Mass burial honors those who gave bodies to science, or who went unclaimed

Singe marks still scar the wall of the Canton grocery store where Stanislaw Ptak spent his final night outside. The homeless man died six months ago after he accidentally set himself on fire while lighting a cigarette.

The rowhouse on Pitcher Street where Matthew Jon Ward was found dead of hypothermia is still vacant and boarded. He died eight years ago after a long, tortuous struggle to overcome an addiction to drugs.

Ptak and Ward are like hundreds of people who every year — whether by design or circumstance — had their bodies turned over or given to the state anatomy board for science. They will share a final resting place, cremated and placed under a single grave marker in a field at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

Monday, mourners will gather as 600 more boxes of ashes are buried, joining 20,000 others, in a mass burial held every year in June. "The state has a duty to provide a dignified disposition of a body, with humanity," said Ronald S. Wade, director of the state anatomy board. "I'm a big believer that at some point, rest in peace."

With her husband and sister, Ward's mother plans to attend the service, her first visit to her son's grave after having spent years trying to locate him. She found her son in February, on a missing persons website, and learned he had been interred in Sykesville in 2006, his name unknown.

Ptak's ashes will be buried next year. Though a sister came forward shortly after the death, she left her 69-year-old brother's remains with the state, and the remains can't be buried until 2012, in case another relative comes forward.

Many of the people buried in Sykesville, like Ptak and Ward, died quietly and alone — their family histories, and sometimes even their families, lost. They all have stories, and though most will be buried with them, perhaps forever, survivors say they are grateful for the respectful end.

At least now, Rosemary Ward Mack knows that somebody cared after her son had died at the age of 32. "Knowing how well Maryland has treated him has been a comfort to me," she said. "I am really glad to know that he was treated with respect."

'It's him'

Ward's mother described a tumultuous life, with him growing up mostly in Eugene, Ore., but dropping out of school and leaving home at the age of 16. He hung out with older kids at the University of Oregon, where his mother suspects he was first introduced to narcotics.

From there began a series of moves — to California, where he obtained his high school equivalency, to Florida, where he worked at a used book shop, to New Jersey, where with his girlfriend he saw the smoke from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He lived in South Baltimore and New York. He kept making efforts to get clean.

In 2002, he settled in with his mother at her new home in Owings Mills. He left in January the following year, turning up on Maryland's Eastern Shore — troubled but hoping for a fresh start in a rural setting where drugs are harder to come by.

On Feb. 21, 2003, the day he turned 32, Ward took a bus from Queen Anne's County to Baltimore to spend time with his mother. "We went to 7-Eleven, we got Sprite and Little Debbies and ate, and we watched television," she recalled. Ward was on the bus back to the Eastern Shore the next day. He called her the following day and told her he could get into a program, and asked for $100, and for her to come get him. Mack told him no, she had to work. Deep down, she wasn't sure.

She never saw nor heard from him again.

Mack tried unsuccessfully to file a missing-person report. She contacted the people with whom her son had most recently lived, but they said they'd put him on a bus to Baltimore.

In all the years, the mother said, "whatever was going on in his life, no matter where he was, he had never ever missed a Mother's Day. We either saw each other or he called me."

Mother's Day passed without a call. Mack knew something was horribly wrong.

It was.

On Feb. 26, 2003, five days after Mack had last seen her son, a Baltimore officer answering an anonymous call found his body, though no one knew it was him at the time. It was an unidentified male, fully clothed, lying face up on the second floor of an abandoned rowhouse at 612 Pitcher St., just off Pennsylvania Avenue.

Police said they found a hypodermic needle in the left breast pocket of his shirt. There were no signs of trauma. At the morgue, he was No. 03051. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death hypothermia, and noted drug use.

They had nothing to identify him. His finger prints didn't match anything in the system.

Ward's body was sent to the anatomy board, and used for science, possibly by medical students during the course of their studies. The body was cremated on Jan. 9, 2004, and was interred in Sykesville in June 2006.

Meanwhile, Mack kept searching for her son. She paid an online service to determine whether her son was in prison. She walked the streets of Baltimore looking. She called anybody and everybody she or her son knew. She turned to a private investigator. She stayed up nights crying.

