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Westminster Hall Catacombs Tour Sparks the Intellect and Imagination

The land of the living and the dead came together during UMB’s guided tour of the Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs on Oct. 17.

While it may have been a sunny day in the land of the living, only tendrils of sunlight peeked through barred windows beneath the wooden floorboards of this former 19th-century Presbyterian church that shares a city block with the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Though the crossroads of Fayette and Greene were only a few steps away, faint sounds of traffic barely made their way through the catacombs’ dust-covered brick walls. The modern world seemed distant in this final resting place, making it the ideal backdrop for conjuring the Halloween spirit.

The event, organized by the UMB Council for the Arts & Culture in cooperation with the law school, attracted approximately 40 members of the University community. They gathered in church pews during their lunch hour as Lu Ann Marshall, the historic hall’s tour director for 37 years, regaled the audience with tales of macabre history, tragic deaths, body snatchers, and paranormal sightings.

Westminster’s dark history

Aside from serving as the final resting place of famed gothic author Edgar Allan Poe, Westminster Graveyard boasts a frightening history of its own. The catacombs, which Marshall pointed out is technically a covered graveyard, were originally created to ease a grisly problem that plagued 18th-century Baltimore.

“The cemetery was originally established in 1786 because the other Presbyterian graveyard was sliding toward Jones Falls,” said Marshall, who is an academic coordinator for the law school. “This would cause to the bodies to wash into the Inner Harbor. This was obviously disturbing to some people, especially when they knew the person.“

Westminster Presbyterian Church itself was constructed in 1852, more than 60 years after the graveyard was established. The reasoning? “People were commonly buried with their valuables, so they built the church to protect the graves. Kids would sometimes vandalize or kick in the headstones. You know, just kids being kids,“ Marshall quipped, bringing smiles to the audience.

Poe’s tortured soul

It would be difficult to discuss graves at Westminster Hall without mentioning Poe, but even the most seasoned literary fans were likely to learn something during this tour.

For example, Poe’s grave went unmarked between 1849 and 1875 after a train derailed in a railway accident and obliterated his headstone. “Poe’s was the only headstone destroyed in that accident,” said Marshall, punctuating a long list of misfortunes that the writer endured in life and death. Stories about Poe’s time in Baltimore were a special point of interest for many in the audience, who were eager to ask Marshall questions about his life.

UMSOM’s body-snatching past

Though the Carey School of Law leads the trust that preserves the church, the University’s connection to Westminster Hall and its catacombs goes far deeper.

“John Davidge believed that the best way for medical students to learn about anatomy was to dissect real human corpses,” Marshall said. Because of prevalent superstitious beliefs, the public was resistant to the idea of dissection, believing that a body must be interred undisturbed to allow the soul to pass into the next world.

In turn, the medical school needed to find more creative means of obtaining fresh corpses. The school’s resident janitor, Frank, would regularly moonlight as a body snatcher. “The original medical school was in walking distance to four graveyards, so I’m sure that was a factor in deciding its location,” Marshall said with a chuckle.

Some bodies were a little too fresh. Much to the horror of the tour’s audience, Marshall revealed that mispronouncing someone dead and burying them alive was not a rare occurrence.

“There are stories of people walking through graveyards and hearing screams coming from the ground,” Marshall said, inducing gasps from her rapt audience.

Paranormal activity

Listening to such stories, it is easy to understand why graveyards have captured the human imagination as sites of paranormal activity.

Some members of the audience peeked over their shoulders nervously as Marshall told them about the catacombs’ supposed hauntings: a hostile soldier, a ponytailed man, and giggling children (just to name a few).

Multiple ghost hunters and psychics have visited the catacombs, some seeing the same ghostly figures repeatedly. Some touring guests also have seen a spirit or two. As for Marshall? “I’ve never seen a spirit myself. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be working here anymore. But there are rooms I won’t go into alone,” she said.

Marshall closed the tour by allowing attendees to explore the catacombs and give the graves a closer look. Some graves were covered in giant stone slabs, which Marshall said were used to “keep the bodies from floating out of the ground during heavy rain,” while others were buried under monumental piles of old soil with rusted doors on their sides. Many of the graves also were marked with informative plaques.

The crypt was a special brand of eerie, with a claustrophobia-inducing low ceiling, multiple headstones huddled together, and a deep well that was meant to provide drainage to the catacombs. “The well doesn’t work very well. Once I was giving a tour after a big storm and there was a small coffin floating in the crypt,” Marshall said.

Overall, the guided tour of Westminster Hall’s Burying Ground and Catacombs offers something for everyone. It is part history lesson, part architectural study, part campfire tale, and more.

Miss the opportunity to explore this unique place right on campus? The Annual Halloween Tour is scheduled for Oct. 31 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. You also can view the silent classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as part of the law school’s “Lunch Under the Pipes” series Oct. 26 at noon.
— Jacquelyn White

Learn more about the upcoming events at Westminster Hall here.

Jacquelyn White University LifeOctober 20, 20171 comment
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Can-Do Spirit Lifts McMorris to UMB Employee of Month Award

Yvonne McMorris is a kind and trusting soul. Therefore, when her Carey School of Law colleagues told the faculty support manager she needed to attend a learning and development meeting on the 14th floor of the Saratoga Building on Sept. 28, she believed them.

