<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> In the Statue's Grip
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In the Statue's Grip

Every life has some aspect of the superstitious, be it a ghost tale, urban legend, or unsolved crime. In fact, many see it as a right of passage. For all these reasons, our author set out on a quest to rediscover a graveyard statue that has haunted the Baltimore area for decades.

Part One of a Two Part Series
Read Part Two

by David Buscher


At 4:30 in the afternoon, darkness had already fallen along with a great deal of rain. The cemetery gates were to close at dusk, which had been blurred by the rolling clouds, and I was convinced they’d shut us in for the night. That wasn’t the only thing I was afraid of. I had spent the entire day hunting ghosts, and this was the last stop.

My guide was J.R. Huestis, an enterprising young ghost hunter from Glen Burnie, Md., whose group, the Paranormal Research Network, had documented several supposed hauntings in the Baltimore area, even capturing photographic, video, and audio evidence of unexplained phenomena.

And phenomena had become the catchword for the day, as J.R., Shara Terjung, and I rocketed from cemetery to cemetery to haunted tavern to cemetery in an attempt to record ghostly manifestations. We were ready for phenomena -- I with my camera, Shara with her reporter’s notebook, and J.R. with his electromagnetic energy meter, which we all persisted in calling "the tricorder." But despite perfect weather for an unexplained phenomenon or two, the local ghosts seemed to be giving us a wide berth.

And then we arrived at Druid Ridge Cemetery.

Druid Ridge is a posh, fairly large cemetery in Pikesville, near the intersection of the Baltimore Beltway and Reisterstown Road. Even in the near-darkness and falling rain, we could make out elaborate mausoleums and monuments as the headlights of my car slid slowly over them. Some no doubt date back to the cemetery’s establishment in 1896, but many are obviously much newer and display a passion for personal commemoration that I didn’t think existed anymore.

But we weren’t there to sightsee in this gilded necropolis. We cruised past the South Lawn, Sunnyside Heritage, and Belview sections until finally, after one wrong turn, we found the proper area: Annandale. And then, there it was. Between a rotting old oak and an overarching sugar maple, stood an empty granite pedestal and backdrop. The pedestal bore the name "Agnus."

We all stared for a moment at this legendary grave before exiting the car. Shara and J.R. took turns with the tricorder, while I snapped random photographs of the area in the hopes of catching a ghost by surprise. But there were no ghosts, no electromagnetic readings. Nothing but the wind and the rain and an empty pedestal, which exhibited only a faint outline of statue that once adorned it.

Of course, Black Aggie is gone.

It was a rite of passage for more than four decades. Some cities have kids who spend the night in "haunted" houses on a dare. Other youngsters ring the doorbell of the neighborhood witch or bogeyman and run away, laughing. The Baltimore area, Pikesville in particular, had Black Aggie.

Ask anyone over forty who’s lived around Pikesville all his life and you’ll hear the legend of Black Aggie, a bronze statue located in Druid Ridge Cemetery from 1925 to 1967 -- "Black" because of its dark color and ascribed malevolence; "Aggie" from General Felix Agnus, whose family grave it marked.

Almost from its installation, the statue of the seated, cloaked, androgynous figure provoked an odd reaction. Rumors began to circulate that Black Aggie’s shadow was the shadow of death itself. Pregnant women who passed under it, where grass never grew, would miscarry or suffer still-birth. As if that wasn’t eerie enough, the statue’s eyes would open and glow bright red when the hour struck midnight. Anyone who met this fiery gaze would be stricken instantly blind.

Teenagers snuck into the cemetery at night and dared each other to sit in Aggie’s lap, even to the point of creating intricate rituals of bravado. J.R. Huestis told me his mother was one of these pranksters. It was common to have a "victim" sit across the statue’s knees while the other kids marched in circles around the grave like buzzards around a carcass. Then, at an appropriately spooky moment, one of the circling revelers would drop out of the procession and sneak up behind the evening’s victim, grabbing him as if with Black Aggie’s own hand. Everyone presumably had a good laugh while the victim screamed his head off.

