Even on a bright fall October day, the Victorian Gothic funeral chapel at Green Mount Cemetery has the forbidding quality of a guest house for Quasimodo, a retirement home for Norman Bates and his mom or a Halloween retreat for Michael Myers.
Just about as old as the Clock Tower that holds Big Ben aloft over London, the gray and weathered chapel is a somber but beautiful folly of arches, buttresses, pinnacles, finials and spires, all straining toward the heavens like a penitent sinner.
Unsettled souls abroad on Halloween and All Souls Day could find no better portal to that land of the dead whose gates open at the sundown before the Celtic New Year, every November 1.
For about 1,300 years, the Church has tried to Christianize this Celtic festival of the dead, but Halloween is just too much fun. Pagan rites survive tenaciously even today in Halloween skulls, skeletons, ghosts, hobgoblins, jack o'lanterns and even bobbing for apples.
Halloween is America's second most popular holiday in terms of money spent - and not just for kids trick-or-treating. Halloween has become the third-biggest celebration for so-called adults in the United States, behind the Super Bowl and New Year's Eve.
The area's atmospheric cemeteries are great places to meditate on this phenomenon.
The mortuary chapel's columned sanctuary at Green Mount has certainly served thousands of the very best Baltimoreans as their gateway to the great beyond. They reside while in transit amid the tree-shaded splendor of one of Baltimore's most stable upscale communities. About 65,000 of the dear departed rest at Green Mount. Few leave. And voter turnout is low even during presidential years. Green Mount remains one of the few neighborhoods in Baltimore where the population still grows, although slowly these days. Only 31 people were interred last year. But the chapel remains quite busy. About a third of the 936 cremations at Green Mount occurred in the basement crematorium. Mickey Fields, Baltimore's premier be-bop horn player, passed through last January.
A cemetery since 1838, Green Mount was once the estate of Robert Oliver, a prosperous merchant and shipping magnate whose country home stood on the hilltop where the chapel now reaches for heaven. The cemetery's very address, Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street, still celebrates the old tycoon.
Green Mount's only ghost story is unfortunately an apocryphal confabulation of the dark and stormy night when Robert Oliver shot his own daughter as she ran to an illicit tryst with her lover. In his grief, Oliver is supposed to have vowed his estate would forever be consecrated as a cemetery in her memory.
"That's the one ghost story of Green Mount I've heard of," Wayne Schaumburg says. The social studies teacher has been the genial and knowledgeable guide for more than a decade of tours through the tombstones.
"The story [is] about where she dressed up as a boy and her dad took her to be the boyfriend and shot her. And her ghost still walks the cemetery.
"And it's not true," Schaumburg says.
It's a very persistent story nonetheless. But all of Oliver's numerous daughters who survived infancy lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes, not gunshot wounds.
But at least one real spook lies in Green Mount: Allen Dulles, the spymaster who ran the CIA from 1953 to 1961.
"It's a CIA plot," says Jim Bready, a former editorial writer and therefore knowledgeable about intrigue. Actually, Dulles' wife, Clover Todd Dulles, was a Baltimorean whose parents were buried in Green Mount.
Green Mount is full of merchant princes, industrialists, financiers and philanthropists. There's a cadre of generals, most from the Civil War, a half-dozen of them Confederates.
John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated Lincoln, is here in the grave tourists most want to see. He's survived numerous attempts to dig him up. Doubters continue to insist the body in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot is not "Johnnie," as Schaumburg likes to call him.
But he's convinced the evidence shows Booth is where he's supposed to be. Booth's presence doesn't seem to have deterred anyone else.
"Once Green Mount became established," Schaumburg says. "this became the place to be buried. Where Baltimore's best were laid to rest, that's my line."
Old-moneyed Baltimoreans transplanted their kin to the parklike greenswards of Green Mount from more crowded, less pastoral, urban graveyards downtown.
Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor explored the possibility of burial at Green Mount. The Duchess was, of course, born Bessie Wallis Warfield of Baltimore. Plenty of Warfields are buried in Green Mount, including a general. But Queen Elizabeth II allowed the Duke and Duchess to be entombed at Windsor Castle. And Green Mount was one-upped.