"Despite all of his problems, he was a wonderful person," Mack said. "He was smart. He was extremely handsome. He was funny, he was tender."

On Feb. 1, more than seven years after police had found the body in the Pitcher Street rowhouse, Mack was at home searching the Internet, looking for support groups. She pulled up a website,, and saw a drawing of a body with light brown eyes and a description of a tattoo with a cross on the chest.

"I was kind of hanging onto the monitor and just rocking, standing up and sitting down, and I was saying, 'It's him, I know it's him. I found him.'" Mack said. "I never stopped looking."

She called the number on the website and spoke with a founder, Kylen Johnson. "That was the most heartbreaking call I ever had in my life," Johnson said. "It was so raw."

No. 03051 had a name: Matthew Jon Ward.

Mack had found her son.

It was only after authorities had a name that they found a fingerprint match to confirm his identity. Ward had no arrest record in Maryland, and the states in which he had been jailed didn't upload prints for nonviolent offenders into a federal database. Officials obtained prints to make the comparisons.

"I think it's absolutely wonderful of his mother to have been absolutely dogged through the years," said Dr. David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner.

'He wasn't a beggar'

On the streets of Southeast Baltimore, the people who knew Stanislaw Ptak knew him as "Stan," or "Stosh." They recognized his frumpy shape, defined by the piles of clothes he wore as he made his rounds along Canton's waterfront.

There are few records of Ptak, who spent years on the city's streets. He appears to have had no family in the area, with the exception of a sister who did not want to be interviewed.

City police have a record of Ptak, after citing him for trespassing back in 2003. But the officer misspelled his name in the report, writing "Pdak," and put his address at 4 N. Central St., the Baltimore Rescue Mission.

Ptak's routine included moving from bar to bar, but he would usually stay only briefly, often being kicked out because of his appearance.

He sometimes stopped in at Pols Cafe on Foster Street to grab a pint of vodka, and talked with the patrons. The narrow brick rowhouse bar serves domestic beers on tap and offers a Hot Polish Dog for $2 with sauerkraut or chili.

Friends believed Ptak had been homeless for some time after coming to the United States from Poland at least 15 years ago. Stanislaw Mikolajek said he used to let Ptak share his apartment, but couldn't let him stay permanently for fear of losing his housing subsidy.

"I told him I can't help him," said Mikolajek, 59, who said he's on disability and came to the U.S. to escape communism. "I don't work." He said he thought Ptak had a wife and children back in Poland. He never learned to speak English.

"Everybody would look out for him," said Edward Kolakowski, 64, a longtime Canton resident and bar patron, explaining that Ptak rarely spoke of his past. "He wasn't a beggar. He never asked anybody for anything."

Ptak sought help from Healthcare for the Homeless in February and April of 2008. "We had no contact with him after that," spokesman Kevin Lindamood said.

But Ptak was known in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods where he spent his time. Residents remembered him as the unkempt but friendly man who lived outside the Canton Safeway.

"He stood out," said Dennis Trencher, a longtime Federal Hill resident who shopped at the store. "He almost looked ashamed — there was a sadness to him. I wanted to help but I couldn't. What can you do?"

On Dec. 15, Christianna McCausland, a freelance writer who lives in Canton, was walking home when she passed a side entrance and saw flames among a pile of blankets. "I saw that there was smoke and fire," she said. "I had a sinking feeling it was a person."

She and another man called 911 and tried to extinguish the flames, at one point taking a case of water from the store to dump on him. The people trying to help the man repeatedly asked, "What is your name?" He answered, "Stosh."

The man muttered something, "then he completely stopped," McCausland said. "This poor man, he didn't even look like a person."

Police came and told her she could leave, so she walked by St. Casimir's Church and burst into tears. "I still think about it," she said. "You don't forget about what a person on fire smells like."

Fire and police officials said Ptak suffered burns to more than 60 percent of his body. Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said Ptak burned himself while trying to light a cigarette. He died two days later at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

A social worker at the hospital learned his name, though a spokeswoman wouldn't say precisely how, citing patient confidentiality rules. Ptak's body was sent to the anatomy board four days after Christmas, and cremated a month later.

His remains are there today, in a building on West Baltimore Street, destined for the grave at Sykesville.