Mikita Brottman

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"Crazy as a Bedbug": A Tour of Historic Belvedere Hotel Suicides

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People check into hotels for all kinds of reasons: to escape, to get drunk, to meet lovers, to hide out, to lie low. A lot of the things that go on in hotel rooms are furtive, and most of them pleasurable, but not all. One of the reasons people check into hotels is to commit suicide. You’re alone, there’s no one to make you change your mind, and you won’t be saddling your loved ones with the burden of discovering the body. I’ve lived in the Belvedere for five years, and I’ve enjoyed learning about the grand hotel’s exciting past, the parties, princesses and presidents it has hosted. But every hotel has a hidden history, and the Belvedere has seen its fair share of desperate characters. While most suicides go unreported in the press, those with a touch of drama sometimes make the headlines. Here is a selection of memorable tragedies from the Belvedere’s first 30 years.

On February 19, 1909, 17-year-old Thomas E. Sutton Jr. committed suicide at the Belvedere by inhaling chloroform. This troubled young man checked into the hotel after an argument with his father, who’d insisted Sutton give up his house key. According to The Baltimore Sun, “The father said he feared his son was keeping bad company and took the key from him for that reason.” Ten years earlier, Sutton had undergone an appendix operation at Maryland University Hospital, where he was put to sleep by chloroform, which apparently gave him the inspiration for his tragic plan. 

On June 15, 1917, around noon, a maid in the Belvedere noticed blood trickling from under a bedroom door. She called for help. The room was entered, and hotel staff discovered the body of Lawrence Perin, a “local society idol,” lying on the floor between wardrobe and bed, clad in his pajamas with a pistol beside him. According to The Washington Post of June 16, 1917, Perin, son of a wealthy Baltimore railway magnate, had recently “defeated the efforts of his relatives to have him declared insane.” A patient at the Phillips clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Perin had apparently checked into the Belvedere in order to take his own life. Letters left on the bureau to his wife and mother “indicated a recurrence of his mental depression.”

On October 28, 1918, Mrs. Bernice Chaney Webster, 20, was strangled to death in her bridal chamber on one of the upper floors of the Belvedere. The murderer was her new husband, 32-year-old Carlyle P. Webster, who’d swallowed poison but was still alive, when the police found him; according to The Baltimore Sun, he was “taken to Mercy Hospital and placed under guard.” A suicide note was discovered, apparently written by Mr. Webster, accusing his new bride of infidelity. “I have known the girl I married for nearly two years and I could not believe certain things,” he wrote. “I have loved her so much, so it is better that we both die together.”

On October 13, 1921, police rushed to the Belvedere after being informed via telegram that one of their guests was planning to take his own life. Harry C. Hassett was the president of a brokerage merchandizing firm in Toledo, Ohio. Unfortunately, police arrived too late. Hassett had shot himself in the bathroom of his suite. When found, according to The Washington Post, “he was holding a revolver in each hand.” He left a note declaring himself to be “as crazy as a bedbug.”

On February 2, 1929, the pajama-clad body of a man was discovered on the roof of the Belvedere’s second-floor sun parlor. The body turned out to be that of William Harvey King Jr., assistant to the president of the Baltimore Steam Packet Company. King either jumped or fell to his death from his hotel room on the 10th floor. According to The Washington Post, “William A. Faison, a friend, said King attended the Bal des Arts last night and did not return to the hotel until about 6:30 a.m. Faison said he believed King went to the window for a breath of air, lost his balance and toppled out.”

Taxicab Confessional: A Baltimore Cabbie Publishes His Own True Story

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A couple of months ago, my friend Thomas gave me a book he’d picked up for free at The Book Thing — Hey Cabbie!, a memoir by Baltimore cab driver and former police officer Thaddeus Logan. A pioneer of self-publishing (Hey Cabbie! was first printed in 1983 by “Logan Enterprises”), the author worked as a vice cop from 1969 until 1976, when he turned in his badge and gun in exchange for a taxi driver’s medallion — one of 1,100 or so permits offered in Baltimore City for cab drivers to operate within its boundaries. There were three printings of Hey Cabbie!, two hardback and one paperback, in which Logan invested around $5000 from his own pocket.

