I wasnt born until over four years after they locked Black Aggie away. By the time I was a teenager in Howard County, the statues legend was no longer whispered in dark rooms by giggling kids.
An avid reader of "true" supernatural tales, I first encountered the account of Black Aggie in a book called Haunted Houses, by Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn. Something about the story intrigued me, and I remember reading it over and over, planning to one day find Druid Ridge Cemetery and visit the scene of the crime. But I knew the statue was gone and felt no urgency.
When I was a senior in college, in 1993, I came across the story again. As an editor at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, I decided to write a Halloween piece on haunted Baltimore and dredged up the tales of the departed Black Aggie. I was surprised to find out that other people my own age had heard the story. I was even more surprised to get a letter from a reader saying Black Aggie was on display in the Smithsonian.
This led to a follow-up article, in which I tried to locate Aggie in Washington. By this point, the topic became somewhat of an obsession. It was then that I learned about Saint-Gaudens and the Adams Memorial, which I visited, and also about another copy of "Grief" that was on display in the Smithsonians National Museum of American Art, but Black Aggie had eluded me again. When the Smithsonian received the statue in 1967, it was not put on display but rather into storage in some dusty basement. There it remained for 20 years, until it was turned over to the General Services Administration -- a branch of the government responsible for maintaining and selling federal property.
With high hopes, I phoned several people at the GSA, but the trail, trampled over by too many bureaucratic patent leathers, had grown cold. The office workers I spoke to had no record of Black Aggie, or even a copy of "Grief" that was donated to the Smithsonian from Baltimore. I was dejected, wondering if Aggies journey from fame to obscurity was the result of sorcery or simply paper-pushing entanglements.
I wrote my second article, basing it heavily on impressions of the original Adams Memorial, but it was time to put Black Aggie aside again. Then, four years later, I read about Shara Terjung, a University of Maryland student reporter who had actually found Black Aggie. Through persistence and luck, she somehow coaxed the necessary information from her contacts at the GSA.
Fascinated, I tracked her down and arranged a meeting. Shara is a witty, self-confident woman, about my age, with a direct gaze and a wide, easy smile. Its easy for me to see how people would fall over themselves to get her the information she wants, and Im grateful for it. Over iced coffee and hot chocolate, the two of us, who werent even alive during Aggies reign of terror, shared our passions for the mysterious statue of Druid Ridge.
It is also through Shara that I learn that Black Aggies legend is not as dead as Id thought. Shed been raised hearing it, both from her parents and, of all places, through the Girl Scouts, where the tale of Black Aggie has taken a turn for the even more bizarre. According to Girl Scout lore, Aggie was a turn-of-the-century nurse who was accused of a horrible crime. She was lynched by an indignant mob, but her innocence was discovered the next day. Out of guilt, the townspeople commissioned a black marble statue to be placed on her grave, and it is that statue that was the center of all the supernatural activity. Nobody can say the Girl Scouts dont foster creativity. In a Bloody Maryesque twist, they also maintain that, if you say "Black Aggie" three times at midnight while staring at a mirror, she will appear behind you, cause you to go insane, or transport you directly to hell. I have yet to try this particular experiment.
Shara also tells me about a younger Pikesville acquaintance who insists that Black Aggie is still at Druid Ridge! In investigating the statue, I have heard the rumors that Aggie was never removed from the cemetery and is instead actually buried in the Agnus grave or in secluded storage somewhere on the Druid Ridge grounds. But Shara reports a different phenomenon altogether. Apparently, some teenagers in Pikesville, hearing the legends of Black Aggie from their parents, are keeping the stories alive. But, unaware that the original statue has been moved, they have assigned the legends to a completely different statue! Is Druid Ridge on the verge of becoming a nighttime rendezvous for mischievous kids once again? If so, theyd better beef up their defenses, which dont seem to have improved much over 30 years. At the very least, they could add "No Midnight Rituals" to the prim little signs that dictate what kinds of flowers youre allowed to place on the graves.
Upon learning of its location in the nations capitol, I immediately planned a pilgrimage to Black Aggie and also decided to visit the other "Grief" siblings -- the Adams Memorial and the authorized museum copy -- in their own distinct habitats. On a rainy Friday in November, my friend James Bills and I drive to Washington, DC -- James, a sculptor himself, is unfamiliar with the work of Saint-Gaudens and has never seen the famed Adams Memorial, but I have made the first leg of this pilgrimage before.