Green Mount may still be a socially superior graveyard, but Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs at Fayette and Greene streets is easily the betterplace to be scared on Halloween.
The catacombs under Westminster Hall are suitably gloomy, dank and eerie, the cemetery mossy, jumbled and somber.
Westminster is, after all, where Edgar Allan Poe has rested for nearly 150 years, although no doubt uneasily. He's been unearthed and moved at least twice. Desiccated flowers left on the Oct. 7 anniversary of his death crumble on his tomb as Halloween approaches.
Poe is guaranteed to appear tonight at the Halloween tour sponsored by the Westminster Preservation Trust. You'll no doubt hear the thump-thump-thump of "The Tell-Tale Heart" when Poe's tale is dramatized.
"He had a very tragic, tormented life," says Lu Ann Marshall, tour directorat Westminster. "But partly as a result of that he was so creative."
When people ask her where Poe got the ideas for his horror stories, she tells them that he didn't wander through the catacombs or sleep with dead bodies for inspiration.
"The truth is," she says, cheerfully, "it was not at all uncommon in the early 1800s for people to be buried alive. People would come into the graveyards to visit their relatives, and they'd hear screaming coming from the ground, fingernails scrapping on the top of the coffin.
"If you're a Poe fan you'll recognize that as a common theme. There's even a story titled 'The Premature Burial.'"
So listen carefully if you take Westminster's Halloween Tour.
Marshall promises you'll see Frank the Body Snatcher, the University of Maryland Medical School's resident grave robber in the 19th century.
A janitor by day, Marshall says, Frank at night obtained "freshly dead bodies" for anatomy students.
"They say Frank could get in and out of a grave in 30 minutes," she says. Frank yanked corpses out of their graves with a meat hook. At the med school, he got $2.50 for a small body, $5 for a large one.
Not many other Baltimore cemeteries can match that kind of Halloween treat. Spirits...and beer
At the dead end of North Avenue, 116,950 departed citizens have passed through the looming gates of Baltimore Cemetery to what they no doubt hoped wastheir penultimate resting place. At dusk, Baltimore Cemetery has the raffish elegance of a disheveled vampire, but it's hardly a place to recommend at midnight on Halloween.
Baltimore Cemetery does have a heady collection of German brewers, including John H. Vonderhorst, whose sons owned the Baltimore Orioles in the 1880s and '90s. Their Orioles won a National League pennant in 1893 with Ned Hanlon as manager and John J. McGraw on third base. The brewer resides with hiswife and other Vonderhorsts in a big, rich, columned tomb that stares balefullyout over a Baltimore where a nickel beer now costs $3.50.
Inspired by Green Mount and dedicated a decade later, Mount Olivet cemeteryin Southwest Baltimore entombs too many Methodist divines to be fearsome to anyone but egregious sinners. Among the more than 200 Methodist preachers buried here are a half-dozen bishops, including Francis Asbury, the great circuit-riding preacher who implanted Methodism in America.
Loudon Park, which also emulated Green Mount when it opened in 1853, now contains more than 200,000 deceased Baltimoreans, many of them brought to theirfinal rest by a grandly funereal trolley car named "Dolores" on the No. 8 line. But Loudon Park is perhaps precluded from being a Halloween tourist destination because that great Baltimore skeptic Henry Louis Mencken is interred there under a plain stone slab, along with his mother and father, brother August and wife, Sara.
Mencken didn't much believe in spirits other than those dispensed at the bar of the Rennert Hotel. Long before he passed on to his eternal reward, he wrote his own coda in The Evening Sun:
"When I mount the scaffold at last these will be my farewell words to the sheriff: Say what you will against me when I am gone, but don't forget to add, in common justice, that I was never converted to anything."
He never said much about Halloween, either. Only that it was the name of anapplicant for divorce at Oklahoma City, on Sept. 18, 1940.
What: Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs Halloween tour and frightful Halloween with special appearances by Edgar Allan Poe, who's buried in Westminster, and Frank the Body Snatcher, along with dramatizations of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and VTC "The Raven" and music on the 1882 organ in Westminster Hall
When: Today, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: Fayette and Green streets
Tickets: $4 for adults; $2 children under 12
Call: (410) 706-7228
Pub Date: 10/31/96