As long as you don’t mind a bit of circuitousness and repetition — and as long as you’re not a stickler for perfect grammar and punctuation — Hey Cabbie! is an engrossing read. Honest, up-front and opinionated, Logan makes it clear that driving a cab in Baltimore can be a sordid business, especially during the late 70s and early 80s. He picks up drunks, junkies, hookers and johns; he’s regularly cheated out of his fare, and when he’s not watching the road, he glimpses all kinds of unsavory business through his rear-view mirror. He gets hit on, robbed, beaten up and abused; in one anecdote, a homeless woman with her wig on backwards urinates in the back of his cab, and in another, gangsters hold him up at gunpoint. On the plus side, he gets invited to swanky parties, hears some fascinating tales, and accepts plenty of favors from attractive ladies in lieu of cab fare. 

In one passage, Logan explains the different ways in which cab drivers are addressed by men and women of various races and age groups (the author’s original eccentric punctuation and spelling have been retained): “Young black males will call the cabbie and their friends either ‘Yoe or Moe.’ The meaning of those names are unknown, but they are of ethnic origin and considered uncomplementary. The older blacks and whites, (let’s say of the middle class) will refer to you as ‘Mack.’ The elderly poor whites may sometimes refer to you as ‘boy.’ Women and the sophisticated will refer to you as ‘driver or cabbie.'”

During one ride, Logan recalls, “I turned to say something to the fare regarding his destination and to my surprise, I was confronted by this five- foot-long Boa Constrictor Snake which was wrapped around the man’s body.” On another occasion, he picks up a woman and her three children and notices she’s hiding something under her coat. “I asked her what she had under her coat and she showed me a butcher’s knife that was about 12 inches long. I said, “What are you doing with that knife, Miss?” She stated that she was going to kill the children’s father and the b**ch that he is laying with. Then she stated that she wanted his children to witness the incident.”

Logan has a penchant for italics, bold font and capital letters, his paragraph structure is seemingly random, and some of the vignettes seem to peter out without reaching a point, but the anecdotes are so engaging, you quickly forget the book’s formal anomalies. There’s a lot of light philosophizing among the stories, too. “The scroungiest dressed person could be one of the most highly intelligent and nicest people, and vice versa,” Logan informs us. “The same applies to tipping habits. There is just no formula to determine who is going to give you that extra money.”

Reading Hey Cabbie! is a bit like taking a taxi ride through the streets of Baltimore. It’s a wandering, fragmentary and sometimes halting journey, but there are some intriguing sights along the way. The book is long out of print, so keep an eye out for used copies at your local thrift store.

 

“Hidden Baltimore” is a new column by Mikita Brottman, investigating the stranger side of our city. Brottman teaches literature and film studies at MICA.

 

 

 

 

 

Lady in the Lake: The Mysterious Death of Sphinx Barmaid Shirley Parker

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On June 2, 1969, an electrical crew was dispatched by the Baltimore County Bureau of Highways to repair two burned-out lights in the fountain at the center of Druid Park Lake. The first man to climb the ladder and look down over the rim made a gruesome discovery: The body of a woman was lying face down in about two feet of water in a depression inside the top of the fountain. The body was quickly identified as that of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker, a 35-year-old African-American divorcee, who’d disappeared five weeks earlier “under mysterious circumstances,” according to The Baltimore Evening Sun.

Shirley Parker was a bookkeeper, barmaid, and waitress at Baltimore’s famous Sphinx Club. Beautiful, vivacious and popular, she was a secretary in a branch of the Urban League and volunteered for the NAACP. She’d been married twice, first to a man who lived in Pennsylvania, and then to a disk jockey named Joe Parker, who owned a record store on Edmondson Avenue. She was the mother of two sons, one who lived with his father in Pennsylvania and a second, David, who lived with Shirley and her mother.

The story of Shirley Parker’s last evening contains some contradictions. Most agree she was last seen on the evening of April 23, 1969, fashionably dressed in brown hip-hugger slacks, a yellow, orange and white print blouse, a rust-colored coat and pile-lined, knee-length boots. At the time, she’d been dating (and supporting) a 33-year-old man named Arno West. The night she disappeared, Mrs. Parker had gone to meet friends at a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue where, during the evening, she’d learned that Arno West had used her paycheck to buy a pants suit for another girlfriend, a woman who worked for the Social Security Administration.

