& Company


What's A Storyteller Do With Baltimore's Great Fire?

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Any villager inhabiting the countryside of Russia, Ukraine, or other countries of the old Soviet realm, wants very much to get out and move to the big city and make a life there: Moscow, St Petersburg, Kyiv, L'viv, Tashkent. I, however, like many red-blooded Americans, would much prefer to get out of the big city and make my bed in some cottage in the US countryside. There's electricity and running water out there now.

But if you're going to have to live in a major urban center — say, it's not negotiable with your Significant Other — then you need to find a way to make the unpredictable horrors of urban living bearable. And one way is finding the city's stories. Making them your city's stories.

Now when it comes to Baltimore, there are three big stories. Which really means two world-renowned writers and one event. Poe, Mencken, and the Great Fire of 1904. And I've looked at them, for what they can offer: subject matter that not only must rivet me as I read, but is rich enough in the kind of detail I can work with in order to rivet easily those who will listen.

A storyteller makes a good choice with Poe's death in Baltimore. Historians and biographers, of course, already have. Even medical doctors. Remember the rabies theory? For a storyteller, Poe's tragic end in Oct 1849 offers all the classic ingredients: mystery, violence, pathology, a complex character. But, really, what could a storyteller pull off that would better John E. Walsh's 1998 whodunit treatment, Midnight Dreary, short of memorizing (with Walsh's permission, of course) the author's excellent reconstruction of Poe's last six months of life including what could very well have been his last hours of full consciousness in Baltimore?

H.L. Mencken, now, there's a whole anthology of stories that is his life. But he preempted any posthumous application of storytelling arts to his days in Baltimore when, in the 1940s, he hammered out those three delightful volumes of fun memoirs, the "Days" books. Who could capture that voice except some Hal-Holbrook type? But then that's not storytelling. There is, however, a lot of story-rich material Mencken chose not to write up for public consumption, stuff we'd know nothing of, had certain ladies not refused to return or burn his romantic letters. Just how to use that, well, I'm still thinking on it.

Baltimore's Big Burn. The Great Fire's a treasure trove of photos, maps, insurance charts, documents, newspaper accounts, oral histories. There's Mencken's contribution: his own unique Fire story in a chapter of Newspaper Days. If I ever felt the calling to do guided tours, I would take up the challenge of working stories out of the Fire itself. As it is, the Fire has been a source for me pretty much in its aftermath.

Take the young Mayor, for instance. Only in the job a few months he has this disaster ambush him. He spends long hours at City Hall, which survived the Fire right on the northeastern edge of the zone, dealing with bushels of issues: which men to select for service on a special commission, what opportunities to generate out of the disaster (realigning streets, installing state-of-the-art improvements, the old sewerage question). All the ingredients for stress and you naturally ask: who is this guy, this Mayor Robert McLane? And you don't have to go far for curriculum vitae stuff — Hopkins University, then a law degree from University of Maryland; service in the state's attorney's office, Democrat. And soon you uncover personal data: prominent father, grandfather who served in Congress and as B&O president, lineage back through Delaware to humbler origins in Scotland. Among the American forebears was a tanner and a great grandfather always on the lookout for a federal job. In 1904 the Mayor still lives at home with his parents, but he's sighted squiring around a young widow. You see story material even before you crank the microfilm ahead to Tuesday following Memorial Day and there glimpse the stark headlines.

And in such a way the Great Fire introduces you to lots of other men in the public eye with private stories. Bonaparte, Bruce, Ellicott, Gorman, Kane, Patterson, Poe (the lawyers, not the poet), Rasin, Rodgers, Swann, Turnbull, Van Bibber, Warfield, to name a few just from my notes. A thousand-and-one stories among Maryland's prominent families alone, or families on the way up. For these stories you follow your nose past the dying embers of February 1904 but you dilly-dally around in the extreme dust that plagues Baltimore well into the spring; you advance a bit into succeeding years; and you also go back a few administrations boldly slipping into the previous century.

And when your eyes get bleary at the microfilm reader, you let them wander, but instead of resting they catch some other headline wholly unrelated to your target. And that's how the Great Fire turned from source into gateway. You see these other really interesting things going on.

Plain regular folks raising a ruckus in an Aliceanna Street saloon. Darling ladies alienating some man's affections from his wife. Or the wedding party that invited a cop on the beat into the reception where, with a little refreshment, he's induced to dance "the pigeon wings" only to be observed by Round Sergeant Schwarz who has the cop brought up before the board.

How about the motorman who stopped his streetcar on the Roland Park line across from his Hampden home one Sunday? Just for a minute, now. And his wife runs out, their infant daughter in her arms. She holds the baby up for him to hug and kiss, and passengers frown waiting, except the women in the tram who are in "throes of admiration for such a man."

You find letters to Santa that came addressed to City Hall. You read citations from speeches by county educators concerning the dangers of the "overeducated negro."

Then there's the story of an out-of-state man advertising for a wife. "The successful applicant," he wrote, "must be a lady; should not bring a troublesome mother-in-law; must have sound health, good looks, and some money; must be able to make bread as well as pies and cakes; not less than 16 nor more than 30; must laugh readily and be slow and soft of speech," etc., etc. The advertiser gets two thousand responses! And photos, and even some money orders to defray his expenses visiting the applicant. He narrows it to a dozen, then sets out, traveling 5,000 miles. One applicant who seemed to meet all his requirements turns out to be too religious. Visiting for three days the man found "nothing but prayer from morning till night." The objection is strange, the article underscores, since the man is a clergyman. This pastor of a large congregation a hundred miles from Baltimore finally settles on a 30-yr-old from Newark, NJ.

And I am not forgetting the city detective I discovered who carried a revolver in one hand and the Holy Bible in the other. The same fortuitous catching of stories happens as you walk the stacks in the Pratt's Maryland Room looking for one book and yanking out another you had no clue about.

From the Great Fire you go forward, you go back, before the Fire — it's an era you can sink your teeth into. Sheherazade herself combing the story stock of old Baltimore could fill her quota, and more, and live. There's something about the time between then and now — an easy distance, a comfortable space — something that makes those old facts feel as good as fiction.

Matthew-Daniel Stremba

February 2004

Centennial of the Great Fire

An Afterword

If you're curious about some untold-till-now old Baltimore stories that I found through this Great Fire gateway, treat yourself to TOD HALL AT CITY HALL and LADIES IN BLACK, LETTERS IN BLUE and HARRY & BLANCHE and LUNCH WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE.

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