& Company


A Search For Another Story, With Footnotes *

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba


H.L. Mencken remembered a policeman who had no left thumb. Not a casualty of his patrolling Baltimore streets, rather an enduring witness to the cop's previous profession — meatcutter. Every cop Mencken met, he wrote, had trained to be something other than what he was.

Detective Tod B. Hall fits that profile. (Mencken probably never met the man, for he says nothing of him, though he spends pages on many other interesting characters in old Baltimore's police department.)** Before the Civil War Tod B. Hall completed an apprenticeship in bricklaying — a prudent choice of trade, what with all the prospects for residential development as the city's moneyed classes looked to move their home life farther from the noise and smell of the business district.

But financial panics and economic downturns after the War punctuated too many projects with too many workless weeks. A bricklayer with a family and no bricks, Hall found himself on the streets like many others.

There was something about our man that distinguished him from the throng of jobless men. In short, this Civil War veteran impressed persons with pull. How else did he soon win a job as a conductor on one of the city's new streetcar systems? Though still horse-drawn, those streetcars helped roll Baltimore into a modern, yet unelectrified, world by stretching the distance a worker could live from his job, which in turn added to the residential construction fever.

While collecting fares and maintaining order in those cars, Hall was witness to how the new transit system also attracted another kind of passenger — practitioners of an old profession: pickpockets. Hall collared so many who had their hands on someone else's things, that again he caught the attention of those with influence. And when a position opened in the city's new detective force, they managed the appointment for Hall. He was 36 when he undertook this police work.

Lucky for Hall, for the cycles of security and depression continued to afflict Baltimore's working class. Maryland's largest corporation, the B&O, for one, had cut so many wages and laid off so many workers that by July 1877 mobs sympathetic with railroad strikers clashed violently with police and National Guardsman in Cumberland and in Baltimore City.

Tramps appeared. Newspapers regularly remarked on their unprecedented numbers in the city. And in August, 1877, The Sun editorialized about the jobless loiterers outside City Hall, calling for police to clear them out, at the same time oddly paying lip service to America's constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

Even plainclothes cops had their hands full.


There are many things you can find out about these players in Baltimore's nineteenth-century life, but the things that elude research torment a storyteller; e.g. what was Hall's war-time disability? which side did he fight on? anything about his wife, Mrs Annie Hall (yes, that's her name) or their five kids?

Some discoveries you combine with quiet musing and soon you come up with what just might have been. Let's take stock: what, besides what's above, do I know for sure? "Tod" was not his official name. Even the newspaper obituaries consistently put it in quotes, signifying a nickname. Post-Civil-War city directories show his real name, but by the turn of the century the Polk Directories begin listing him simply as Tod Hall. My surmise: Hall's cop colleagues, from his first day on the job, must've routinely tripped over the pronunciation of his original Christian name. So I figure it had to be they who began calling him "Tod."

And that had to be somewhat troubling to his mother. For it was she, I like to think, who saw to it he was christened what he was. And she must have chosen the name that she did because, like many mothers, she'd had a premonition of her son's future — his climbing from scores of bricks over streetcar tracks to the ranks of the plainclothes police. But no mother wants her son to be a plain anything. So, to make adjustments to Fate as only mothers can do, she dressed up her boy — in a glorious name — THEODORIC. Eh?

And in the fluid spelling of that era, sometimes Theodorick ended in "C-K" and sometimes simply with a "C." Theodoric B. Hall. The 1880 census-taker really mauled it when he entered the detective on the federal rolls as "Theodrie." And by 1900 — the last census Detective Hall lived through — the census-taker, as if to revile Tod's dead mother, wrote down simply "T.B. Hall."


My first sightings of Tod Hall came in my readings of the microfilmed records of Baltimore's 1904 newspapers. The day after the McLane family buried Baltimore's youngest-ever mayor in Green Mount Cemetery it was Detective Tod Hall who visited and interviewed the widow. His chief had investigated the sudden death by bullet and drawn conclusions already published in the newspapers.

Who sent Hall? Wasn't his interview redundant? In the next day's editions Hall is reported to have drawn conclusions quite different from his boss's.

Eager to uncover recorded remarks of anyone with any connection to the case of Mayor McLane's tragic death, the primary story of my old Baltimore series, I tracked Detective Tod Hall to his early 20th century home at 227 east North avenue, which is not far from where my Bride and I maintain residence, his house and ours, back then, in recently built residential rows. I soon came upon newspaper announcements, January 1908, of a serious illness. Then, within a week, Hall's death, and obits reviewing his life.

The Baltimore News, The Sun, and The American all did retrospectives on "famous cases" Hall had been involved in. It was The Sun's, January 25, 1908, that alerted me to the 1877 grain caper. And so I spent weeks in 1996 going over one-hundred years into the past, combing the microfilm record of daily newspapers published in 1877 in Baltimore. Nothing to show for it but notes on other interesting arcane things. And bleary eyes.

Oh, yes, there's lots of evidence of the US grain industry going great guns at the port of Baltimore even at a time when so many were suffering harsh economic conditions. Millions of bushels shipped to port by train, grain elevators bulging, grains of all sorts exported to all parts of the world. But only in that single 1908 obit was there anything about anyone noticing shortages and opening a criminal case.

Who was it that was managing a Baltimore ring of thieves? Who stole into the night with a sloopful of stolen grain? Who sailed up some tributary of the Patapsco, had it milled (grist mills then were as numerous as marinas now), then later undersold the legitimate flour merchants? All I know to date is bare bones: it was Hall's surveillance of the barges that exposed the thieves; Hall who chased them as far as Philadelphia and Hoboken; Hall who captured them, and brought them back — to Baltimore justice. And that's not all there is on the record about Detective Hall. But that's all I've found for that particular case, alas.

And that's not all there are of Baltimore stories in 1904. *** It's a veritable series, for Petesake. Now, what is it about that era that makes its characters so riveting? Sometimes I think I know wherein the fascination, but I then think better of it and let the real answers remain in the dark. ****


* Earlier Version.

This material originally served as an audience handout at presentations of MDS's story, "The 1877 Corn Caper: Closing a Case for the Baltimore Police"; appears here revised, 2004.

** H.L. Mencken.

Mencken's memories can charm you still all these generations later. You can find them in the three-volume memoirs he finished in the 1940s: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, Heathen Days, available again and in a single volume.

*** The Other Stories.

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

**** An Afterword (January 2004)

  1.  First chance I get — I used to think — back to the libraries. Now, years later, after Tashkent, after Yekaterinburg, when bigger questions rattle the soul, I can't be sure the interest will be as burning. Uh, is the Pratt working normal hours these days?
  2.  Anyone with any stories or artifacts of old Baltimore police, of detectives Crone, Gault, Mark Hagen, Tod Hall, Mitchell, Pontier, Aquila J. Pumphrey, Geo. Seibold, please give a holler.
  3.  There are two souvenir books, one late 19th century, the other early 20th, capturing history of the city police, that make their appearance from time to time in stores dealing in rare books. Several times when one or the other was available for purchase I haven't been in town.
  4.  Last remark. As to the grain caper, it doesn't pass my notice that only one newspaper of all Baltimore's dailies mentioned the episode in the obituary, which I am tempted to connect to something Mencken had a good laugh about in Newspaper Days: reporters' creative inventiveness on slow newsdays.

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