Baltimore’s Rich History and Characters

A friend has said that Baltimore is a ‘tired old town’ and in many ways it is. While there are a couple of areas of vitality in Baltimore mainly over on the Eastside at Fells Point and right on up through Canton, over here in Southwest Baltimore we don’t have a harbor, all we have is the Gwynns Falls River and I don’t see a big demand for any ‘Brunswick on the Gwynns’ half million dollar homes anytime soon.

Still, Baltimore does have a rich history of events and people. One of the most famous to have lived right around the corner from me back at the beginning of the 1900’s was the famous New York Yankee slugger, Babe Ruth. While most know that Ruth spent time at the St. Mary’s Reformatory which was situated across from where the Saint Agnes Hospital complex resides today, I wasn’t aware that he had spent the better part of 12 years there, and only left when he had signed a professional baseball contract. But what was really interesting to me as I was reading a brief biography of his time there was that it was mentioned that the person that had the biggest influence on the young Ruth was a ‘Brother Matthias’. It was stated that the tall giant of a man was a teacher, mentor, coach and lifelong friend to Ruth. The ‘Babe’ later said that he was ‘the greatest man that he had ever known’. Now for those who grew up in Southwest Baltimore in the 50’s and 60’s and especially those who attended St. Benedict’s school and church know that there was a ‘Father Matthias’ who presided over St. Benedict’s at that time. Father Matthias was also quite a large man, and while I have no evidence, it got me to thinking that perhaps that Father Matthias was related to the Brother Matthias from St. Mary’s Reformatory?

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Another person of note that lived no more than a mile or so from where I grew up was H.L. Mencken, who during his lifetime worked as a editor, journalist, essayist, satirist, and scholar of the English language. During his long career, Mencken achieved worldwide fame. Mencken resided at the family home on Hollins Street most of his life. I recently listened to an autobiography on Mencken and discovered that he was indeed a fascinating fellow. Mencken is buried at Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore.

Another literary person of renown with Baltimore roots is Edgar Allen Poe, a writer of short stories, who’s works have far outlasted him. Many of Poe’s stories have been turned into plays and movies, and even the Baltimore Raven’s football team have annexed one of his famous works for their namesake. Although Poe was born in Richmond and lived in other places, it is here in Baltimore that Poe spent a good part of his early and latter life and it’s in Baltimore where his earthly remains lie.

Some might be surprised to learn that this guy, back before he became famous as a bootlegger and Enemy Number 1 during his Chicago years, Al Capone spent time in Baltimore and worked as a bookkeeper for a construction firm. It was said that Capone was a model employee and while there made acquaintances that would serve him well during his long criminal career. Later in life, Capone returned to Baltimore and lived for a while in the Mount Washington area while he was being treated for Syphilis. In appreciation for the treatment that Capone received at Union Memorial Hospital, he donated two Japanese Weeping Cherry Trees to the hospital in 1939, and one of the trees is still clinging to life 80 years later!

Baltimore has in many ways seen much better days. However, one can’t deny that Baltimore is rich in history, and that includes many noteworthy people who lived here, whether for a lifetime or a stay. I like to reflect on that from time to time, as Baltimore wasn’t always the tired old town that it is today.