But one night, according to J.R., things did not go according to this established plan. The victim was seated; the circling procession began - and then abruptly stopped.

"What’s wrong?" begged the spooked victim, but the others, including J.R.’s mother, could only stare in horror. Black Aggie’s eyes were open . . . and glowing. And this is where the story ends, for the ghost hunter's mother refuses to dwell on the rest.

Stories like this are what kept generations of teenagers coming back for more. Boys would use the legends to scare their dates into a soothing embrace, a tendency that no doubt led to one of Black Aggie’s more solid legends. It was said that virgins who witnessed the statue in its midnight splendor would quickly lose their chastity.

Local fraternities and sororities used Black Aggie for hazing rituals, ordering prospective inductees to sit on her lap and stare into her eyes at midnight. These visits, too, became woven into the statue’s tale and added a deadly twist to the lore.

Popular myth has it that one night, at the stroke of midnight, of course, the night watchman heard an unearthly shriek reverberate through the cemetery. A search revealed a young pledge dead at the base of the Agnus grave. The cause? Fright. A story that pops up less frequently is that of a sorority member found draped across the statue’s lap, a knife lodged in her heart.

In 1962, there was a new development -- this one a matter of public record. A cemetery employee discovered that Aggie’s one uncloaked arm had been cut off and stolen. The absent appendage, along with a hacksaw, was later discovered in the trunk of a tin worker’s car. The suspect was arrested and stood trial, where he testified that Black Aggie must have cut off her own arm and put it where it was discovered. He was sent to jail.

It was probably the public’s attention to this case that caused the statue to become even more popular with the teenagers of an ever-expanding area. Although Pikesville was more remote in the days before I-695, the legend of Black Aggie spread throughout Baltimore County and City. I have heard reports of Anne Arundel County youngsters spreading the story. Pinky Shepherd, who was a Howard County high-school student in 1966, tells me that Aggie was well-known there, as well.

But the Agnus gravesite was not merely discussed. It was visited, trampled, and vandalized by hundreds or even thousands of teenaged pilgrims over a 40-year period. In addition to the stolen arm, hundreds of names and messages were carved and scrawled on the statue, the granite base, and the backdrop wall. Today, these have been blasted off, and only a few initials remain etched in the bronze memorial to Felix Agnus on the reverse of the backdrop, but one cemetery employee showed me photographs of the full extent of the desecration.

Cemetery groundskeepers planted thorny shrubbery around the grave site, hoping this would deter the nocturnal visitors, but to no avail. It was still impossible to grow grass there, but this, according to one, was only because of hundreds of trampling feet, not from any supernatural force. It is unclear why the area wasn’t better patrolled. One article said that employees picked up "two or three teen-agers a week on their way to test their nerve against the statue," but two or three teenagers a week aren’t enough to kill the grass and cause such a commotion. For every tresspasser caught, dozens of others must have reached their goal. Gaining entrance to the cemetery at night didn’t seem to be a problem. Today, the area directly before the Agnus grave is protected by a fence, but other sections of the cemetery are completely without barrier and seem to have always been so.

Eventually, the volume of midnight visitors and the destruction they caused became too much for the cemetery to handle. "It looked like we couldn’t protect and maintain the cemetery," one employee tells me, an implication that the sight of the vandalized Agnus grave may have started to hurt business. By the mid-1960s, the cemetery was hard at work in solving the problem. In 1966, they arranged to donate the statue to the Maryland Institute of Art Museum so, according to records at the Baltimore County Historical Society, "the figure, which has become a landmark in the Baltimore area, may be more readily appreciated by lovers of sculpture among the general public and in order that Lot Number 415 and the family of the Lot Owner may be spared further concern caused by the occasional thoughtless visitors to the Lot who may not be fully respectful of the memory of those persons buried in the Lot."

However, this move never took place. Instead, on March 18, 1967, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. agreed to take the bronze figure and place it "with the National Collection of Fine Arts." Contemporary statements from Agnus family members assure any concerned parties that "the statue, of course, is highly thought of and will be put in the large new gallery where once Abraham Lincoln held his Inaugural Ball." But this was not to be. According to the Smithsonian’s own records, Black Aggie was turned over to the National Museum of American Art, where it was put immediately into storage and never displayed.