According to witnesses, Shirley stormed out of the bar around midnight and went directly to Gwynns Falls Parkway, where West lived with his mother. Neighbors say they heard the couple arguing loudly on the porch. West later told police that Shirley was “very upset,” but denied the claim that he gave her “a nasty blow.” After their fight, however, the couple seems to have calmed down. West took Shirley out to another bar, then to visit friends. According to the Afro-American newspaper, “Mrs. Parker seemed angered about some matter and that he took her for a drive to cool off.”

After the drive, West said Shirley asked him to drop her off her in Druid Hill Park, near the lake. “After she got out of the car on Cloverdale Road, near the park, and started walking, he told police he became worried and followed her,” reported the newspaper, adding that before he drove off, West noticed Shirley climbing over the 15-foot-high iron railing around the lake. He returned to the scene, then “he handed her purse to her after she was persuaded not to enter the lake.” He then drove her home, according to West, though Shirley’s mother, Theresa Wright, said Shirley never came home that night. Later that week, according to West, he noticed Shirley’s purse hanging from the inside of the railing surrounding the lake in Druid Hill Park and reported it to the police.

Those who knew her say Shirley Parker just wasn’t the kind of person to leave home with no explanation, and her family was immediately alarmed. A nationwide search led to sightings as far away as California. One woman claimed she’d seen Shirley in Baltimore the morning after she was reported missing. A Baltimore medium said she was getting vibrations in the case and promised she’d soon have an answer. She predicted that Shirley’s death “will soon reveal one of the most horrible crimes in history.” Three weeks later, baffled by the lack of clues, the police dragged the lake in Druid Hill Park, but no body was found.

That’s because Shirley’s body wasn’t in the lake, but in the fountain, where it was discovered on June 2. But what was she doing in the fountain, and how did she get there? Her body too decomposed for the coroner to determine the means of death, only to rule out several causes. She wasn’t strangled or stabbed, and she hadn’t used narcotics. “There were no needle marks, and we were particularly interested in whether she died this way,” said Dr. Edward Wilson, an assistant medical examiner, in an interview with the Afro-American. Dr. Ronald Kornblum, also an assistant medical examiner, reported to the Afro-American that the body showed no gunshot wounds, but it was “possible other indications of foul play had been washed or decayed away.” The recorded verdict was death by hypothermia, though Kornblum admits, “it is possible she was drowned before she was placed in the fountain,” though not possible that she drowned herself.

“It remains a questionable death but was never a murder,” Sgt. Roger Nolan, the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Department’s Cold Case Squad, told The Baltimore Sun.

Reportedly, Shirley was upset when she went missing, which might suggest suicide. She was a strong swimmer who’d won awards for the sport in the past. Perhaps she tried to drown herself and found it more difficult than she’d anticipated, making her way to the fountain in the middle of the lake. Did she climb up the fountain to signal for help? If so, why, in this busy park, did nobody hear her shouting? If she’d changed her mind about suicide, why not simply swim back to the bank? It’s hard to believe anyone would choose to commit suicide by sitting in the middle of a fountain until they died of hypothermia; it could take hours just to lose consciousness, especially on a hot summer night.

Yet the other possibilities seem equally remote. Some believe Shirley was drowned or knocked unconscious by Arno West, who then hid her body hidden in the middle of the fountain and, if she was still alive, left her to die. But the body bore no signs of trauma, and even though West was reportedly a strong swimmer, could he really have dragged the body of a 100-pound woman, dressed in her coat and boots, three hundred feet across the lake? Even if that were possible, could he then have pulled her body 20 feet up the long metal ladder at the side of the fountain?

Unsurprisingly, after Shirley’s body was discovered, witnesses appeared with memories they’d previously forgotten to mention. Some said they saw a rowboat on the water that night; others say they saw Arno West looking at the fountain through a pair of binoculars. West failed a lie detector test; nevertheless, he was released without charge, since no crime had been committed. According to the Afro-American, the police referred to missing links in the case, inconsistencies, and “possibilities beyond belief.”

