer and the event's master of ceremonies— recently said Baltimore became known as “the center for privateers” shortly after the start of the War of 1812.

To get a better idea of the role Fells Point played in its privateering days, we asked Long to share five tales not always told in the history books.

While Fells Point has evolved plenty since those heady days, Long's stories are in line with the neighborhood's reputation for quirky activity. And a full disclosure: We could corroborate many but not all of the details in Long's stories below, which are as colorful as the neighborhood was and continues to be. We may not ever know exactly why Fells' “Thames” is pronounced like it is or exactly how the red light district operated, but what we do know is that the folklore certainly adds to the mystique of the neighborhood.

A patriotic duty

Hang around Baltimore long enough, and you will hear someone debate the correct pronunciation of “Thames,” as in the Fells Point street.

A confident person will try to end the conversation by saying, “Temz,” like the river in England, but Long said a local legend involving an eatery could change your mind.

At the London Coffee House — which opened in the 18th century on South Bond Street, across from present-day Duda's Tavern, Long said — a group of Baltimore businessmen met a few weeks into the War of 1812. Looking to do their patriotic part, Long said, the group allegedly signed a document that forever changed the pronunciation of Thames to “TH-ames.”

The reason? “It would irritate the British more,” said Long, who is also a guide with Fells Point Wicked History tours. It did not stop there; knocking the Brits was built into the shop's culture, too. Coffee and hot cocoa (the latter was considered particularly exotic at the time, he said) were popular, but another hot drink was not.

“Tea was a British drink, and you weren't drinking what the British were drinking,” he said.

Red light district

While we often associate prostitution with Amsterdam and Nevada, Baltimore had its share of brothels — called “knocking shops” at the time, Long said — in the Fells Point area during the privateer days. Back then, current-day Broadway Square was an area of water for boats to dock, and on the sides (where shops and restaurants appear now) were some brothels privateers regularly patronized, according to Long.

“Where you've got sailors, you've got prostitutes,” Long said.

The area was even known as the red light district because sailors, returning from China, brought back red rice-paper lanterns as souvenirs for their favorite working women in Fells Point, Long said.

The women, in turn, hung them up to indicate their services were available. Decades later, in an attempt to clean up the area, the city took the lanterns down, but it did not stop prostitution, Long said.

The women adapted by devising a more discreet way to announce business was open.

“If you found any particular house that had five petticoats hanging in a row, that actually identified a brothel,” Long said. “For a certain time, sailors would look for that.”

A captain becomes a legend

One of the most memorable ships from the War of 1812 was built at a Fells Point shipyard. (“It's not there now, but it would been located [at the corner of] Aliceanna and Washington [streets],” Long said.)

Led by the famous Baltimore privateer Capt. Thomas Boyle, the Chasseur was a Baltimore Clipper ship that turned into a major headache for the British Navy when Boyle used it to attack and capture at least 15 ships in enemy territory, he said.

“This absolutely outraged the British government,” Long said. “Boyle was in the London Illustrated News, being listed as a pirate and a very wicked man.”

Back home, he was a hero. When he returned, the Chasseur was renamed the Pride of Baltimore. (At the festival, a life-size replica of the Pride of Baltimore will be on hand.)

Sink 'em

The War of 1812 battle story of Fort McHenry has been told many times. Overpowered by the far superior British Navy and unable to retaliate, all a number of American soldiers could do at Fort McHenry was try and wait out the assault.

“During the entire battle, and this is something most people aren't aware of, the Americans couldn't hit a single British ship,” he said. “All they could do was hunker down while the British hammered the fort.”

The U.S. soldiers survived in part because, Long said, a squadron of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla commandeered as many merchants' ships anchored in Fells Point as possible, towed them and sank the vessels all around Fort McHenry. This stalled the British from getting any closer to inflict damage against the Americans.

The debut of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner'

Many know that Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the flurry of attacks on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, wrote a poem that eventually became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But less known, Long said, are the anthem's details and further relations to Baltimore.

Key fit his words with the melody of a British song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The catchy tune would eventually be named “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but not by Key.

Instead, Baltimore's Carr Music Store coined the title when it became the first company to commercially print the song.

Then there's the song's initial public performance. The first person to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in public, Long said, was an actor named Ferdinand Durang at a Baltimore bar called Captain McCullough's Tavern. As if to prove a history buff's work is never complete, Long hopes to one day pinpoint the exact location of the bar.

“It was somewhere in the [Fells Point] dock area, and I've been trying to find any coordinates,” he said. “I have been searching desperately.”

BONUS TALE: Did you know?

People walking around Fells Point often look down and wonder, “Is this original cobblestone?” But according to Long, they are asking the wrong question, because the streets are not technically paved with cobblestone at all, but rather Belgian Block (also known as sett).

For many boats docked in Fells Point long ago, offloading a ship meant removing ballasts, or the heavy material used at the bottom of a ship to provide stability. That excess would soon become the material we walk on today. “These blocks have been all over the world, and they were actually used to pave the streets in Fells Point,” Long said.

Want more unique, less-heard stories involving Baltimore's past? Long also guides Fells Point Wicked History tours. For more information, visit wickedhistorybaltimore.com.

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If you go

The Privateer Festival takes place Saturday (10 a.m.-7 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m.-6 p.m.), in and around Fells Point, including Broadway Square (801 S. Broadway). Free (other than the $10 bar crawl). For more information, go to fellspointmainstreet.org.

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