Tales of Baltimore subterranea


"WHITTAKER CHAMBERS used to hang out in the cellar of my old family home with a rifle by his side."

"You don't say," responded my buddy Bill. His failure to get excited nipped in the bud my plot to one-up his Spooky True Story of a Baltimore Basement, the one that knocked my socks off this past Halloween.

"Whittaker Chambers," I backtracked, "was the man who blew the whistle on Alger Hiss. You know, the Baltimore-gentry spy who died last month." Chambers' notorious book "Witness" detailed how the author hid to write his Red propaganda in the coal-cellar under a pre-Civil War house at 2610 St. Paul Street. My parents bought the house from the Chambers family in 1939. My mother recalls how Mr. Chambers explained the office-like appearance of the coal bin: "It's cooler down here.'

It was, too. From its dark coolness to that damp earthy smell to the parallel universe inhabited by ghost furniture -- a whole living-room set draped in white sheets -- the cellar was my favorite part of the house. Really, though, there was nothing spooky about it; my Whittaker Chambers story had historical merit, perhaps, but it couldn't touch Bill's Tale of the Crypt.

The mortuary, rather. Seems Bill's boyhood friend had been George Sanders -- scion of the Sanders funeral-home family. The Sanders funeral establishment, still rising turreted and imposing from the corner of Broadway and North Avenue, is now part of the expanding Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Back in Bill's childhood, though, its upper floors were where the family lived and its basement housed the embalming lab.

"We kids were told never to go down there," Bill recalls. "So of course we did. Once."

Seems that scene from a dozen old horror movies -- rigor mortis sets in and the corpse sits up -- really happens. Or used to happen.

"George and I were about 8 years old. I think there was some kind of dare involved. Anyway, I saw something with a sheet over it suddenly rise up from one of the embalming tables. 'Hey, that's not funny, George,' I hollered. But then I saw the bottom half of George -- just his shoes and short pants -- disappearing up the stairs. You'd better believe I was right after him."

At least Bill likes my cellar story enough to counter it with another from his own past. "You know the Octagon House on Kurtz Avenue?" Bill used to live in one of the Historic Lutherville dwellings nearby. "Had a damp basement, you might say. We neighborhood kids used to take tin washtubs down there and stage naval battles. You didn't want to lose one of those battles. If you lost, your tub capsized. That water was six feet deep."

I recounted Bill's latest to my mother in a spirit of "You think you've got a wet cellar." As usual, Mother calmly trumped my ace.

"At the old Jencks House -- it's where the Walters Gallery's Asian art collection is now, but it used to be a private home -- Francis Jencks would send guests to the basement where the terrapins were swimming to pick which ones would go into their stew."

Seeing me blanch, she added a less gory bit of subterranea. At their house on Lafayette Avenue in West Baltimore, Grandma Naas (my great-grandmother) used to take a pitcher to the dirt-floored basement at dinner time to draw wine from one of the barrels given to Grandpa Naas when he was a Judge of the Orphans' Court. (I tried in vain to get her to juice up the story with subplots of bribery. "They were Christmas presents," she said with only the faintest note of doubt in her voice.)

Newfangled sanitary floor

Other barrels figure in my mother's Baltimore basement lore: barrels of oysters, barrels of sugar. She recalls the house on East Presstman Street -- part of a "new development" built around 1910 -- distinguished for its concrete floor, "much more sanitary" for food storage. "Visitors always went down to look at that newfangled floor and marvel."

I wonder if she and her many siblings ever played Barkeep or Fishmonger in those old cellars. Certainly I used to play Grocer in my grandmother's mason-jar-stocked pantry down the dark stairs at her house on Chase Street.

But more wonderful than the cellar pantry, more wonderful even than the gothic towers of the Penitentiary visible from the Chase Street windows, was the old coal furnace that lighted the whole enormous cellar a deep, flickering orangy-red. This furnace was colossal in size and vaguely humanoid in shape. My 4-foot-8 grandmother made larger-than-life shadows on the walls when she shoveled coal into its gaping maw.

Deeply religious, she unwittingly inspired my favorite basement game: Hell. Upstairs in the parlor was a leather-bound book of stories from the Bible; she let me leaf through its engraved illustrations by the hour. My special favorite was the babies in the fiery furnace of Moloch. If I sat in front of the Chase Street furnace and squinted my eyes long enough, I could see all sorts of creatures writhing in the flames.

Speaking of Bible, Baltimore and basements, I'll bet you didn't know that the bodies in the catacombs under St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, have been guarded for more than 500 years by a life-size painted-plaster statue that looks exactly like John Waters.

But strange Baltimore stuff lurking in basements outside Baltimore -- well, that's a whole 'nother story.

Clarinda Harriss teaches writing at Towson State University.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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