Forty-two years later, a mystery still hangs over this act of violence or despair.

Mikita Brottman teaches literature and film studies at MICA.

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Baltimore Biologist Katie Manion Lives in a Zoo

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Name: Katie Manion
Occupation: Maryland Zoo Education Manager  
Neighborhood: Butchers Hill
Years in Baltimore: 9

Katie Manion is lucky. Ever since she was a child, she has wanted to work with animals; now, as an Education Manager at the Maryland Zoo, she spends her days introducing schoolchildren and other audiences to turtles, porcupines, penguins, chinchillas, and a 120-pound Indian python named Lucy.

Along with the zoo’s two other Education Managers, Manion works hard to provide all Maryland residents — schoolchildren, families, and adults — the opportunity to have personal encounters with wildlife.  She is in charge of the Maryland Zoo’s Outreach Program, a program that takes education on the road.  A group of specially selected critters are taken out in the Zoomobile — a sort of motorized Noah’s Ark — to schools, day care centers, senior homes and summer camps. Among other duties, Katie oversees the team of dedicated staff and volunteers that deliver these fun, entertaining, and educational programs with live animals to audiences across Maryland.

The Maryland Zoo was founded in 1876, and is the third oldest zoo in the country, behind Philadelphia (1873) and Cincinnati (1874). It actually had its earliest beginnings, however, in 1862, when Baltimore citizens began donating animals and birds to Druid Hill Park for public display, starting with four swans for the lake. Today, the 160-plus acre zoo property houses more than 1,500 mammals, amphibians and reptiles, including lions, leopards, giraffes, chimpanzees and elephants. (Elephant baby Samson turned three in March and already weighs over 2,500 pounds.) Katie, who moved to Baltimore from Pittsburgh in 2002, trained for her job with a B.S. in biology, and is currently enrolled in George Mason University’s Masters Program in Zoo and Aquarium Leadership.

Fifty different species reside in the Animal Embassy, including a Chinese alligator, a chinchilla, a small, leopard-like cat called a serval, and a 16-pound Flemish giant rabbit. Part of Katie’s job is getting the animal ambassadors accustomed to their traveling containers, which can be surprisingly small; when on the road, for example, the Chinese alligator travels in a large cooler that protects him from temperature changes, and the penguin in a modified crate. Katie points out, however, that the creatures soon get used to their containers, even to the point of climbing into them of their own free will.

While Katie doesn’t have a particular favorite among her special critters, she does admit to a special interest in what she refers to as “the more challenging animals.” Currently, these include a kinkajou called Kayla, a gentle-looking creature that resembles a cross between a monkey and a possum, but is actually a close relative of the raccoon.  “I’ve spent a long time getting Kayla to feel comfortable around people,” Katie confesses. “She can definitely be challenging to work with, but it’s very rewarding to see her grow more relaxed every day.”

Is it all business at the zoo, or does she ever get to pet the creatures she trains? “Well, they’re wild animals,” Katie demurs. “Some are friendlier and more affectionate than others, but we have to respect them. They’re not pets.”

One word of warning for anyone contemplating a future in the zoo business: The hours of a job like Katie’s can be unpredictable. Her weekly routine is often dictated by momentary circumstance, and while she mostly works nine to five, she sometimes also needs to work in the evening or on weekends. While it’s not part of her job to feed the animals or clean out their cages, she does need to keep an eye on their wellbeing while they are out on the road. The animals do occasionally get sick, Katie points out, so there’s a veterinary team permanently on staff, but most of their duties involve day-to-day preventative care and conducting the animals’ annual physical exams.   

Do things ever go wrong on the road? “When it comes to the animal ambassadors, we’re careful to select species and individual animals that behave well around people,” Katie points out. “That said, when you’re working with children and animals, anything can happen. I’ve been bitten, scratched and pooped on — I think we all have.” She also runs into people who don’t like to be around animals, often because of deep-seated fears or phobias. “Typically, people fear the animals you’d expect them to fear — the snakes, the tarantula, and the hissing cockroaches,” says Katie. “Our message to people is that the more they learn about the animals and the more they interact with them, the easier it will be for them to get over their fear.”   

