You'd walk right by it, if you didn't know it was there.It's an ancient church in a rundown neighborhood on the fringe of downtown Baltimore, and the trucks seeking the Baltimore-Washington Parkway roar by it all day long. The parishioners have moved elsewhere and the congregation consists of six or seven people - all over 70.
But if there's anything to the supernatural - and around Halloween we know there is - the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe walks the little overgrown paths of the churcch graveyard nightly, wanders in the catacombs below the foundations staring moodily at the piles of whitened bones.
Poe, the master of horror tales, is buried there in Westminister Churchyard along with many of his family and 15 generals of the Revolution and the War of 1812. And this weekend, if you listen carefully, you may hear the dead whisper of some grisly things that happened in this church.
Parish annals record 18 premature burials here. Poe, who lived nearby with his aunt on Amity Street, surely drew some of his tales of horror and death from the things he saw and heard in the catacombs under the church. He died penniless in a nearby doorway, and church historian Samuel Porpore is sure that he spent many nights in the tombs like homeless wretches of the day.
Coffins were not in general use when Poe lived in Baltimore and medicine was primitive, so doctors occasionally mistook coma for death. If you can look without flinching at what remains of people dead for a century, drop by Westminster at 2 p.m. this or any Sunday and let Porpora show you the tomb where a poor unfortunate woman rose from the shelf where they had laid her in her shroud to beat fruitlessly on the door of her tomb. They found her years later when they opened the door to bury another.
Ancient tombstones leaning drunkenly, mass graves in nitre-hung vaults piled high with bones - they're all there to remind us of what lies in store. Even the most commonplace is wrapped in eerie legend here - three people hanged themselves by the bell-rope.
The bodies beneath these old gravemarkers were badly needed in medical schools when Poe lived, and the University of Maryland's medical school, then as now, was across the street. During the long history of Westminister, built 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, grave after grave was robbed. As recently as 1920, the children of the neighborhood rode out on broomsticks with human skulls on the end instead of hobby horses.
Legend says a young girl, dead more than a hundred years, still walks near her burial spot in the catacombs. It is possible she was one of those shut away accidentally with the real cadavers. Two parapsychologists once spent the night in the church hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
No one knows if Poe rests easy under his huge marker near the church gate, but they do say that flowers planted near his grave always die. Some whisper that it's because H. L. Mencken and his literary group met nearby and often stopped off afterward to pay their respects and relieve themselves.
It could be just one more reason this unacknowledged Westminster Abbey of America, at the corner of Greene and Fayette Streets, has been named to the National Registry of Historic Places.
For further grisly details about the tour, call Porpora at 301/547-8413 or 866-1159.