Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore

Our second day in Baltimore was dedicated to all things Edgar Allan Poe.  I have been a fan of Poe’s writing since I was a tween – not a super-fan by any stretch but his work is something I have returned to frequently through the years.  Poe was rather itinerant so Baltimore was only one of many cities where he lived and worked.  Indeed, there is a Poe house in Philly that I really must visit some time soon.  It was, however, in Baltimore that he died.  If you have read my blog enough then you will know me to be an avid wanderer of cemeteries and graveyards so the prospect of visiting Poe’s grave was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is a charming little spot in an otherwise not so charming area.  The small graveyard predates the church building by over half a century and, as such, the Gothic Revival building straddles the ground below by being placed on top of piers.  The result is a sort of crawlspace under the church.  We could get under it by stooping.  It was pretty fascinating to see since I have never seen anything quite like it.  My kids enjoyed exploring all of the nooks and crannies the space had to offer which was fine by me as it gave me more time to read the memorial inscriptions and study the grave architecture.

Poe, in fact, has two grave sites within the burying ground.  We visited them in reverse chronological order as the second site is imposing and just inside the entry gate.  Poe died in 1849 at the age of just 40.  His death was rather confounding as nobody could figure out why he was in Baltimore and he was in too delirious a state to explain.  He was also wearing clothes that did not belong to him.  Even his cause of death has been lost in the mists of time.  In the end then, Poe’s death was as mysterious as one of his stories.  Apt but sad really.  Anyway, in 1875, with Poe’s literary reputation posthumously established, a group raised enough funds to establish a more impressive memorial in the graveyard.  Poe’s remains were exhumed and he was re-interred at the site, a large block of pale marble on a granite base and a medallion portrait inserted into its face.

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There having been no challenge in locating Poe’s memorial, the boys then scuttled off to see who could find the original grave first.  In such a small space, it again was not difficult to find.  This burial spot had a much more modest headstone with a carving of a raven on it.  This had been a family plot so the grave of Poe’s grandfather was nearby and his brother was also buried in the vicinity.  Poe’s cousin/wife and aunt/mother-in-law had also once been laid to rest in this spot but – like their famous relative – had been relocated to the memorial site.

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Poe is not the only famous resident of the graveyard, however.  Tucked against an exterior wall is the grave of James McHenry.  He had served as Secretary of War under Washington and Adams, had signed the US Constitution as a delegate representing Maryland, and Fort McHenry named in his honour.  Also of particular interest to me was the grave of Philip Barton Key.  Key, an attorney, was an attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key.  See how niftily I managed to tie up so many of the elements of our Baltimore trip!  He was having an affair with Teresa Bagioli Sickles which very much displeased her husband, despite his own notorious philandering.  The husband, Daniel Sickles, shot Key repeatedly after confronting him on a Washington DC street.  Mr Pict’s ears pricked up at that part.  Not only was the murder victim somewhat famous but so was the murderer.  Dan Sickles was a New York politician and lawyer who later became infamous for almost causing a Union disaster at the Battle of Gettysburg when he moved his troops without orders and with catastrophic results.  The Civil War nerd was, therefore, suddenly interested in the grave.  The murder, however, is interesting for another reason: it was the first time in US legal history that a defence of temporary insanity had been attempted and by gum it worked because Sickles was acquitted.  This was in 1859, before Gettysburg and the loss of his leg, and before his congressional career.

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There were other interesting graves in the grounds too, including several more people of historical significance.  One area of the burial ground, very near the underside of the building, was covered in graves belonging to one tragic family.  They were the graves of John and Sarah Brown and four of their children.  Six of their ten children died young, many in early infancy, and Sarah also died prematurely in one of the city’s epidemics.  It was a poignant reminder of the high mortality rates in times past.  There was also a bowed grave, marking the resting place of a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  The raised slab of marble, which was atop four pedestals, had been eroded by the elements and by pollution in such a way that it had buckled into a curve.  I had not seen anything like that before in all my visits to cemeteries.  There were also large, above-ground vaults for various families.  They had fancy looking facades to them but it was interesting to note that the rest of the vault looked rather like a large pipe.