She still believed them when UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, entered the conference room and sat beside her. When he said she did a great job, she thanked him and waited for the meeting to start.

When Perman stated he had a lot to say about McMorris, she softly asked, “This is not about learning and development?” Even several minutes after being told she was UMB’s Employee of the Month, she still could not get over the fact the scheduled meeting was a hoax, saying, “And I came here with notes and everything,” to the delight of the cheering and laughing group assembled for the occasion.

“One of the faculty wrote that you are both the most competent and the most dedicated faculty assistant with whom she has ever worked,” Perman told McMorris. “She talks about the fact that when faculty are working against a deadline, it’s almost always you volunteering to stay late to finish the work.”

After receiving a plaque, a letter, and a promise of $250 in her next paycheck that brought her to tears, McMorris leaned back in her chair, still in disbelief, and answered questions about her UMB career.

An Inquiring Mind

A legal secretary in New York before moving to Maryland, McMorris came to the law school in March 1999 to do secretarial work. A diligent worker, she quickly showed a “thirst for knowledge,” according to Mary Alice Hohing, director of administration and operations, taking classes to improve her skills, earning promotions to administrative assistant II (2001), coordinator for faculty support (2006), and office manager (2014) after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Baltimore.

Curious by nature, McMorris says it’s impossible to work at the school and NOT learn something. “I tell staff when your professor is writing something, engage them, ask them what it is they are writing about, and become interested in what they are doing,” she says.

She said that professor emeritus David Bogen, LLB, LLM, educated her about black history and slavery while he was writing a book about it. “Just sitting there and listening, gaining the knowledge that he has — that is how it is when I am with each professor,” McMorris says. “If they are writing, I like to ask them questions.”

In addition to reading articles, books, and manuscripts for the professors, McMorris puts together recommendation letters, assists with research — “whatever faculty needs” — and helps train her fellow staff members.

Her efforts are most appreciated.

Professor Donald Gifford, JD, who calls McMorris the most competent and dedicated faculty assistant with whom he has worked in nearly 40 years in legal education, says, “When some other assistants are faced with a challenging task, they respond, ‘It can’t be done.’ In contrast, Yvonne’s response is always ‘I do know that can be done. Let me see what I can do.’”

Professor Paula Monopoli, JD, adds, “Yvonne is a role model for all the other administrative assistants whom she helps to supervise. Her willingness to pitch in at any time demonstrates her excellence as a team player.”

Professor Andrew Blair-Stanek, JD, says, “She is immensely professional, hard-working, and conscientious.”

“I often say that great law schools are made up of great people — great students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” says Dean Donald B. Tobin, JD. “Yvonne McMorris is a perfect example. She represents our excellence. She is always willing to lend a hand; thinks ‘yes’ before ‘no’; and is always willing to take on new challenges and learn new things.”

When she read some of the faculty’s comments, McMorris smiled and said, “Wow, I’ll have to thank them.”

Dedication and Appreciation

Although she never expected to be August Employee of the Month, McMorris admits, “I give a lot.” She tells of running into an associate dean at midnight at the school when they were working on deadline projects, of students she has watched “blossom,” of longtime faculty such as William Reynolds, JD, and Daniel Goldberg, JD, who have given her as much as they have received. “I am fortunate to be able work with such wonderful people,” she says.

She attributes her work ethic to her faith and her parents.

“First of all, I’m a Christian, and the Bible states that I can do all things through Christ because He strengthens me. While living in England, my mom left nursing school to take care of her family. After my sister, brother, and I graduated from high school here in the United States, my mom went back to school full time for nursing, while she had a full-time job — it was now my mom’s turn. My mom gave me the inspiration for going back to school because she was my role model. She set the example. And she always says, ‘America is the land of opportunity.’ ”

With a wistful look, McMorris looked around the president’s conference room and exclaimed: “I am going to tell my children what happened today! I can’t believe this!”

— Chris Zang

Chris Zang Collaboration, Contests, Education, People, UMB News, University LifeOctober 11, 20170 comments
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RISING Baltimore keynote speaker, Lord John Alderdice

Lord John Alderdice, MB, BCh, is a member of the United Kingdom House of Lords and a University of Maryland School of Medicine clinical professor in psychiatry. His keynote speech, “Building Cohesion in Deeply Divided Societies,” on Oct. 23 will kick off a two-day RISING Baltimore symposium focused on sharing community engagement strategies across communities and professions.

Alderdice has been involved in the Irish peace process for the last 30 years as a political activist, party leader, and negotiator as well as a civil society leader, academic thinker, and analyst. His work challenges deeply held views of the role of law, religion, and culture in community distress and community reconciliation. Alderdice looks forward to returning to Baltimore.

Join us to welcome Lord Alderdice on Monday, Oct. 23, at 5 p.m. in Westminster Hall, Maryland Carey School of Law.

Please register to attend.


Virginia Rowthorn Bulletin Board, Collaboration, Education, For B'more, People, UMB News, University LifeSeptember 21, 20170 comments
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