Today, the Agnus site looks well cared for. Grass grows where for many years it never could. The only evidence of Black Aggie’s presence is a chipped area on the granite pedestal and a ghostly shadow where the statue’s base once stood. But the empty pedestal and backdrop conspire to remind visitors of what once was. The Agnus grave site may or may not have been haunted, but it definitely had a soul. Now, all that remains are the stories.

But the history of Black Aggie is richer than one statue in Druid Ridge. One Baltimore Sun reporter dismissed it all by saying, "So go the legends of Black Aggie, a copy of a statue entitled 'Grief' by an obscure 19th century French sculptor which has become over the years a sort of black-magic touchstone for northwest Baltimore teenagers."

There is, however, a lot more to it than that.

Neither French nor obscure, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the premiere American sculptor at a time when American sculpture was establishing itself as distinct from its European counterpart. Before his death in 1907, he had created some of the most celebrated works in America: the figure of Diana that once graced the roof of Madison Square Garden; monuments to American heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln in Chicago, Admiral David G. Farragut and General William T. Sherman in New York, and Robert Gould Shaw in Boston; and the ten- and twenty-dollar coins commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century.

Students of Saint-Gaudens consider his best work to be the memorial he created for Marian Adams, the wife of Henry Adams, famous writer and statesman and grandson of President John Quincy Adams. Marian, called "Clover" by her friends, sunk into a deep depression after the death of her father in April 1885. In December of that year, she committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, leaving her husband lost in grief, a widower at the age of 47.

In search of solace, Adams traveled with his friend, the painter John La Farge, to Japan in June of 1886. He was interested in learning more about Buddhism, and he must have done a great deal of thinking about Clover as well. When he returned from the trip, he decided to replace the simple headstone he had originally purchased for her grave in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery with a much more elaborate memorial. In early 1887, through La Farge, he asked Saint-Gaudens to design a statue. Envisioning a marriage of Eastern spiritual thought and Western form, Adams sent Saint-Gaudens images of Buddha and of the works of Michelangelo.

The massive endeavor took four years to complete, annoying Adams with the slow progress. But the result, according to at least one source, was one of the most powerful and expressive pieces in the history of American art, before or since. It was installed in the cemetery in 1891, placed in a unique setting carefully designed to both showcase the sculpture and separate it from the outside world so visitors might contemplate it without interruption. Adams was delighted with the effect and with the statue, which was never officially named. As the reputation of the sculpture spread, it became known as the "Adams Memorial" and eventually by the popular name of "Grief."

It was this statue that became the template for Black Aggie when sculptor Eduard L.A. Pausch set out to create his own, unauthorized, "freehand" version of the statue in the early years of the twentieth century. But while Aggie attracted teenaged pranksters and miscreants from all over the local area, the Adams Memorial had a more staid and worldly following. Henry Adams himself spent many contemplative hours there, pondering not only the message of the statue but the reactions of other visitors. Mark Twain viewed the memorial in 1906, and it was he who reportedly coined the name Grief. Eleanor Roosevelt, also a habitué of the gravesite, once said that, when she was feeling unhappy, she would visit the statue and come away feeling better and stronger.

One of the visitors who arrived to ponder the Adams Memorial might certainly have been Baltimore’s General Felix Agnus. What did he see in the statue that eventually made him want a duplicate of the Adams Memorial on his own tomb? More importantly, why would he want his memorial to be a copy of someone else’s when he, himself, was such a unique man?

Agnus was born in France in 1839. At the age of 13, he went on a four-year trip around the world, visiting many distant and exotic locales and rounding both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. When he was 20, he fought in the army of Napoleon III against Austria and later fought with General Garibaldi’s forces in Italy. For reasons he never made clear, he emigrated to New York in 1860 to become a silver chaser and sculptor at Tiffany’s. When the American Civil War broke out, his military zeal was renewed. He enlisted as a private on the side of the Union and began a war record so incredible that he was promoted to brigadier general by the age of 26. He saw action in many battles and was wounded more than a dozen times by gunfire and even a saber. Agnus often said later that he was "shot 13 times -- and always in the front," and H.L. Mencken remarked that Agnus "had so much lead in him, he rattled when he walked."

