Stremba
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RESCUING A BALTIMORE LEGEND

Everything You Want To Know
About Detective Tod Hall, and
All You Need To Know
About The Portable Parlor Play Project

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

"THE YEAR OF TOD"—
A CENTENARY, 1908-2008

Don't you spend nice afternoons in cemeteries? Actually, 25 January 2008, a Saturday, was overcast and brisk. Further, it wasn't for a picnic that a delegation of Friends of Tod Hall joined me at Loudon Park that winter's day. Below, they are the living pictured among the dead—from left to right: Margie Lance of Frederick, Guy Hollyday of Stone Hill, Wayne Dornbirer of Bolton Hill, and Charleye Dyer of Dickeyville.

Tod Hall graveyard search party, Loudon Park, 25 January 2008s

They enthusiastically formed a graveyard search party. Object of search. The burial spot of Theodorick B. Hall, known as "Tod" among his detective-colleagues. Why search for Tod? For a dead detective? Sure, an effort to locate H.L. Mencken's grave (somewhere in that same large cemetery) would be understandable. Ah, but Mencken's fame has never really receded from public memory, while Tod Hall's indeed has. On the centenary of his death, we found no bouquets or other memorials at his gravesite. And yet his life was the stuff of legend.

As other pages on this web-site show, Hall served the Baltimore City police department almost half his life. But his death was not in the line of duty. He died at home, 25 January 1908, in his 33rd year of service, following exposure to severe cold while on an evangelizing mission to western Pennsylvania. Yes, four years following his 1875 appointment to the detective squad, he had a conversion experience that led to this second calling, his work as the "Evangelist-Detective," another of his monikers. Tod Hall has been not only the subject of earlier web-postings, but also of several of my storytellings, as well as an inspiration for a series of portable parlor plays I've been working on these many years. The series is currently named "Tod Hall : Old Baltimore's Soft-Boiled Detective."

Until this January day, finding more Tod Hall data had been a lonely task spent with reels of microfilm at the Central Pratt, with dusty tomes in its Maryland Room, and second-hand book purchases at home. Once the graveyard search party assembled at Loudon Park, however, the nature of the task naturally turned communal, a quality anticipating the various communities that form for my parlor plays featuring Hall himself. Armed with cemetery maps, graciously provided by staffers in the Loudon Park offices, we easily found the Whatcoat section and fanned out looking for the right row.

More quickly than I expected we located Detective Hall's tombstone, which sits in a line to the extreme right of two others, his wife and a daughter.

Three Hall tombstones, Loudon Park, 25 January 2008

For me and each participant in the party, this was the first time seeing and reading the stones. Dates of death for his wife and his daughter supplied poignant context for the little story we were about to tell.

A MEMORIAL MOMENT—
LOUDON PARK

I had found an article from the 10 December 1896 issue of The New York Times that established Tod Hall's visiting New York for a special purpose: to appear at a Moody revival service. I reformatted that news report into an easy playlet, and at Loudon Park, for the sake of solemnizing the centenary, Wayne Dornbirer took the role of the Reverend Dwight Moody, an internationally-renowned leader in the post-Civil War evangelical circuit, Guy Hollyday read for Hall, while Margie Lance and Charleye Dyer contributed other voices.

Graveyard Memorial Playlet, Loudon Park, 25 January 2008

The setting was Brooklyn, NY, a packed auditorium, an afternoon session of a revival that had been in full swing already a number of days. At that session, Moody invited Hall to the platform before the gathered masses, for the detective was one of Moody's illustrious converts. Sixteen years before, Hall, while on duty, fortuitously crossed paths with Moody at the evangelistís best preaching moments not far from Baltimore's waterfront district. From that moment on, Hall's life underwent radical change.

MOODY::
Mr Hall, please tell us about that day in your life.

HALL::
Well, up till then, I was bold in many things like—like cards, drink, fast life in general. After I left your meeting, sir, my appetite for drink left me.

MOODY::
Did you have much appetite before?

HALL::
I am ashamed to speak of it, Mr. Moody. I was in the habit of taking fifteen to twenty drinks a day.

In light of Hall's testimony about the particular form his conversion took, I refrained from concluding our graveside observances in an old-country Slavic manner, viz. knocking back a toast of vodka. (Some future Mencken anniversary, however, might suit such a rite.) We finished instead doing four stanzas of an early 19th-century hymn popular at the time of Hall's last years, "Just As I Am."

TOD HALL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT—
THE PORTABLE PARLOR PLAYS

My parlor-play project has covered, and is open to, a variety of themes. But, these past eighteen months, the exclusive focus has been this developing series—"Tod Hall : Old Baltimore's Soft-Boiled Detective." And the installments done thus far are always heading back to the desk for more revisions—content edits; diction/phrasing adjustments.

