Think a Halloween visit to the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is an eerie experience? You should have been there when the catacombs tours began in the mid-1970s, when The Sun reported “visitors to the place can see the skeletons of those who are buried there.”
Now that was something right out of a horror film!
The catacombs at Westminster Presbyterian Church had been around for more than 100 years, but had fallen on tough times; although the church’s congregation had once numbered nearly 1,000, including some of Baltimore’s most prominent citizens, it had fallen to just 65 by 1977. Two years before that, anxious to revive interest in the old church and raise money to help rehab and preserve both it and the surrounding burial ground — the church had been built atop part of the 65-year-old cemetery in 1852, on an arched foundation that allowed enough clearance between the burial ground and the church floor to allow the graves to remain — the tours were introduced. They proved a big hit, attracting some 2,000 visitors a year and prompting the Baltimore Tourism Council to call them one of the city’s strongest tourist attractions.
Certainly, they were one of the most macabre, with visitors seeing not only the occasional skeleton within the catacombs under the church, but decaying coffins, askew tombstones and disturbed graves. Signs were installed to lead the way, and mannequins representing some of the more famous permanent residents were put on display. The catacombs, long abused as a temporary home for vagrants and even as a handy storage space for the church’s janitors, had been cleaned up some, but still were in rough shape. And the Baltimore Presbytery, which oversaw the church and its congregation, were no fans of the tours: Executive secretary Richard R. Preston, according to a Nov. 19, 1977, Sun story, complained of the “carnival atmosphere” and labeled them “the most ghastly thing that’s happened.”
After the dwindling congregation voted to close the church, the last service was held there on Dec. 4, 1977. The tours, which for a time had been conducted every Sunday afternoon, were stopped. Although officials assured the building would not be torn down, the fate of the church and the cemetery was uncertain.
By summer 1980, with Westminster in the hands of the Westminster Preservation Trust, Inc., established under the leadership of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, the tours were back, on the first and third Saturdays of each month. The following year, nighttime tours were added on the first and third Tuesdays. Restoration work continued.
For Halloween 2019, the cemetery and catacombs have been cleaned up considerably from the days when human remains were often visible, but touring them is still one of Charm City’s most spook-tacular obsessions. The grounds are open during daylight hours, with the annual Halloween cemetery and catacombs tour set for 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Admission is $3-$10. And while trick-or-treating and putting on a costume is fine and all, spending All Hallow’s Eve in the same cemetery as Edgar Allan Poe, wandering through catacombs more than a century-and-a-half old, remains an experience few will forget.