Thursday 24 Jul 2014

Ten of the Most Baltimore Things that Ever Happened

photo 1 (6)

I recently fell for a piece of Buzzfeed clickbait — 13 Of The Most Baltimore Things That Ever Happened — which turned out to be a disappointingly lame listicle. There wasn’t even a half-hearted attempt to deliver on the promise of the headline. It’s just a random series of vaguely Baltimore-related images slapped together, a provocative headline aimed at getting suckers like me to click the link.

Oh come on. Baltimore has a rich history and culture. It shouldn’t be difficult to follow through on the premise and make an actual list of events that illustrate the city’s character. In short order I came up with my own list. In no particular order, they are:

1. This flag:

Image: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, via Flickr under Creative Commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmuseumofamericanhistory

Image: National Museum of American History via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in 1814 Baltimore saved America’s ass. That August, the British trashed the District of Columbia — looting and burning the Capitol, White House, Treasury and War Department, and sending President Madison scurrying away to safety. After their envisioned destruction of the industrial and shipping port of Baltimore, the Brits intended to sweep through to Philadelphia, at the time the country’s financial capital. But it was not to be. British and American troops skirmished all over East Baltimore, most notably at North Point. Then ships bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours, a relentless barrage of shells fired in a futile attempt to overtake the city’s inner harbor. A lawyer wrote a poem about Mary Pickersgill’s humongous 40-foot hand-sewn flag, which was set to an English drinking song and made our national anthem. You’re welcome.

2. This lesson:

cadaver2

Countless discoveries and innovations have been developed at Baltimore’s medical institutions. One incident that shows the spirit of Baltimore happened on November 21, 1807. In that year, physician John Beale Davidge constructed an anatomical theater behind his home at the corner of Liberty and Saratoga and along with colleagues began offering a course of instruction to medical students, featuring the study of anatomy using human cadavers. Locals did not like this. On the night of Nov. 21, a violent mob broke into the anatomical theater and seized the cadaver — “the waterlogged body of a criminal who had drowned himself,” by one account — and dragged it through the streets. Because that’s dignified and respectful. For good measure, the mob thoroughly demolished the building and its contents. State lawmakers quickly chartered the College of Medicine of Maryland and earmarked money for a new mob-resistant building. It was the first medical school in America to require the study of human anatomy. With cadavers.

3. This machine:

Of all the innovations to emerge from Baltimore — gas lighting, railroading, the telegraph, and the hand-held electric drill to name a few — none had so profound and far-reaching impact as the linotype. Invented by German immigrant watchmaker Ottmar Mergenthaler, the linotype was the pinnacle of Victorian-era engineering — thousands of clattering parts that cast a line of type from molten lead. The machine was a revolutionary improvement over hand-set type. The linotype allowed affordable, mass-produced publications: magazines, newspapers, books. Costs dropped, and literacy went up. The machine ushered in an era of mass communication. The fact that you’re able to read this at all is thanks to Mergenthaler’s invention.

4. This street:

Image: Angi English via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Image: Angi English via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Every year, the residents on this block of Hampden’s 34th Street crank up their utility bills and tolerate the street clogged with traffic and crowds of gawkers in front of their homes. It’s a block-long multi-home over-the-top holiday light extravaganza. Nobody makes a penny from it. They do it because it makes people happy.

5. This band:

After the execrable weasel Robert Irsay snuck the Baltimore Colts out of town under the cover of darkness in 1984, the Baltimore Colts Marching Band continued to perform at parades and special events for years because why the hell not. In 1998, the band officially became the Baltimore Marching Ravens.

6. This writer:

Image: William S. Niederkorn, New York Public Library.

Buzzfeed almost got something right by listing the Poe Toaster, but the Toaster is only window dressing for the main act — Edgar Allan Poe. Of all the literary figures who called Baltimore home — including H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Lord, Russell Baker, Emily Post, Upton Sinclair, Ogden Nash and Leon Uris among many others — Poe’s legacy is most enduring. Poe lived here, wrote here, and died here under mysterious circumstances. Sure, the Poe Toaster was a nice mystery, but it probably wasn’t even perpetrated by a Baltimorean. Poe is one of our own, and he continues to fascinate people today.

7. These fake cops:

Images: NBC

Images: NBC

Baltimore has been depicted on the large and small screen by John Waters, Barry Levinson, and David Simon — all storytellers who draw upon real people and events. The line between fiction and reality was obliterated on October 7, 1996, when a shoplifting suspect fleeing a North Avenue pharmacy turned a corner and stumbled onto a location where a scene for Homicide: Life on the Streets was being recorded. Seeing Richard Belzer and Clark Johnson — who portrayed detectives John Munch and Meldrick Lewis respectively — with guns drawn over an actor playing a murder suspect spread-eagled on the street, the thief promptly surrendered. The incident was worked into a 5th-season episode of H:LOTS, in which a suspect is chased onto a movie set and surrenders to actors playing cops. Levinson, who was executive producer of the show, does a cameo as himself as the movie director. It’s a Inception-esque example of art imitating life imitating art imitating life.

8. This hon:

Hon Man in action, 1993.

Hon Man in action, 1993

Beginning in the early 1990s, a person known as Hon Man — and others following his initiative — risked serious injury and criminal penalties to deface a sign on Baltimore-Washington Parkway with a familiar term of endearment. Isn’t that nice?

9. This protest:

Photo: Bill Hughes

Photo: Bill Hughes

All was fine and well until December of 2010, when Baltimoreans learned that one person — Denise Whiting of Café Hon — had trademarked the word “HON.” Locals did not like this. An ensuing hontroversy erupted with protests, vandalism, online flame wars, and a boycott that nearly forced Café Hon out of business. Reportedly, nothing like this has ever happened before. There’s never been a wide-spread public outcry and revolt over a trademark. Fortunately, Gordon Ramsay made it right in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. The trademarks are gone, and all is well again.

10. This swim:

Image: Baltimore Sun

Irascible and colorful, there was no doubt that William Donald Schaefer deeply loved his hometown. During four terms as mayor, Schaefer rebuilt Baltimore — with homesteading, Harborplace, a convention center, the National Aquarium and numerous other projects and developments. He gave Baltimoreans a reason to visit the Inner Harbor area and turned it into a tourist attraction. He changed how people felt about Baltimore. The “Do It NOW” mayor made good copy, prone to outbursts about potholes and projects lagging behind schedule. On July 15, 1981, Schaefer settled a wager that the aquarium would be finished on time by taking a dunk in the seal pool, letting people know that the city was a fun and lively place.

Have I missed anything? What would you add to the list?

About the author

WTBH founder and editor Bruce Goldfarb has written for Baltimore magazine, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and numerous other publications. He has also done eight books that you've never read.

5 Comments

  1. Now that’s a list! Linotype, eh?

    Reply
  2. Barbara Larcom says:

    Loved this list! I learned several new things even after living here for many years. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Sonia Zaffiris says:

    You forgot Anne Tyler #6.

    Reply
  4. Tom F. says:

    How `bout: White marble steps (stoops), painted screens & coddies?

    Reply

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