Is there anything quite as eerie as cemetery statuary? Always solemn and often beautiful, it consistently gives off an uncomfortable “alive and watching” vibe. I mean, who doesn’t love the feeling of being among the living dead? So it is no shock that Baltimoreans let their imaginations run wild at the sight of the grave statue know as “Black Aggie.” The bronze sculpture, which sat in Pikesville’s Druid Ridge Cemetery for over 40 years, is a haunting depiction of a woman with a huge black hood that obscures most of her stoic face. To call her scary would be kind. Her story is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction (cue spooky, demented laugh).
The statue was placed in Druid Ridge in 1925 at the grave site of Felix Angus, a decorated Union Army general and publisher of the Baltimore American newspaper who died at the age of 86. While planning the Angus family grave site, he purchased the statue in 1905 from a sculptor named Eduard Pauch. Can you imagine seeing this gratuitously spectral image and thinking “that’s the one!” I guess the early 1900’s were less about celebrating the life of the deceased…
Frightening enough in the daylight, one can only imagine how creepy the statue looked at night. Tales of horror that started as gossipy whispers turned to parlor room chatter and then to local newspaper stories and the legend of Black Aggie was born. So what were those stories? Well, run these visuals: her eyes glowing red at the stroke of midnight, the dead rising from their graves to gather round her, her cold metal arms coming to life and clutching a young boy who is frightened to death.
As time went on, Aggie’s reputation grew and her site became a popular spot for trespassing teens. It was rumored that a local fraternity used her for hazing. (Poor pledges would have to spend the night in her arms!) With the young visitors, more modern stories began to circulate. One tale had it that those who visited Aggie at midnight would lose their virginity within 24 hours. I imagine 15-year-old boys making the pilgrimage like lemmings. Another mysterious Aggie detail was that no grass would grow around her. (Easily explained away, perhaps, by the trampling feet of the ever-increasing number of 15-year-old boys?)
In the end, the raucous teens and their vandalism proved to be too much for good old Aggs. In 1967, at the cemetery’s urging, Angus’ descendants donated the statue to the Smithsonian, but the museum relegated the statue to storage. Why? Well it turns out that that Black Aggie was an unauthorized copy of another statue with a much sadder, macabre and very real story.
Augustus St. Gardens was a premier American sculptor of the late 1800s. One of his most memorable pieces is the original statue from which Black Aggie is copied. It is a memorial for Marian Adams, the wife of Henry Adams (grandson of President John Quincy Adams), which sits in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Marian, who was called “Clover” by friends, had fallen into a dark depression following the death of her father in 1885. She committed suicide by drinking cyanide while her ever-watchful husband was at an emergency dentist visit.
Plagued by intense grief, Henry traveled to Japan to clear his head. Upon his return, he decided to replace the simple headstone that marked the grave of his beloved Clover with a more substantial memorial. He instructed St. Gaudens to create something with an Eastern feel. After four years, the compelling sculpture was placed on Marian Adams’s grave. Ironically, no one ever regarded the original as scary, but rather, sadly beautiful. Although Henry was reportedly pleased with the statue he never spoke publicly of his wife’s death and shunned the attention the monument received, even refusing to name it. Mark Twain viewed the memorial in 1906 and aptly dubbed it “Grief” and the nickname stuck. Mark Twain was good like that.
How angry Henry Adams must have been at the discovery that his cherished sculpture was being pirated. To add insult to injury there was evidence that Pausch took molds from the original. In a letter to a friend, Adams wrote, “Even now, the head of the figure bears evident traces of some surreptitious casting, which the workmen did not even take the pains to wash off.” How very sad.
So is the notorious troublemaker still locked away in some cavernous Smithsonian storage facility? Nope, she’s out and appears to be reformed. In 1998, the General Services Administration placed her in a sunny courtyard outside of the federal courthouse in Washington. There she sits, in a pretty landscaped patch, where the presumably unknowing courthouse employees take their lunch breaks. She almost looks peaceful…until night falls, of course.
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