Rotting Americana: An Evening in Fells Point, Baltimore, MD

Since Gores Truly is femme-driven – we’re big advocates for chicks and horror and want to give our XX-chromosome readers a chance to contribute to the horror-fest we adore. The following article by Nightshade Nash has been Murder-Her approved.

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The view of the harbor from the docks at Fells Point

Any time I go to the eastern seaboard I marvel at the history. The mingling of the colonial architecture with the modern creates a unique kind of picturesque beauty. The Baltimore area especially has a rich and storied past that I find fascinating. I had a bit of extra time on my last trip to the area and so I convinced my co-worker and friend Angie to indulge in a ghost tour with me at historic Fells Point. So we set off to explore this particular piece of history, held back only by the fact that my GPS apparently hates me and revels in sending me on tours through the most interesting (bad) neighborhoods possible along the way.

As we passed through the city neighborhoods marked by row after row of doorsteps we suddenly found ourselves entering an older, more historic, feeling part of the city. The whispers of tourism slowly returned as we entered into the port with the highest concentrations of pubs in the country. The oldest opened in 1775 has been continuously operating as a pub since. Currently it’s a country & western themed bar named, ‘The Horse You Came In On’, however it has been known by many different names over the years. More on that particular bar later.

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Side streets mingle the old with the new

After a quick bite to eat at a pub picked completely at random, Angie and I set out to explore this waterfront wonder. One of the brilliant things about traveling with Angie is that we are both people watchers and she has no fear of talking to random people.  So it happened that when we wandered into the historical society and found a man carving ships and wearing a cap with an Eagle, Globe & Anchor, she made a beeline straight for him. We both are married to Marines and travel the country teaching for the Marine Corps and one of the strangest things that happens when we travel is that we seem to be magnetically drawn to them.  A Vietnam veteran, he honored us with a few quietly spoken words about his time there and regaled us with historic tales of the area and of the sailors who had walked the streets decades before our time. He runs demonstrations now at the Fells Point Preservation Society and is quick with a smile and a tale of pirates.

What now? Pirates? Yep. Pirates. In the early days of our fair country, we had a small Navy. So the government sanctioned special ‘privateers’ during the revolutionary times. In essence, they legalized piracy. These legal pirates would pillage and spread chaos while on the sea and return to their upper middle class lives while on land. Many became quite wealthy in this way and Fells Point flourished with the influx of money, which the Privateers then doubled while in port as they threw open the doors to their homes as ‘taverns’ where sailors could stop in for a bite to eat and a pint. The result? Approximately 165 registered taverns and pubs. While only around 120 remain, it still makes for one hell of a pub crawl.

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As our wandering came to its inevitable end, we found ourselves in front of the rendezvous point for the ghost tour. Our point of contact greeted us with a list of names and an ‘oh so stylish’ ghost sticker. There are two tours available from Baltimore Ghost Tours’. A regular walking tour and a pub crawl. Angie and I were signed up for the regular walking tour but as we stood and waited for our tour guide, I watched as the pub crawl tour gathered and prepared to depart and started to feel like we had made the wrong choice. Just as I was pondering the merits of a Guinness, we were informed that our tour guide was in the process of vomiting up her insides. She hadn’t had time to find a replacement so if the tour sucked, we would be offered a refund. I looked across the square and saw a very pale woman (looking a lot like death warmed over) approaching.

I turned to Angie.

“Pub crawl?”

She took one look at the approaching vestibule of sickness and quickly nodded.

“Pub crawl.”

So with the director’s permission, we jumped off the good ship vomit and onto the 2 hour pub crawl. We stopped at a total of four pubs along the tour, breaking for about 20 minutes in each pub for participants to partake in a pint or a cocktail. Along the way we learned of the yellow fever epidemic that claimed so many lives, so quickly, that they were forced to bury people in mass graves, one of which was in the center of the square… where we were standing. Brilliant. I was standing on a mass grave; hell, people were dancing to street musicians on the mass grave. I resisted the temptation to inform them. At each pub we stopped at, our guide told of the strange and paranormal experiences of the staff (one pub requires their employees to sign a waiver due to the high instance of paranormal activity) and the history of the area from brothel to beer. Much to our disappointment neither Angie nor I saw any ghosts, but then again, maybe they were just blending in.

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As each pub blurred into the next and each 20 minute stay seemed to last longer (time moves more slowly when you are watching other people drink) we finally came to the second to last stop. This pub, was the one that kept my attention. As we stood outside the famed oldest pub in the country now dubbed ‘The Horse You Came in On’ our guide brought our attention to a gutter, which at the time was occupied in part by a large black SUV.

“This,” he said with flourish, “Is the gutter in which they found Edgar Allen Poe, clearly dying, drunk as a skunk and wearing someone else’s clothes.”

Now he had my full attention. Most of the rest of the group was at least one or two sheets to the wind and clearly oblivious to the profound statement that had just been made. Here I was, standing in the very spot that the great Edgar Allen Poe had collapsed near death. Fascinating. Apparently, this particular bar had been his favorite watering hole. He could be found there most nights when he was in Baltimore, drinking cognac. When they found him, they took him 10 blocks north to John’s Hopkins where he died 10 days later. The official death certificate lists rabies, which at the time was not uncommon. As I stood in that place, where he had his last moments of consciousness on this earth it struck me. What an undignified and yet seemingly poetic way for a master of horror to go. Lying face down in the gutter; a victim of what many now believe was not necessarily rabies, but of cooping.

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The Horse You Rode In On’s claim to fame, aside from being the oldest operating pub in the country is its alleged resident ghost. None other than Edgar Allen Poe, himself

Cooping was that era’s version of voter fraud. Representatives from a given party would round up ‘voters’ in the pubs and corral them in dark corners of the city giving them copious amount of alcohol (because you know, drunk people are clearly easier to control) rallying them up to vote for the candidate of choice. They would then herd them to every voting precinct to vote for said candidate before returning them to that dark corral to exchange clothes with one of their fellow men before setting out to vote all over again. Which certainly does account for the ‘wearing someone else’s clothes’ bit.

So all these years later it is said that Poe still returns to his favorite pub. There have been strange phenomenon, things being moved and glasses flying through the air. Until one day, after closing, when all was cleaned and put up for the night, a bartender took down a cognac glass and filled it, placing it on the bar. With a ‘Good Night, Mr. Poe’, they left for the night. In the morning, the glass had been emptied, cleaned, and placed back on the shelf. And so it continues to this day. Whether it really is the spirit of the master of horror or not, no one can be certain, but the staff certainly believe.

As far as the ghost tour itself, overall it was certainly mediocre. While I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the way that the ill tour guide issue was handled, I am glad that we were able to jump onto the pub crawl as an alternative. As a glimpse into the history of one of America’s oldest ports however, it was brilliant. If you find yourself in Fells Point, and you’d like to do a ghost tour? Skip the one from Baltimore Authentic Ghost Tours and instead, take the one offered by the Preservation Society through the Visitors Center.  What little I overheard from that tour, I think it would have been a much better choice.

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About Nightshade Nash

A multi-medium artist, Nash is as at home with her glue gun and sewing machines as she is communing with the dead. As an avid wanderer, she enjoys seeking out the lost and forgotten in the dark corners of the world in her travels. In her off time she can be found honing her riding and shooting skills because when the zombies come? She’s going to be ready. With a shotgun and a horse.