Originally the glebe, or cultivatible field, of Rock Creek Church, Rock Creek Cemetery has been a burial ground for almost 280 years and is the resting place of centuries of Washington notables. Here, Supreme Court Justices have retired to their chambers, Union and Confederate generals share territory, former DC mayors are rolling over in their graves, the inventor of television gets no reception, and the creator of Wonder Bread waits to rise. Its a vast tract of land, covering the equivalent of several city blocks. Criss-crossing roads at random arcs and angles create amorphous burial areas filled with ornate headstones and tombs, whose white forms, glistening with rain, stand out against the duskiness of the afternoon.
Though only drizzling when we park in front of the cemetery office, by the time James and I navigate through the fields of granite and marble, its raining steadily. Why does it always rain when Im investigating these statues? I wonder. We could have driven most of the way through, but the cemeterys roads are narrow and winding, and there is something irreverent in the image of my dented Chevrolet cruising through centuries-old monuments. I dont mind the walk, which gives us more time to appreciate the macabre arrangements of funereal art, but also more time to get wet. Lingering is out of the question.
In contrast to the poetic subdivision names of Druid Ridge, Henry and Marian Adams slumber eternally in "Section E." Approached from the south, their memorial is partially obscured by a small grove of yew trees, but the pinkish granite wall is all I need to see to know weve come to the right place. A path of crushed white stone leads around the side of the wall, through the concealing evergreens, to a raised hexagonal area bordered on three sides by a curving stone bench. It is here that "Grief" holds court, its green-black bronze form absorbing all attention and repelling outside concerns and disturbances.
It rests, androgynous, cloaked, and stately, on a rough granite boulder, with the wall as a backdrop. One hand reaches up as if to brush away a tear or prop a pondering head. The statue is a masterpiece of painstaking detail, from the swirl of individual locks of hair to the serene curve of the lips to the scrupulous folds of the cloak. Yet for all its detail, nothing is revealed. The work remains a study in enigma, which is, of course, the point.
Henry Adams, himself an art critic, was quite pleased with the mysterious nature of the statue, once remarking, "The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is in its universality and anonymity." In a letter to Augustus Saint-Gaudens son, Adams said that statue was meant to ask a question, not give an answer.
Continuing this notion in his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, he wrote: "The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. ... One [priest] after another brought companions there, and apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of despair, of atheism, of denial. Like the others, the priest only saw what he brought. Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more."
In contrast to the priests interpretation, Adams himself privately called the officially unnamed statue "The Peace of God," but he usually referred to the piece publically as "St. Gaudens figure at Rock Creek." He in no way wanted his name associated with the work, as if this would somehow influence a viewers interpretations. This anonymity extended even to the construction of the cemetery monument.
"Is this where theyre buried?" James asks, looking around. "Therere no names on it." Its true; the gravesite is completely devoid of the names of its occupants, who are presumably buried in the area directly before the statues feet. The granite wall provides the only clue: a carving of two interlocking laurel wreaths, symbolizing two lives forever joined.
The rain picks up, and we really should head back to the car, but I take one last look at the statue that started it all. I consider its somber nickname, "Grief," and wonder why it has became so universal and why it was coined in the first place. Even with raindrops running down the figure like tears from heaven, it does not appear to be grieving. Is grief what Mark Twain supposedly saw in Saint-Gaudenss artistic mirror, or is it merely a reaction to its sepulchral location?
I find myself in agreement with Father Joseph Gallagher, who wrote in a column for The Baltimore Sun: "How ironic that for so many years so many young people found the copy of this statue in Druid Ridge Cemetery so immeasurably troubling, even terrifying." The Adams Memorial isnt terrifying. It can be unnerving, certainly, and emotionally moving. But it is also placid and thought-provoking, regal in its meditation. I wonder, if this statue could talk, what it would say about its evil and illegitimate sibling, who forsook serenity for horror.
And my heart leaps for it is now time to view that so-called horror for the first time, and I want to stare right into its glowing red eyes.
Black Aggie is right where Shara Terjung said it was -- in a courtyard between the Dolly Madison House and the Federal Courts Court of Appeals Building, at the intersection of H and Madison Streets, across from Lafayette Park. My first thought on approaching the corner is one of worry. Have we come all this way for nothing? The Dolly Madison House, now an annex of the Federal Courts Building, is closed to the public.