As far as content is concerned, the record reflects enough details about Hall for any researcher to see there's an interesting story here, a legendary figure here. But, obviously, the source material is riddled with gaps. The current installments in the series tell pre-conversion stories about Detective Hall, the years of supposedly heavy drinking. Was he exaggerating about the 15 to 20 drinks a day? drinks of WHAT??? And just what sort of man was he on the job, after work with his buddies, at home with his wife and children? I try to imagine a man who in 1875, though not yet the man he will become in four years, exhibits some characteristics that will support, one day in 1879, such a singular transformation. What might those characteristics be?

MOODY::
Mr. Hall, do you play cards?

HALL::
I have not allowed cards in my house for sixteen years past. When the Savior struck old Tod Hall, He pulverized the devil and knocked him clean out, and I have had no trouble with him since.

MOODY::
Do you know any others who've experienced a similar conversion, sir?

HALL::
Why, yes. There is a man here who used to drink as much as would sink a ship. He was converted. I afterward thought so much of him as to agree to give him my daughter for a wife.

HALL'S FAMILY LIFE—
FILLING IN THE GAPS

The 1880 census listed three daughters alongside two sons in the family. Which daughter married a reformed drunk? It had to be the oldest, Kate B., who married this man, identified in The New York Times article as an ex-Catholic who had become a Protestant minister, the Rev. D.S. Toy. In 1880, Kate was 18. The daughter next in line, Annie E. (13 in 1880), died in 1893, and is one of three Halls in the family plot at Loudon Park. This Annie was apparently never married. Her stone reads: "None know her but to love her. None named her but to praise. Asleep in Jesus."

From the tombstones we learned also that by the time of this Brooklyn appearance, Hall had been a widower almost six months, his wife, Anna Rebecca [nee O'Neal] Hall, having died 30 July 1896. Her stone reads: "The Eternal God was her refuge, and underneath were the everlasting arms."

The next census, 1900 (1890's census was lost in a fire), shows Tod Hall living at his final home on E. North Avenue (no. 227, still standing) with the younger son, Joseph (30 years old) and the youngest daughter, Mary (21; she was just one-year-old in 1880). The other son, Robert (who would have been 47 in 1900), other records show, became a drug store owner. What became of him? And somewhere in intervening twenty years, Tod's mother-in-law, . Catharine O'Neal, who had been listed as living with them in 1880, passed away.

HALL'S DETECTIVE WORK—
GUESSING THE GAPS

And what of the stories of Hall's case-work? Research into post-Civil War urban police development helps for imagining a time when there was yet no general agreement among municipal leaders or leading citizens regarding the objectives for a professional police force, a big item in any city budget. Studies and retrospectives turn up what may strike us as a "wholly other world"—it's the pre-fingerprint era, in which identifying criminals depends on cops' memories; photography is the cutting-edge technology slowly being inserted into police practice, viz. the Rogues' Gallery. And an old constable tradition continued but was coming under greater supervisory control, i.e. reward as a function in the swift closing of robbery cases. Also revealed: unusual backgrounds of many of the men comprising that post-Civil War detective squad—Hall started out as a bricklayer. Yet all my notes were not enough to yield a storyteller's sense of 1875 police culture.

How did the Chief of Detectives begin the day for his men? Roll-call? How did the men occupy their time between cases? How much desk time might there have been? Were desks even assigned in those days, ala-"NYPD Blue," Sipowitz et ali? Could real veteran policemen today in the 21st century credibly guess what squad-room life might have been like over a hundred-thirty years ago? A "retropolation"? I doubt it. What, instead of crossword puzzles? instead of chewing the fat with your partner while seated in an unmarked car on stake-out? Did they gab about baseball, already then a part of the American story? About personal issues like wives, girlfriends, orgasm-quality in relation to age? What was the style of intra-force antagonisms? How clean were the plumbing facilities at the station house, in the brand new city hall? I've made some guesses of my own. Of course, there's always something new coming to light, or some misunderstanding I've been too hasty weaving into the story. And that regularly calls for more revising.

HOSTING, PARTICIPATING
IN A PARLOR PLAY

Also subject to ongoing revision are diction and phrasing, crucial considerations since participants in these parlor plays have no advance time to read-through. They're not meant to be rehearsed. My aim is to write text that creates little stress, no miscues, no unnecessary ambiguity. The parlor play must be fun. I want to attract as participants those who'd more easily gravitate to television and passive spectating. Even attract those who normally opt for the activity of a poker game or a bingo hall.

