Lu Ann Marshall has been giving tours of the Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs for 38 years, so when she asked the UMB group attending her April 4 presentation how many were there because they love Edgar Allan Poe, she was shocked that not a single hand went up.
“OK, I’m leaving then,” joked Marshall, who is an academic coordinator at the Francis King Carey School of Law. “Well, actually, I’m going to talk about Poe for a while, so maybe you’ll love him when I’m done.”
Indeed, as the group of nearly 40 UMB employees, students, and staff sitting in church pews beneath Westminster Hall listened intently, Marshall offered up fascinating tales about Poe, the 19th-century American writer best known for his short stories and poetry. Poe died at age 40 in Baltimore in 1849 and is buried along with his mother-in-law and wife inside the hall’s gates at the corner of Fayette and Greene streets.
During the tour, which was organized by UMB’s Council for the Arts & Culture in cooperation with the law school, Marshall also spoke about the history of Westminster Hall, once a 19th-century Presbyterian church, and its graveyard. She told of Frank the Body Snatcher, the janitor who would steal corpses for medical school students to study. She talked about ghost hunters and reports of paranormal activity in the catacombs. And she discussed the dignitaries buried there, most notably Samuel Smith, a former U.S. senator, House representative, Baltimore mayor, and military general who was responsible for the defense of Baltimore in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
“When Smith died in 1839, the city of Baltimore basically closed and everybody went to his funeral,” Marshall said. “He should be the most famous person buried here.”
If not for Poe, of course. “Yes, Poe is our big draw,” Marshall said.
And what about Poe? Marshall delivered a series of interesting stories, including:
- Poe was popular with children, but less so with adults. “He used to walk down the street and kids would follow him after ‘The Raven’ came out and get him to recite the poem,” Marshall said. “But people were a little skittish about him. He was not a monster, and he respected women, but he had this wicked sense of humor and a wicked imagination, and that’s what got him into trouble.”
- He married his first cousin, Virginia, but that was not uncommon in the mid-19th century. “That kept not only the family name, especially if you were prominent, but it also kept the money within the family,” she said, adding that Poe was 26 and Virginia 13 when they married, also not unusual back then. “Young girls married men who were old enough to support the family, so a lot of times their husbands were in their 20s and 30s or beyond.”
- Virginia died in 1847 at age 24 and was buried in New York. About 40 years later, the graveyard was being moved, so the cemetery’s caretaker took her remains, mostly bones by then, and stored them under his bed for a year while he raised money to travel to Baltimore to reunite her with Poe. “Now, that is a Poe fan,” Marshall said. “He brought her to Baltimore and insisted on placing her in a bronze casket, and she was placed under the Poe monument.”
- The circumstances surrounding Poe’s death add to his mysterious legend. He was found unconscious in the doorway to a polling place on Lombard Street, near what is now Little Italy, and died five days later, she said. “God, help my poor, tortured soul,” were among his last words. “There have been about 25 reasons given as potential causes of his death, including alcoholism and drug addiction,” Marshall said. “There’s even a theory that he died from rabies, which is interesting for someone who wrote ‘The Black Cat.’ On his death certificate, it said ‘brain fever.’ If they didn’t know what you died from, that was listed as the cause.”
- Poe was a distinctive dresser and easy to recognize. “He always wore a very nice black hat, carried a silver-tipped cane, and always wore a black suit with cravat tie,” Marshall said. But when Poe was found unconscious before his death, he was wearing dirty work boots and pants that were too short and tied with a rope. This led to the theory that Poe was cooping, a 19th-century practice in which men were forced to vote repeatedly for the same candidate in an election. They would be “cooped up” in a warehouse, given drugged liquor, and taken to polling places in different clothing or disguises to evade detection.
These are but a few of the stories about Poe that are central to the Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs Tour. The Westminster Preservation Trust, which owns the hall and grounds, sponsors tours four times a month from April through November, during weddings at the site, and for individual group outings.
Leading the way, always, is Marshall, who calls it a labor of love.
“I’ve always been fascinated by history – and graveyards,” she says. “My father and I used to enjoy driving through graveyards, so this kind of combined two of my loves.”
— Lou Cortina
To learn more about the upcoming events at Westminster Hall, click here.