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Having seen both of his grave sites, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to go and visit one of Poe’s houses.  The house in Baltimore is actually the earliest surviving house in which Poe lived.  It almost did not survive as it was slated for demolition in the early 1940s but was saved thanks to a Poe society.  It was, therefore, preserved and stands at the end of a terrace of 1930s houses.  It was quite the juxtaposition.  Among the stories Poe wrote while resident in the house were ‘M.S. found in a bottle’, ‘Morella’, and ‘Berenice’.

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The house was rented by Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, who lived there with her mother (Poe’s grandmother), her daughter Virginia (who Poe would marry when she was just 13), her son Henry, and nephew Edgar.  It was a very small house to have accommodated all of those people and it was explained to us that the women would all have slept in one of the rooms while Edgar and Henry shared another room.  The rooms were decorated as they would have been in the 1830s but there was no furniture as part of the reconstruction.  This was probably fairly lucky as there was very little space in each room as it was.  The room the males would have slept in did contain some items linked to Poe, including a chair and his lap sized writing desk.  From that room, a tiny, narrow, winding staircase led up to an attic garrett room which contained a bed, chest, and chair.  The spaces inside the house were dark, gloomy, and more than a little claustrophobic but that actually felt completely apt for Poe’s house.

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I was thrilled to have visited one of the three remaining houses that Poe once lived in.  I was even more thrilled that the visit inspired by youngest sons to become interested in Poe.  They have subsequently watched a series of animations of short stories and have read the pop-up book of Poe writings we own.

National Aquarium, Baltimore

After a morning spent travelling from the Philly ‘burbs and looking around Fort McHenry, we headed around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to visit the National Aquarium.  That was really the focus of our trip to Baltimore as it was the thing the kids really wanted to do.  The Aquarium has timed entry so, when we reached the front of the ticket line before 3pm, we were issued tickets for a 4pm entry.  That gave us time to have a scout around that area of the Harbor.  We saw some interesting vessels moored up, including a large coastguard ship and a submarine, we saw ducks paddling around among flotillas of trash, and we saw some interesting buildings, including an old power plant that has been converted into a retail space.  It was a bookstore so we headed in there to benefit from their air conditioning and peruse books on the shelves.

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Before long it was time for us to return to the Aquarium and go in.  The timed entry system works well I think as it meant we did not waste time queuing and it meant the exhibit spaces of the Aquarium rarely felt too crowded.  We started at a large pool and the kids were instantly enchanted.  Our 10 year old is shark daft so he was super-duper-excited to see sharked slipping through the water.  There were also large rays covered in spotty patterns and we all squealed with glee when a large green turtle appeared and came to the surface.

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The touch pool was a huge hit with all of us.  There were the usual rays and horseshoe crabs for us to pet and we enjoyed that.  Another touch pool, however, was filled with charming little moon jellyfish.  We were told that we could stroke their curved bodies using two fingers.  It was marvelous.  I adore jellyfish anyway (it helps that I’ve never been stung by one) but I have only ever touched dead jellies.  I was smitten as soon as I felt the jellyfish, cool, rubbery, slippery, soft.  It was a delightful experience.

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Another favourite area of the Aquarium was a tank full of puffins.  Is there any other bird as cute as a puffin?  Despite living near some colonies of puffins in Scotland, I had sadly never managed to see any in close proximity.  I love their plump monochromatic bodies and those brightly striped beaks.  They did not disappoint with their antics either.  We saw them bobbing around in the water, swimming beneath the surface, and flapping their wings.  I could have watched them for ages and ages.  It made me wish I could have a pet puffin.

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There were, of course, tanks galore filled with interesting fish.  I was particularly drawn to all the brightly coloured fish.  My 8 year old was obsessed with all the different species of catfish because he is obsessed with cats of all kinds.  He was also drawn towards any of the over-sized fish, of which there were many.  Meanwhile, my 10 year old was all about the stars of the show: the sharks.  The Aquarium is renowned for its large shark tanks and we were not disappointed.  I failed to get a decent photo of any of the sharks but there were scores of large sharks in a vast, deep doughnut shaped tank that surrounded we visitors.  We could get right up to the glass so could feel almost immersed in the water with them and really appreciate the scale of the sharks.  There were nurse sharks resting on the floor of the tank, sand tiger sharks with their needle sharp teeth, sandbar sharks, large rays, and a largetooth sawfish which was an entirely bizarre looking beastie.