My second thought is, "Damn, that Dolly Madison really knew how to live!" The house is huge and bright and well-preserved. Id call it a mansion, but its dwarfed in magnificence by its more showy neighbor, the White House, which is only a few steps away. Shara mused in the article I read that perhaps the statues pernicious proximity to the seat of our government is the source of our countrys problems. If so, I am about to meet the shaper of national policy ... I hope.
It turns out my worries were for nothing. The courtyard, while protected by a wrought iron fence, is easily accessible in daylight hours through gates at either end. James and I enter, turn the corner, and ...
After all these years, I am before the object of my quest, my twisted version of the Holy Grail. But there is something wrong. James and I look at each other, his sculptors eye and my own obsessed one noticing it at the same time.
Of course, Ive known for years that Black Aggie was a different sculptors unauthorized version of the Adams Memorial -- most likely created only by copying photographs and sketches and not even from life or using any of the original artists casts -- but I have given very little thought to the unromantic implications of this. Black Aggie is crude. Not inexpert, certainly, but there is a subtle grace lacking in its workmanship that is very much present in Saint-Gaudenss creation. Also, the boulder upon which the sculpture rests, while the same shape, is several shades lighter than the Adams Memorial version, and this variation is enough to disrupt the entire impression of unity evoked by the original composition.
It is obvious to me now why Aggie was never displayed by the Smithsonian. Although the American Art museum claims that the statue was not shown because they already had an authorized copy of "Grief" in their collection, they did not acquire this more exact replica until a least two years after they obtained the Baltimore version. I had always wondered, but now I know. Black Aggie really is only an illegitimate version of the Adams Memorial.
I realize that at least some of my trepidation comes from the general condition of the statue. While the Adams Memorial is pristine in its uniformity of oxidation, Aggies dark bronze is marred by splotches of lighter green corrosion. I am surprised, since this copy is at least 15 years younger than the original and has spent 20 years indoors besides. Still, the differences may be due to more than just the weather. As a national treasure, the Adams Memorial is expertly maintained, while Black Aggie suffered decades of abuse and vandalism from generations of teenagers. Looking closely, I can spot the seam where the sculptures arm was reattached after being sawed off by the delusional tin worker.
On the base of the polished granite pedestal is a little bronze plaque that bears a sanitized version of the whole sordid tale:
Eduard L.A. Pausch (after Augustus Saint-Gaudens)
Agnus Memorial (after the Adams Memorial)
Transfer to the United States General Services Administration, 1987, from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Gift of Mrs. Felix Agnus Leser.
"Gift" indeed! As if General Agnuss granddaughter-in-law had donated the statue in a fit of generosity instead of a last-ditch effort to save it from desecration!
Strangely disappointed, I take a deep breath and let my eyes wander around the courtyard. Its a lovely space, filled with landscaped plants and metal outdoor furniture. I imagine, on nicer days, it is also filled with bureaucrats from the federal building, smoking, eating lunch, gossiping, laughing. What do they think when their gaze falls upon this statue? Surely it would never occur to them that, in its heyday, Aggie had terrorized an entire county and become the source of hundreds of fanciful tales and legends.
I bring these stories to mind, one by one, trying to recapture the spirit of this entire adventure. I cant quite get back into the mood, but I make a good effort. James and I examine the statues closed eyes, so famed for opening at the stroke of midnight and glowing with the fires of hell. Theyre just cold metal, but still ...
"You know, they sort of look like theyre open already," he says. Its true, they are carved in such a way that, if one were to look into them expecting them to be open, they would appear as if they were staring sightlessly forward. An optical illusion? Maybe.
Aggie old girl, you havent lost it, I think, rubbing my hand along the wet bronze of the statues knee. "Are you going to sit in its lap?" asks James, remembering I had talked about doing it earlier.
"Nah," I say after a pause. Aggies lips seem to curl into a Mona Lisa-like smile. The artistic mirror? I turn away from the sculpture and shake the drops of water off my hand. "Its too wet," I explain. I dont know if he believes me, but I feel as if I need to prove my fearlessness some other way. "But I do want to come back at midnight."
At the far end of the courtyard where Black Aggie presides is the main entrance to the Court of Appeals Building. Despite the chilly drizzle and Black Aggies solemn pall, the scene visible through the buildings glass doors is somehow even less inviting. The small, stark lobby is sickly lit and resembles a dingy prison corridor, an impression heightened by the presence of two guards manning a boxy x-ray checkpoint. An ominous preview for those unlucky convicts whose appeals have run out?