Fun is a great goal, but specifically what should anyone expect who is thinking about participating in one of these portable parlor plays? First, someone has to host the event. We need someone's parlor, or other indoor space commodious enough for 10-15 people. An outdoor facility will suit only if it is covered (porch, pavilion, gazebo). The naked sky cannot serve as a ceiling over a parlor play.

I come with the scripts, distribute them, conduct a sound check, orient the participants, assign roles, and keep the story of Tod B. Hall moving, holding it together, quietly noting moments that need clarification. Individual readers do solo parts, all the assembly contribute to choral parts, and there's always at least one major physical moment. That's GENERALLY what to expect.

What are the VARIABLES? In all cases, the reader participants are seated in something approximating a circle. But, depending on the dynamics in the group, the size of the space, and my energy level at the time, sometimes a participant is asked to stand for reading aloud his/her part, is sometimes prompted for a key movement or gesture. Sometimes a line or two gets coached. With the parlor-play genre there's nothing untoward in stopping the forward linear movement and cycling back purposefully before resuming the narrative thrust.

In some fairly large parlors with more congregants than usual, chances are greater some may opt to be audience only. Those slackers get no script, but they do challenge the readers to be particularly effective, non-participating folks having no text to track along with.

In every parlor-play gathering thus far, the experience of the Tod B. Hall stories has been a delicious treat that 9.5 out of 10 will attest to. Of course, there's that 5 percent who would fall asleep even if the readers included Harrison Ford himself, or Mariah Carey herself.

The last points to make about these portable parlor plays : they are not readers' theater, nor are they the leisure-time activity known as a play-reading circle. Not readers' theater because any audience is purely incidental (as described above). The genre of its very nature is all about making everyone a reading-aloud participant. And it's unlike play-reading circles because these scripts, obviously, are not Eugene O'Neill, not Tom Stoppard, not Wm. Shakespeare, but are original pieces far-far from any established canon, always in the kind of potential flux described above, and in the end aiming teleologically for nothing more than (there's no harm in repeating) an afternoon or evening that's more joy than poker or bingo, more excitement than adultery, more aerobic than changing the filter on your furnace, and certainly less expensive than the Broadway show touring your town.

IMAGINING THEODORICK B. HALL—
"THE YEAR OF TOD"

This official photo of Detective Hall makes a mistake in his baptismal name, one more variant among all the misspellings of census takers, city directory compilers, and even tombstone carvers.

Tod Hall portrait. Credit: History Baltimore Police, 1908

It was hardly a surprise to find the religious inscription on Detective Hall's tombstone adding a superfluous "d" to "Tod": "God so loved Todd [sic] Hall that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Todd Hall believeth in him, Todd should never perish but Todd hath everlasting life."

Many gravesites of that era fix in stone similar sentiments of religious piety. And it is easy to assume those inscriptions generally to be stock expressions, the stone-carver's store of options. There's something about this detective, though, who was said to carry a Bible in one hand and his revolver in the other, whom many convicted criminals went on record to credit for their reformation, something about him that makes it easier to accept this stone inscription as genuinely reflecting the heart of the deceased, something I am trying to capture for Hall's portrayal in these portable parlor plays.

HALL::
That's not an easy thing for you to do, Mr. Stremba, given that your own last transfigurative experience was way-way back at 17 years of age.

Actually, Detective Hall, I think it was about when I was 18. Tell me, do you mind what I'm doing with your character, your life, in these parlor plays?

HALL::
Well, sir, I don't really know what you're doing. Have no way of sitting in on one of your circles.

Really? I can't count on your being there in the midst of our circles, your spirit, somehow?

HALL::
Sorry, that's not the way things are run from this side. But I trust your stories will do some good, and that you'll find pleasure in tracking down my record.

Say, now that you mention your record, could you set me straight on that 1877 case—the grain thieves in the harbor?

HALL::
Mr. Stremba, that's all in your hands now. With my blessing.

Oh, well. Thank you , Detective Hall.

Tod Hall's tombstone, Loudon Park, 25 January 2008. Credit: Charleye Dyer

THANKS ALSO!

A note of appreciation citing Officer Bobby Brown, author of Some Gave All, A History of Baltimore Police Officers Killed in the Line of Duty, 1808 to 2007, who graciously sent me, among other things, the jpeg image of the archival photo of Tod Hall, and a useful link to Officer [retired] William M. Hackley's rich web-site.

Credit for the third photo, the grave-side readers, goes to Margie Lance; and for the final photo, a sepia version of MDS at Hall's tombstone, to Charleye Dyer.

Thanks also to those who have hosted these Detective Hall parlor plays, giving a hack writer who, by intention, thinks small, a big opportunity to move the project ahead.

And anyone wanting to be part of Detective Hallís 170th birthday in Baltimore this August, yo! let me know.

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