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There were areas dedicated to rainforest environments and to Australia.  The latter was a very small area and we did not manage to see all of the birds or the flying foxes that were apparently in the room.  We did, however, see some stunning birds with bold plumage and lots of interesting reptiles, including a freshwater crocodile.  The rainforest area was more successful in terms of spotting critters.  We even managed to go crazy bananas excited when we spotted a sloth among the foliage dangling from the ceiling.  Mr Pict is one of those arachnophobes who is fascinated by spiders so he enjoyed seeing the tarantula.  There were also some amazing birds in that area, including scarlet ibis and turquoise tanagers.

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Another room was just filled with tanks full of jellyfish.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings took a rest break while I spent time in there looking at all of the details of the jellies.  I love their variety.  Some had stubby little tentacles that looked a bit like crinkly coral or brains while others had long, thin tentacles that moved elegantly in the water.  I found it mesmerising to watch their bodies pulsate as they propelled themselves around the tanks.  I think I would find it quite soothing to have a tank full of jellyfish.

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The kids rallied when it came time to visit the dolphins.  They are a colony of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who were all born in captivity.  I am not generally in favour of large marine mammals being kept in captivity but obviously it is not possible to release captive born dolphins into the wild.  There is also an argument that getting to see dolphins up close inspires people to care more for the ocean environment.  In any case, they had just completed their final show performance of the day so we wondered if they would not be keen on being on show for visitors.  However, they were swimming around being very playful, leaping, and chasing each other.  I think it must be pretty impossible not to love dolphins.

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It was evening by the time we emerged from the Aquarium but still very hot and humid.  We decided, therefore, to stop into a nearby ice cream parlour for some cold, sweet treats.  It was a delicious way to end a great day in Baltimore.

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Fort McHenry

While our oldest two sons were still gallivanting in central America with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I decided to take the younger two on a weekend trip to Baltimore.  It takes less time to drive to Baltimore than it used to take us to drive to Glasgow from where we lived in Scotland and that was a journey we used to make just to buy shoes.  Despite its relative proximity, however, we had only visited Baltimore once since we emigrated to America.  It was, therefore, time to go and explore the city a bit more.

First stop was Fort McHenry.  Even if you don’t know much about the War of 1812 (like me!) you will likely know of Fort McHenry through association because it was the defence of that fort that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the rousing song that would later become the national anthem.  Fort McHenry is positioned on Baltimore’s harbour since it was that waterway it was built to protect and it is in the shape of a five pointed star to maximise the vantage points for each bastion.  Built at the close of the 18th Century, the Fort was in constant use by America’s military from then until the end of the First World War.  It is, therefore, a very historic place of national significance.  Want to hazard a guess how thrilled our 8 and 10 year olds were to be there absorbing all of that history?  See if you can spot the point at which they disengaged.

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After an introduction in the Visitor Center and the youngest Pictling signing up to do the junior ranger activities, we headed out into the swampy humidity to tour the fort.  There were reenactors demonstrating something about firing cannons and cooking at the fort but the kids had no interest in engaging with any of that so we didn’t pause.  Once inside the thick walls, we found that some young men were demonstrating different drum signals that were used to signal different messages.  I think there might have been one rhythm that was beat out on the drum skin to signal whose turn it was to peel potatoes.  But I may also have just imagined that because I wasn’t paying adequate attention.

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We not only saw a reproduction flag flying above the fort but also saw the original wooden cross brace from the famous defence.  It had been preserved as if it was a religious relic.  I confess that I don’t particularly understand America’s near worship of its flag but, of course, this flag has much more historic significance than most.  It was, therefore, pretty cool to see the crumbly old wood.  The defence of the Fort took place over the 13th and 14th of September and it didn’t really end in a victory for either side.  It was more a withdrawal by the British naval vessels because the great defence of the fort had depleted all of their ammo.  If memory serves, the whole War of 1812 similarly concluded because everyone just sort of gave up and decided to pack it in.  Anyway, the flag that was flying during that 25 hour period of conflict had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and it was seeing the flag emerge through the smoke the next day that told all the onlookers – including Francis Scott Key – that America had prevailed and still held the Fort.  So that it what the national anthem is all about.  We had taken the boys to see the original Star Spangled Banner way back in 2014 so we were gradually piecing together its history in a scattershot way.

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As a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict was much more keen on the Fort’s history from the Civil War era.  During that conflict, the fort had been used as a military prison and some prominent prisoners had been held there.  One building told the story of that period of history and we were able to step inside one of the very pokey jail cells.

