After Life's Fitful Fever
Digging up history and art in Green Mount Cemetery
By Maura Callahan
This is where Olivia Cushing Whitridge's body is. Her small, plain headstone is tucked away into the corner of the Whitridge plot at Green Mount Cemetery, the engraving turned away from the rest of her family out toward the rolling hills of the grounds, and beyond that, the cityscape. "Olivia Cushing daughter of John & Catherine C. Whitridge, born September 8th 1837 died December 7th 1839." At 2 years old, she became the first person buried at Green Mount. Over 65,000 others would follow, including, right beside her, another Olivia Whitridge, also daughter of John and Catherine. Olivia 2 lived to 14. Her headstone is slightly larger than Olivia 1's and is topped with an open book carved into the worn stone.
I drop my head, trying to behave and think the way I think you're supposed behave and think in a graveyard, to be sad and reverent for the Olivias and all the dead buried here, but instead I'm wondering if I'm a sociopath because I'm just stoked to be here, like how fucking metal is this? The remains of Baltimore's most esteemed and spooky, all in one place, lush with Victorian monuments that show the city's age. I need to come here in the winter. I am sorry.
But in my excitement I really do feel respect for these mostly very rich dead folks, in their current state anyway. Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt, various mayors and senators and military generals—I'm happy for them; they get to be buried here. "After life's fitful fever, she sleeps well," reads the epitaph on the raised tomb for Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, daughter of William, who helped found the B&O Railroad and is the namesake for Patterson Park. To his disappointment, Betsy married Napoleon's brother Jérôme, a French Naval officer. Betsy set the model for repping Baltimore in European powers through marriage that the family overseas found objectionable. Fellow Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson would follow a century and change later, marrying King Edward VIII, who abdicated so he could keep fucking her. Jérôme on the other hand had his marriage to Betsy annulled after his brother told him he would be stripped of all his titles and would lose all his money if he didn't. This was after the couple had a kid. Betsy once described her life as "a mean and grinding martyrdom."
An acorn from one of the ground's disapproving trees drops on my right shoulder, shaking me out of my obsessive spiral and pointing me in the direction of one of Betsy's distinguished neighbors—Elijah Jefferson Bond, who patented the Ouija Board. Story goes that Bond, the manufacturer, and a medium performed a seance in a room at 529 N. Charles St., now a 7-Eleven, to ask the board what it would like to be named. A plaque was recently installed in the 7-Eleven bearing the Ouija board design. That same design decorates the back of Bond's headstone. Unlike most of the graves here, the engravings on Bond's are still crisp, filled in black, the edges of the stone still sharp. He was buried in 1921 in an unmarked grave on his family's plot, until this new one was erected in its place in 2008. Robert Murch, who on his website calls himself "the world's foremost collector, historian, and expert on Ouija® and Talking Boards," conducted a 15-year search to find the patch of grass six feet above Bond's remains. I lie in that grass now and take a selfie with the new headstone, in part out of some perverse hope that I'll be haunted by Bond's ghost. No such luck so far.
Down a deep slope by the cemetery's edge, the actor who killed Abraham Lincoln also lies in an unmarked grave in a family plot at Green Mount, but no John Wilkes Booth superfan has succeeded in installing a more reverent monument. Instead, visitors place pennies, heads up, on the stubby headstones sucked halfway into the earth beside a looming obelisk bearing the Booth name. I think about how I saw or thought I saw John Wilkes Booth's disembodied foot at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia years ago. Later, when I Google "john wilkes booth foot mütter museum" I find no evidence of the assassin's foot ever being there, though they do have pieces from his vertebra removed during his autopsy. Maybe I'm thinking of someone else's foot displayed among the museum's jarred fetuses, diseased organs, and celebrity parts, like the thin deli slices of Einstein's brain.
So that foot must be here, six feet below, attached more or less to the leg Booth broke when he jumped to the stage at Ford's Theater below the box seat where the president sat with a new hole in his head. Apparently, Booth's great-great-grand niece and first cousin twice removed tried to have the body exhumed in 1995 to determine if this was in fact the body of Lincoln's killer—there's a pretty weak theory that Booth killed himself in 1903 in Oklahoma and that some other guy was shot and killed at Garrett's Farm in 1865 and buried in Booth's place. The Baltimore City Circuit Court told the Booth descendants "nah" on the grounds that the case for the body not being John Wilkes' is poor, that accurately identifying the long-decayed remains would be difficult, and that there's a good chance there are other Booths buried on top of him who would have to be disturbed from their slumber in order to get to their boi.
At the Booth grave I can more comfortably ignore the sanctity of the deceased, though my residual Catholic guilt nevertheless lingers as I scale the hill to the big mausoleum, stopping at the family vaults to admire the dirt gathering in the grooves of people's names and the rust dripping from the handles barely attached to the marble compartments, which hold actual dead people.