Who picks names for the animals? “It’s really an organic process,” Katie explains. “Sometimes the Animal Embassy manager chooses the name, sometimes the name is chosen by a volunteer — that happened with Candy, the name someone chose for our corn snake. Samson, the baby elephant, was named by the public.” Most of the animals, however, are already named before they arrive, since they are generally either bought, traded, or on loan from another zoo. Some are even donated by zoo visitors — parrots, for example, often come from people who don’t know what they’re getting into when they get a parrot as a pet. “That happens a lot,” says Katie,  “but we’ve already got two parrots — we really can’t take any more.” Occasionally, animals are born in the zoo, like the African penguins, which have been breeding very successfully.
   
Katie always enjoys her job, but her favorite part is watching the bond between humans and wild creatures. “I just love being able to help people make a connection with an individual animal and hopefully set them on a path of caring about wildlife,” she says. “I love that moment when you see someone coming face to face with a toucan, and you see the wonder in their eyes.”

SoWeBo

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Between 2001 and 2005, I lived on East Preston Street, between Charles and St. Paul, and every so often I’d hear the clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves outside my third floor window. Looking out, I’d see an Arabber selling fresh fruit and vegetables from his cart at the corner of Charles and East Preston, right opposite where Starbucks is now. I never see Arabbers anymore in Mount Vernon or even along Mount Royal, where I’d sometimes see a cart on the corner of Dolphin Street. But the Arabbers are still around, as I discovered this summer when a friend and I were taken on a walking tour of Southwest Baltimore courtesy of Martha Cooper, a photographer who commutes between New York City and her house in SoWeBo.

We started out journey at Hollins Market, and as we rounded the corner from Carrollton Avenue to Carlton Street, I got a whiff of country smells — straw and horse manure. Right there, tucked between Carlton and Lemmon streets, in a little crossroads of alleys, we came across a stable full of beautiful horses, a couple of ponies, some roosters, and two large coops of homing pigeons. Stablehand Terry Partlow introduced us to his horses Buck and Diamond, and showed us the horse-drawn cart and rig he uses to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables. The Carlton Street Stables look small from the outside, but are actually quite commodious, and–with the exception of one dirty pony that was tied up outside, waiting for a bath–the horses all appeared clean and well-kept. It was strange to find this little farm right in the heart of urban Baltimore — strange but wonderful, as there’s nothing better than the fresh scent of the stables. And although the Arabbers themselves may no longer be as common as they once were, it’s good to see their horses are cared for and going strong.

To learn more, check out the engaging documentary We Are Arabbers, completed by Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco Kecken in 2004. See the trailer video on our homepage.

It’s My Job: The Belvedere Wedding Planner

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Name: Kat Philgreen
Occupation: Event Coordinator for Truffles at the Belvedere
Age: 27
Neighborhood: Mount Vernon
Years in Baltimore: 1 ½

Kat Philgreen is a genuine romantic. She knows the pitfalls of working in the wedding business—“it’s very easy to grow cynical,” she points out—but the glamorous redhead loves her job, and even when she’s been working hard right down to the very last minute, she still finds herself crying during ceremonies almost every time.

Kat came to Baltimore a year and a half ago from Charleston, SC, where she worked in sales and event operations. She moved here after acing an interview with Truffles, the catering and events company based in the old Belvedere Hotel, and it’s a sign of how devoted she is to her job that Kat and her husband live right across from the Belvedere, on Chase Street in the heart of Mount Vernon.

Truffles was taken over by new management in August 2009, and since then, the owners have refurbished all the Belvedere’s five grand ballrooms, laying down new carpets, installing dance floors, and updating the furniture. As a result, the company has seen an upswing in business, and that’s good news for the venerable hotel, once known as the most glamorous place to stay in Baltimore. Today it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1903 on the site of John Eager Howard’s Belvedere estate, the hotel hosted JFK, Woodrow Wilson, Wallis Warfield Simpson and Clark Gable, to name-drop just a few. For the last couple of decades the Baltimore landmark’s reputation had diminished as the city has undergone tremendous change. Now it’s back on the rise. Although evenings during the week are often quiet, there can be as many as five weddings every night at the weekend, and Kat is busy booking brides into 2013.