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It was a sticky hot day and the kids and I are not much into military history so we didn’t look at every single space or exhibit in detail.  We walked around the ramparts and took in the views and we pottered around in the various barrack buildings.  Each building exhibited a period of the fort’s history, including its use in the First World War as a military hospital and its use in the Second World War as a coastguard base.  There was a room filled with barrels to show what the gunpowder stores would have looked like and there was a collection of cannon outside one building.

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The boys had had more than enough of visiting the fort, especially because it was so similar to Fort Mifflin, so we decided to depart before they spontaneously combusted in a combination of frustration and heat.  They soon cheered up on the walk back to the car, however, since they found dozens of shed cicada skins stuck to the bark of trees.

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Maryland Science Centre, Baltimore

On Saturday, we Picts took a mini road trip to Baltimore in order to meet up with a friend, her husband and kids, who live in Maryland.  My mother-in-law is actually from Baltimore originally yet I have only actually been there once before and that was way back in 1995.  It only takes us about two hours to get there so we really ought to take trips there more often in future.

It was a grey and rainy day so our choice of venue for the get together was perfect.  We met at the Maryland Science Centre.  It has a reciprocal arrangement with the Franklin Institute so we could use our membership pass from there to gain free entry at the Maryland Science Centre.  Despite that, the cashier insisted on charging us for tickets for two of the kids.  I was about to sally forth with righteous indignation when she revealed that the price for those tickets was $2.  I thought I would let that pass.  It was a dollar entry day.  That meant the place was hoaching, a good Scots word meaning teeming.  In fact, as we were leaving, there were still queues outside the door in the pouring rain.

We started off in the dinosaur section.  There were lots of replica skeletons rampaging through the space which the kids could get up close to and thus gain a sense of scale.  My kids especially liked being able to touch the skulls and they spent a long time brushing sand off fake fossils, measuring bones, making footprints and placing bones in position in order to rebuild a fossil skeleton.  There was also a live lizard in a tank and a very chubby and very indolent bullfrog named Jabba who the younger kids found fascinating.  They also spent a great deal of time lounging around in dinosaur footprints.  It was actually great that they spent so long in that section since there is not a dinosaur section in the Franklin Institute and the kids found it so engaging.  I mean, what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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We then moved on to the earth science section.  There the kids had a lot of fun creating a tornado.  It required the air to be undisturbed to form a funnel so our kids got uber-frustrated when a heap of other kids kept sticking their hands into the air stream but that just made the sense of accomplishment that bit sweeter the times that they finally got it to swirl upwards.  They then all used Google maps to find the location of their homes, with my kids finding both their house here in Pennsylvania and our former home in Argyll, Scotland, and dressed up in polar explorer thermal jackets.  Another big hit was a large bowl that contained “clouds”.  The children spent ages wafting their hands through the vapour, blowing it away from the bowl’s edge and my 9 year old even stuck his head in it.

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There were also experiments we were familiar with from the Franklin Institute and science centres we had visited back in Britain.  While my friend’s kids were patient enough to wait for an opportunity to use them, my kids could not be bothered with hustling their way through the packs of kids to try and get a turn.  I guess my British kids are just way too used to queuing to deal with the chaotic thronging of so many other kids.

Meanwhile I was started to feel starved of fresh air and felt like I was experiencing hot flushes.  The grown ups were starting to feel frazzled and the kids were beginning to get fractious.  We could have had a “fun” competition over which child was going to blow a gasket first.  We, therefore, undertook a rapid fire and incomplete tour of the human body section.  My kids enjoyed running through a maze-like set-up which I think was supposed to teach them about the structure of cells but which they just saw as a much-needed opportunity to run around and burn off some energy.   That made it clear that the kids were no longer engaging in the content of the Science Centre so we said our farewells to our friends and headed back out into the welcome fresh, chill air.

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It was a good Science Centre and my kids especially loved the dinosaur section but I think my kids have been spoiled by their several visits to the Franklin Institute.  Possibly they would have enjoyed their visit more had there not been an overwhelming number of people visiting, thanks to dollar day, because my boys don’t do well with crowds in confined spaces, especially when those crowds are not forming orderly queues.  However, it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Baltimore area with kids and it certainly appeals to a wide age range.  We will definitely go back to Baltimore some time to explore it’s other attractions.