After being more severely wounded than usual, then-Lieutenant Agnus was brought to Baltimore for treatment. There, he met Charles Carroll Fulton, publisher of The Baltimore American newspaper, and his daughter, Annie, who nursed him back to health. When the war was over, he returned to Baltimore and married his former nurse. He briefly served in the internal revenue office and was appointed as Consul to Londonderry, Ireland by the United States Senate. He declined this position, however, and eventually succeeded his father-in-law as publisher of The Baltimore American, a position he retained for the rest of his life.

When Annie died in 1922, Agnus began construction of a family monument in Druid Ridge Cemetery. It was at this point that he must have purchased the unauthorized copy of the Adams Memorial and had a pedestal and backdrop created to match the setting of the Rock Creek gravesite. Three years later, Agnus himself died of a lingering illness at the age of 86, and he, too, was laid to rest at the feet of Grief's younger sibling.

Soon thereafter, the legend of Black Aggie was born.

Nobody knows just how it started. How does any urban legend begin? Professor Jan Harold Brunvard, an author of many books on modern folklore, wrote that legends are a reflection of the hopes, fears, and anxieties of their times. Some also seem to be borne of necessity.

It’s not difficult to imagine the shrouded form of Black Aggie, awash in moonlight, capturing the attention of some creative passer-by. But Aggie exploded past the limits of most legends, which are often repeated but rarely acted upon or investigated. Today, when urban legends are more likely to take the form of conspiracy theories, phenomena such as Black Aggie are often dismissed as the products of simpler times. This does a disservice to the power of modern folklore, but there does seem to be one grain of truth to this prejudice. In times where romance and sex were not as glorified by popular culture as they are now and thus considered more taboo, different rituals led to bodily contact. Young lovers could always count on a good scare to bring them closer together, and hugs of reassurance can easily turn into something more intimate. Black Aggie certainly served her purpose in this arena, as the legends indicate.

That explains some of the attraction, but not all. Cemeteries have always been a natural locus for mischievous kids. For the young, death seems so distant, it’s mockable. Graveyards are so solemn and sacred, they’re begging to be violated. Acting on these impulses somehow brings the tribe of youth closer together, circling their wagons against the responsibilities of aging. Black Aggie was often used as a rite of passage into various fraternities, clubs, and cliques, but these were also rituals intended to stop the progress of time, futile attempts to remain forever young.

Shara Terjung, my ghosthunting companion and Black Aggie enthusiast in her own right, has another theory: the kids were just bored.

But J.R. Huestis, the ghost hunter whose mother reported such odd circumstances around the statue, offers a more metaphysical explanation. It is his theory that, in an effort to gain attention, spirits can temporarily "possess" inanimate objects, such as statues. In fact, he claims, numerous reports of weeping or bleeding statues from around the world could be explained by this hypothesis, and it certainly wouldn’t be beyond a clever spirit to cause some of the phenomena associated with Black Aggie!

Regardless of the cause, however, General Agnus would no doubt think all of the furor surrounding his grave was ridiculous. At the age of the teenagers stealing kisses in his monument’s shadow, he had already made his own way to every corner of the globe. When he was not very much older, he was a veteran of three wars. Child’s play around a spooky statue would hold no romance for someone who had experienced extremes and delights from around the world. But I’d also like to think that he might be a little proud of, or at least amused by, all the excitement he helped to stir. After moving to Baltimore, Agnus became heavily involved in local affairs, wishing to improve and enhance the city as much as possible. But as any fan of John Waters could tell you, one of Baltimore’s most distinctive features is the quirkiness of its residents. And Black Aggie is certainly the icing on the quirk. She could just as easily have sat on a stoop as on a grave. Or, as Shara Terjung noted, Aggie is so Baltimore that she probably says "Hey, Hon" as she murders you. A unique Baltimore legacy for a unique Baltimorean.

Our author completes his search for Black Aggie in part two.

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