"Can I help you?" asks one of the guards, immediately stepping forward to face us over the airport-like parcel x-ray. He obviously senses James and I are out of place, either because of our sodden, casual appearance or the fact that we havent stepped through the metal detector.
"Uh, yes. I was wondering if the courtyard outside here is open at night," I say, knowing full well the answer will be no. Its written all over his face.
"No. Its closed at six. After that, no one gets in or out."
"Id like to come in later. Is there some way to get special clearance? Maybe an escort?" I persist.
The guard starts to shake his head. Behind me, James the Greek Chorus puts his two cents in. "Tell him why!"
The dreaded moment has arrived. James is right, of course, but what am I supposed to say? That the sculpture sitting a hundred feet away from us is a famous haunted statue from Baltimore rumored to come to life at the stroke of midnight and kill people?
Okay. I say that.
Of course, the guard starts laughing. I hear a muffled snort from other one, but I dont spare him a glance. "Look," I am told. "Thats just the way it is. After six, nobody comes in. Nobody. Just like youre not allowed to park over there across the street anymore for security purposes." He indicates Lafayette Park through the lobby window. "Its just not possible." It occurs to me that if Aggie had been so well guarded 30 years ago, I wouldnt be going through all this now!
We turn to leave, but I cant resist. "Well, when it comes to life, dont come crying to me," I mutter.
"If it comes to life, Ill be running in the other direction. I guarantee."
They dont even have the decency to wait until were out of earshot to start howling with laughter. Even with the doors shut behind us, I can still hear their amusement halfway across the courtyard, as we pass Black Aggie and step once again into the world of the living.
If the oldest Grief sibling is a noble and pensive sentinel over the Adamses remains, and the middle, illegitimate, sibling is the black sheep of the family, the youngest of this eccentric clan has had a somewhat more comfortable and genteel existence. Today, the last statue receives callers in the Smithsonians National Museum of American Art as if the small gallery on the second floor were its own parlor. There it rests, surrounded by late 19th and early 20th century representations of angels, in a room with hardwood floors and clean white baseboards.
Cast in 1969 from the Adams Memorial, the third "Grief" is more of a clone than a copy. It was created, I am told, by coating the original statue in some sort of substance, probably latex, then filling the resulting mold with bronze. Unlike Black Aggie, it is an exact duplicate of the original. And yet, it is not ...
Lighter in color due to its youth and sheltered existence, the Smithsonians statue rests on an almost-white replica of the Adams Memorials base, including the backdrop wall. The whole thing strikes me as a pale imitation, failing to provoke a portion of the emotional reaction of the Adams Memorial or even Black Aggie.
It must be the setting. Saint-Gaudens had intended his masterpiece to be funerary art, and Aggie had conformed to that vision, even now bringing some sensibility of the tomb into its posh little plaza. But, although the Smithsonian version was once displayed in a sheltered inner courtyard of the American Art museum, it has never been in a natural setting. And it shows, somehow. By bringing a mockery of a grave into a Victorian drawing room, the Smithsonian does not enhance the impact of the statue through shock value. Rather, the entire effect is muted.
Even the plush bench before the statue does not invite contemplation. Here in the museum there is nothing to contemplate. The Adams Memorial has provoked a host of responses and Black Aggie has provoked terror, but this bronze casting, flanked by two hideous artificial plants, provokes nothing.
For some reason, my earlier disappointment is soothed. Black Aggie may not be an exact duplicate of the Adams Memorial, but at least it has its own character and spirit. Imperfect as it may be, Aggie has regained my respect and admiration. I wish I could have seen her during her reign of terror in Baltimore. Would I have participated in the furor, sat in her lap at midnight, scrawled my name on her backdrop to document my bravery?
During the course of my research, I was asked, rather nastily, by a discouraging Baltimore Sun columnist how I would feel if it had been my own familys memorial that had been so violated. It occurs to me that, vandalism aside, I wouldnt be as upset as hed like. Old as he is now, he misses the point. The phenomenon of Black Aggie was not about destruction or death, but rather an affirmation of life and youth. Like the Adams Memorial, Black Aggie is a case of the deceased sparking contemplation and creativity in the generations that come after.