“Once the bride has set her date, it’s my job to hold her hand and guide her through everything, helping to calm her nerves and ease the stress,” explains Kat. “I help people select their vendors, I make menu recommendations, I plan the flow of the wedding, and I keep everything on track. And of course, I’m there on the big day as well. I’ve literally had to make corsages when there haven’t been enough. I’ve even had to take out my own bobby pins to fix the bride’s hair in place.”

One of the things Kat loves most about her job is learning about wedding customs from other cultures. “I’ve been involved with so many different kinds of weddings,” she says. “Here in Baltimore, there are so many different faiths, cultures and ethnicities. For example, a few weeks ago, we had a wedding where the bride was Indian and the bridegroom was French, and they were both from very prestigious families. The bridegroom had a Hindi ceremonial procession, which is called a baraat. In India, they sometimes use an elephant, but in this case they had a horse, which the groom rode from Eager Street, up Charles Street and right to the front of the Belvedere. There was Indian music playing, and all the guests were singing and chanting. It was one of the most ornate weddings I’ve ever seen. The invitations were so beautiful. The family invited me to attend the ceremony, which was two and a half hours long—they did it in Hindi, French, and English.”

Apart from attending lavish weddings, what are the other perks of the job? “I’ve made so many friends,” says Kat. “After the wedding’s over, I’ll often get to know the couples and I’ll see them when they come back to the Owl Bar. And I’ve learned so much about different wedding customs and ceremonies.”

Still, things don’t always go smoothly. Kat describes a recent wedding between a Jewish Syrian groom and an American bride. “It was going really well,” she says, “until it was time for the groom to stamp on the glass. They’d put the glass in a special cloth pouch to protect it, but it was heirloom blown glass, which must have been really strong, because it went right through the groom’s shoes and cut into his foot. We had to run and get the first aid kit and bandage him up.”

Other than that, most of Kat’s weddings come off without a hitch, though tense and anxious families will sometimes use her as a scapegoat when things get out of control. “We recently had a wedding where the officiant was half an hour late, and everybody was freaking out,” she recalls. “Obviously, there was nothing I could do except to keep calm and offer the bride another glass of champagne.”

I ask Kat whether there’d been an increase in gay weddings at the Belvedere. “Not yet,” she tells me. “I’m hoping we’ll do more in the future, but right now, the civil ceremony has to take place somewhere else. We had a gay wedding last Saturday in the Palm Room, although they had to go to DC for their civil ceremony. They were a great couple, so happy and romantic. They’d asked for the chef’s choice, and that always depends on what’s available. But they were lucky because that weekend, we had four other weddings, so the chef’s choice was this amazing entrée duet of steak and salmon. It was perfect.”

Truffles organizes other events, too, as well as weddings. “We also do Mitzvahs, holiday parties, corporate events and high school proms,” Kat says. “There’s this one high school that has a Great Gatsby lunch every year, after they’ve all finished reading the novel. That’s always a lot of fun.” Has she organized any themed weddings? “Not many, no, but on the Belvedere Bride blog, Averil, our sales and marketing manager, has suggested a number of movie themes to fit with each of the ballrooms.” How about a “Mad Men”-style wedding? “We haven’t had one yet, but I think the show’s done a lot to change the way people think about décor and aesthetics. I know it’s done a lot for me. People are always telling me I look like Joan Holloway, and I use her as my own personal style guide. Whenever I’m making an important decision, I think to myself, “Now, what would Joan do?”

Ghost Sightings at Old Rosewood Hospital

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Anyone hoping for a scare this Halloween might be tempted to visit Rosewood in Owings Mills, an abandoned mental hospital established in 1888 as an “Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded.” My advice is to steer clear, as the property has recently been purchased for development by Stevenson University, and the grounds monitored by constant security, a precaution deemed necessary as the old property has, in the past, been something of a magnet for ghost hunters and urban explorers (there’s a hundred-year-old burial ground from when a flu epidemic hit the hospital). For those intrepid enough, however, the hospital is supposedly haunted, and ghost sightings are not unknown. In fact, according to spook-hunters, the ghost of a woman has been sighted in the third floor window of the main building.

Overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed throughout its existence, Rosewood was referred to as “Maryland’s Shame” in a 1949 multi-piece article by The Baltimore Sun. After the State Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene merged in 1969, the facility fell into disuse. The main building burned in a 2006 case of arson, and the remains are still fenced off, charred and ruined. The property has recently been purchased by Stevenson, though is as yet undeveloped, partly because the buildings are laden with asbestos, and there’s lead paint within the deteriorating walls and the tunnels that run beneath the buildings. Soil tests have shown evidence of various toxins, including arsenic. When I visited this summer, the old asylum was overgrown, weed-bedecked, and covered in spooky graffiti. Old file cabinets were visible amid the charred remains of what was once the main ward. It’s difficult to imagine that before too long, students will be happily playing Frisbee on the lawns. Will the ghosts of the old hospital walk the halls? We can only wait and see.

Beautiful Druid Hill Park: Where the Bodies are Buried

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“Druid Hill is such a beautiful park,” wrote the author Upton Sinclair, reminiscing about his childhood in Baltimore. Before he was 10, Sinclair read the entire works of Shakespeare in two weeks in Druid Hill Park, and on a walk in the park one winter night he saw a vision of Shelley “on fire with high poetry.” I take my dog to Druid Hill Park every week, and while I’ve yet to see a vision of Shelley, I’ve seen fox, deer, box turtles, and — yesterday morning — a small rat snake. Is it possible some of these reptiles are sneaking out of the zoo?

The Maryland Zoo, of course, is perhaps the park’s central attraction, though it contains many other places to visit, including the Howard Peter Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, with its historic Palm House and Orchid Room, both built in 1888. There’s also an 18-hole disc golf course, a circular jogging track round the reservoir complete with exercise machines, a swimming pool in summer and a farmer’s market every Wednesday, from 3:30 to 7:30.

Personally, I prefer the more secluded areas of the park, where  other pedestrians are few and far between, especially in the early hours of the morning. The northern end of the park, which apparently contains some of the oldest forest growth in the state of Maryland, is a natural wooded habitat. Here, undergrowth covers a crumbling man-made pond, and the roads are closed to traffic. There’s a graveyard in this area too, the burial ground for the Rogers-Buchanan family, whose graves date back to the 1700s.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only burial ground in the three square kilometers that make up this surprising inner city park. St. Paul’s Cemetery, which has recently been cleaned up by volunteers, sits on a knoll between the pedestrian Safety City and a group of seven tennis courts. In fact, the graveyard comes right up against the edge of one of the courts, which makes for a nice juxtaposition, and reminds us of that in the midst of life — even when practicing our backhand — we are in death. Finally, any fans of “The Wire” remember what happened to the body of Wintell “Little Man” Royce, who was killed by Wee-Bay at the end of the first season? That’s right — it was dumped behind the Reptile House, in Druid Hill Park.

The Fetish King: Managing Chained Desires

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Name: Christopher King
Occupation: Fetish Boutique Manager
Neighborhood: Gardenville
Years in Baltimore: 8

If you’re the kind of person for whom leather whips, switches and harnesses count as “lifestyle essentials,” you may already be acquainted with Christopher King, the friendly manager of Chained Desires on Mount Vernon’s picturesque Read Street. For those less familiar with the local bondage scene, despite the shop’s exterior, Chained Desires contains nothing to be scared of. Although to the casual observer, the basement level storefront with its rows of whips and chains might seem slightly intimidating, thanks to Christopher King, Chained Desires is about as friendly as a bondage boutique can get.
   
King, a Gardenville resident, has always had a strong interest in sexual subcultures, especially the world of drag. Before moving to Baltimore, he worked for MAC cosmetics as a makeup artist in the boutique he managed on Philadelphia’s South Street, Trixie L’Amour. Here, he advised aspiring drag queens and female impersonators on makeup to match their wigs, stilettos and feather boas—or to clash with them, depending on personal taste. When Trixie L’Amour closed down three years ago, King continued to work for MAC another five years, then moved to Baltimore and trained in leatherwork as part of his internship at Chained Desires (the boutique has an on-site custom workshop where harnesses, saddles and bustiers are made-to-measure).