My shame peaks when I ask Groundskeeper Matt if he would let me into the locked mausoleum. He asks me what floor I need, no I'm not here for family, just wanna look around.
"No one ever wants to come in here," he says as he pulls out his keys.
But soon I find he's as thrilled as I am to stomp the grounds of Green Mount. He's lived in Baltimore on and off his entire life, he tells me, but never visited the cemetery until a year ago when he interviewed for his current job.
"I couldn't believe this treasure," he says.
The inside of the mausoleum is not what you'd expect after trudging past the thousands of deteriorating headstones. Inside, it's all neoclassicism slipping into art deco by way of slippery marble. A structure built to hold 675 full-sized crypts and over 200 niches for urns maybe shouldn't give off a feeling of slipperiness, but here I am destabilized by polished columns shooting up and down into diamond- and square-shaped tiles on the floor and on the ceiling, molded frames-within-frames in fluorescent pink and teal.
Maybe I say aloud that yes, this is where I want to remain for eternity because Matt then informs me that there are still quite a few empty slots in here and that prices aren't so bad, even though back in the day, the cemetery was reserved for the affluent—which, with my local newspaper section editor's salary that is soon to be cut off, does not include me.
To round out the mausoleum's exquisite power-clash, a set of Gothic stained glass windows installed at the back of the ground-level area used for services. Matt tells me the windows have only been here about a month; they were culled from Green Mount's crumbling chapel—the first thing you see when you enter the cemetery as the spire tugs at the ground below, a picturesque knoll with an eerie crown. The chapel is no longer safe to enter, Matt says, and it'll probably be torn down. They're just trying to salvage what they can before that happens.
So I beeline to the chapel, which looks small when you're taking in the whole of the grounds, but when you're pressing your face into the wide iron fence that protects it as I am now, each of the structure's eight sides feels imposing. The chapel's entrails spill out onto the grass between the octagon and the fence, chunks of muddy sandstone, cut from pinnacles and buttresses and other parts I imagine. Just beyond, a woman sculpted by Hans Schuler caves into herself with grief, the flower in her hand limp, a permanent resident in case no beautiful woman shows up to mourn these people IRL.
Green Mount is the place to experience Baltimore's history of neoclassical sculpture—plenty of William Henry Rinehart's bronze figures, now oxidized with glorious blue-green streaks. One, a tall Grecian woman, glorifies the resting place of the wife of Rinehart's patron/benefactor/daddi, William Walters, who was daddy to Henry Walters, who established the Walters Art Museum where his and William's stuff is on display, free to the public. Marking Rinehart's own grave near the cemetery entrance is a reclining Endymion, a young boy who by the powers of Zeus, for one reason or another, was kinda always asleep, and anyway the moon goddess Selene was so into Endymion that she felt it was OK to procure 50 drowsy daughters from him—while he was asleep.
Chewing on the implications of a headstone that vaguely or not-so-vaguely endorses pedophilia and somnophilia—and perhaps by extension necrophilia, considering this is a graveyard—I follow the bend of the cemetery's "Central Avenue" in search of the grave of the sideshow performer, actor, and later screenpainter Johnny Eck, a name on Green Mount's list of notable residents I've never been able to locate. Even with the help of the cemetery's gorgeous cream map, a mosaic of every single grave with the locations of the famous marked in red, I'm still unable to find Eck, whose life began and ended in the same East Baltimore rowhome.
I give up on my search and make my way to the entrance, fingering through a nearby bed of Black-eyed Susans and lavender on the way. I grab a sprig before I stop to admire the cemetery's mouth, a chunky archway designed by Robert Cary Long Jr., who also designed the Patapsco Female Institute, where females were once instituted into having educations in Ellicott City. The ruins are now used as an outdoor venue for weddings and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's summer productions and, when I was young at least, as a make-out spot for teenagers. I stop in the visitor's office, tucked into one side of Green Mount's entrance, to see into purchasing a hat. With the cemetery's logo embroidered in looping white letters over forest green fabric, the hat reminds me of the kind you see covering the bald spots of members to a second-tier golf club. Cash only, I'll have to bring $15 when I return next week.
I fear death. Really, I fear absence, the difference between someone or something existing and then not, the impossibility of a world with and without. History never bothers to reconcile let alone recognize that incongruence. A death is a point in a timeline with a before and an after, the fathomable circumstances on the outskirts of nonexistence. A cemetery like Green Mount, an accumulation of history complete with physical surrogates for its points, leaves no room for absence. And so it's a necessary and palatable—and even fucking metal—gesture toward death. This is where Olivia Cushing Whitridge's body is. Not where she doesn't exist. The unfathomable lies elsewhere.
Leaving Green Mount Cemetery behind for Greenmount Avenue, which is empty and silent as I walk north holding my flower, I drop my head.