The store also sells costumes, whips, shoes, gags and what King describes as “high-end inflatables.” “It’s the only store of its kind in the city”, he informs me, proudly. “And Mount Vernon is the gayborhood. Sure, there are other adult stores that sell novelties, like Sugar in Hampden, but this is the only store that specializes in real custom leatherwork.”

The leather workshop is a hangover from the store’s previous identity. Eight years ago, the space that now houses Chained Desires was home to the Leather Underground, a venue that catered more specifically to gay men. Chained Desires, on the other hand, has a more diverse clientele: straight, gay, queer and trans. “We sell everything that’s needed for bondage, scene play, pony play, you name it” said King. “We have harnesses, bits and bridles, and all alterations are done free of charge on-site.” What kind of costumes is he asked to create? “Anything you can imagine,” he laughs. “Recently I had a special request from a stripper who wanted a squirrel tail made from fake fur. Not just a little thing, either—I mean, she wanted a gigantic tail, proportionate to her body, that plugged into her b(ottom).”

Behind the shop counter in his Read Street basement, King gets the chance to meet a fascinating cross-section of Baltimore’s residents. “My customers are doctors, lawyers, Hopkins professors, as well as just regular people,” he tells me. “A city court judge comes in here a lot, and a private chef.” Their common denominator is an interest in BDSM (bondage, domination, submission and masochism). “The doms and subs have an interesting dynamic,” said King. “The doms will come in and choose what they want, and the subs will pay for it. Under the counter, we keep a Gift Registry especially for doms, with a wish list of all the things they want. Then when they feel like it, they’ll send their subs in to buy them something special from the list. Sometimes they’ll get here in wrist or leg manacles. That can make it difficult coming down the front steps. Sometimes I have to go and help them out.”

Since he’s started working there, King feels, Chained Desires has taken on the shape of his own quirky personality. He oversees two assistants, both female, who, like himself, are relaxed and outgoing—a vital attribute, since those visiting the store for the first time can be nervous and tongue-tied. King likes them anyway. “I love working with all the different people that come in, helping regular customers find the special things they want,” he says. “I also like helping new people, those who’ve never tried anything like this before. I like suggesting new things for them, helping them to experiment and broaden their tastes a little.” Are there any drawbacks to the job? “Not really. Sometimes people just drop in looking for a novelty toy for a bridal shower or something like that, and I have to explain to them we’re not an adult toy store, we’re a fetish boutique. Then there are people who just come in to try things on and don’t want to buy anything. That can be a little annoying.”

What’s his favorite thing about his job? “Everything,” says King. “I love it here. I’m a pervert!”

Haunting the Antique Toy Museum

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Walk too fast and you’ll miss it: The Antique Toy Museum at 222 W. Read Street is a little like a toy itself. The front of the bijoux store houses Anne Smith Antiques and Fine Art, Anne Smith Gallery and Joseph Lehn’s Antique Frames. Enter the enchanting little shop, pay $5 and you’ll be allowed back behind the curtain and into a forgotten world. The floor creaks and a pleasantly musty smell pervades this dark little museum, which feels like a Victorian attic. Among the display cases with their dollhouses and tiny furniture, you can sense the ghosts of childhoods past. The museum’s pieces date back to 1800 through 1950, with the majority dating from 1880 to 1910—an unusual collection which makes this odd little museum one of Baltimore’s most offbeat, elusive pleasures.

Dollhouses of various shapes and sizes make up the bulk of the museum, but there’s also a doll-sized restaurant and a miniature general store, along with fans, hatboxes, tea sets, jigsaws, xylophones and spinning tops. There are children’s books, magic tricks, model trains, marionettes, masks, games, circus animals, vintage zoo sets, Noah’s arks and cut-out dolls with colorful paper wardrobes. There are paints, crayons, and vintage magic tricks. Everything is meticulously ordered, and the dollhouses have been finished and painted by Anne Smith herself, a collector of antique toys for the last 32 years. Sadly for us, Ms. Smith has recently decided to sell off her collection and move to Florida, so if you haven’t visited the museum yet, this could be your last chance. Ms. Smith hopes to keep her collection together, so anyone with a yen to purchase an Antique Toy Museum should explore this link.