Wednesday, January 28, 2015

HGB Podcast 24 - The Legend of Black Aggie

Moment in Oddity - The Philadelphia Experiment

A secret experiment was conducted by the United States Navy at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1943 that was code named Project Rainbow, but is known today as the Philadelphia Experiment.  Inventor Nikola Tesla began work with a group in the 1930s that were experimenting with the idea of moving through time and space and the University of Chicago worked with these ideas to create a type of invisibility using these principles and electricity.  The project moved to Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies in 1939 and they reportedly were able to make small objects go invisible.  Tesla came to the conclusion that this type of technology would not benefit man and he was very right.  The Navy used the ship the USS Eldridge to conduct its tests and it began with animals.  The test with animals proved successful in that the ship became invisible, but when it returned many of the animals were missing and those still on board were burned or full of radiation.  The Navy decided to go forward with human testing.  In October of 1943, the USS Eldridge was placed in a powerful electromagnetic field and for four hours the ship disappeared from radar.  The USS Eldridge reappeared at a military base in Norfolk, Virginia in front of several witnesses and then it disappeared and reappeared where it started in Philadelphia and the state of the crew was something found only in nightmares.  Some men were missing, others were completely on fire and still others had become a part of the ship meaning that their torsos were locked into walls.  Everyone still on board that survived became very ill.  The Navy denies any such experiment.  Others claim the story is a hoax.  If the Philadelphia Experiment did actually happen, then it not only is one of our greatest mysteries, but also an occurrence that certainly is odd.

This Day in History - Pall Mall Lit By Gaslight

On this day, January 28th, in 1807, the first street is lit by gaslight in London.  This was seventy years before the first incandescent electric lamp would be invented and gas lamps were commonly used in the home.  Gas lamps work in one of two ways, either indirectly with a gas mantle being heated by gas or directly by a flame that was fueled by a mix of gases.  Typical fuel gases include methane, propane, butane, ethylene, carbon monoxide, natural gas and hydrogen.  In the early 19th century, gas lamps would have been lit manually.  Before street lights were invented, home owners were required in some cities to hang a lamp from their front door to help light the road.  The Mayor of London had issued an order in 1417 that read, "Lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemasse."  In London, an Act of the Common Council in 1716 requires that lamps be hung outside of homes from 6pm to 11pm every night and that anyone not following the law would face a fine of one shilling.  William Murdoch becomes the first person to use gas for use in lighting.  He lights his own home with gas lights in 1792.  In 1798, he lit the main area of his workplace, the Soho Foundry Steam Engine Works, with gas lighting.  German inventor Frederick Albert Winsor started a gasworks in Britain in 1807 he made the first public demonstration of street lighting with gas lights on one side of Pall Mall in London.  A few years later, in 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas lights.  Today, many historic districts still use gas lighting out of nostalgia.

Legend of Black Aggie

Urban legends are the folklore of America.  Many of these legends begin with truth, but they change and grow through the years as people share the stories.  One such story is the legend of Black Aggie that has its origins in the Druid Ridge Cemetery.  Could a simple cemetery statuary be cursed?  Is someone reaching out from the afterlife?  And why in the world do crazy humans challenge each other to test the spirits, the unexplained or whatever?  Who is Black Aggie and what is its legend?

This story begins with a woman named Marian Adams.  Her friends called her "Clover."  She was born in 1843 in Boston to Robert William Hooper.  The Hooper family was wealthy and Clover became a well known socialite and amateur photographer.  Henry James even claimed she was inspiration for his novel "The Portrait of a Lady."  Clover's mother died when she was five and she in turn grew very close to her father who was a doctor.  She married a writer named Henry Adams in 1872, who was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and he became utterly devoted to Clover.  Adams became a professor at Harvard and then the couple later moved to a home across from the White House in Washington, D.C.

Clover's beloved father died in 1885 and she sank into a horrible depression.  Clover used potassium cyanide to develop her photographs and in December of 1885, she used that poisonous chemical to commit suicide as she sat before the fire in her bedroom.  Potassium cyanide needs the stomach acids to be at a certain acidity in order for the compound to become hydrogen cyanide.  Potassium cyanide was used by Nazis Eva Braun, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goring and the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate cults to commit suicide.  Clover's husband found her dead and the papers reported that she died suddenly from her heart stopping.  Adams was crushed and he decided to have a sculpture made in Clover's honor to be placed upon her grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was an American sculpture originally from Ireland.  He was well known for creating sculptures to honor Civil War heroes and creating the double eagle golden $20 piece.  Henry Adams asked Augustus to design the Adams Memorial.  We have been in many cemeteries and beyond that we have seen all varieties of graveyard statuary.  Many pieces are gorgeous featuring crosses or angels, some are cute like the carved headstone of Gracie at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia and then there are others that are just downright creepy, many of which are found in Europe.  The Adams Memorial, which was dubbed "Grief," is one of those creepy types of statuary featuring an androgynous figure draped in a cloak with vacant eyes in a seated position, its hand near its face.  Grief took four years to finish and was inspired by both figures of Buddha and the works of Michelangelo.  Henry Adams would never call the monument by any name and he would never speak of the death of his wife.

Normally, this is where the story would end, but not this story.  General Felix Agnus was the publisher of  the Baltimore "American."  He was born in France and fought in Napoleon's army against Austria.  In 1860, he moved to New York to work as a silver chaser and sculptor at Tiffany & Co., which had opened in October of 1840.  The Civil War broke out shortly after he came to America and he joined the Union Army.  His skill as a leader caused him to rise to the rank of Brigadier General very quickly.  He was only 26 years old.  Agnus had been wounded so many times in battle that a friend claimed he "had so much lead in him that he rattled when he walked."  Agnus spent time in Baltimore recovering from injuries where he met Annie Fulton, the daughter of the then publisher of the Baltimore "American."  They married and after a career working for the IRS and Consul to Ireland for the United States Senate, he took over as publisher of the "American" from his father-in-law.

In 1905, Agnus decided to have a family monument built at the Druid Ridge Cemetery.  Druid Ridge Cemetery is a cemetery located outside of Baltimore, Maryland.  The cemetery is not only the final resting place of pioneers in medicine, politicians and war heroes, but it also is home to several of German sculptor Hans Schuler's creations.  Agnus purchased a sculpture for the memorial made by Sculptor Eduard L.A. Pausch.  This was not a sculpture designed by Pausch.  It was a pirated design copied from the Adams' Memorial's "Grief" monument.  This was not by permission and Henry Adams wrote to a friend that "even now, the head of the figure bears evident traces of some surreptitious casting, which the workmen did not even take the pains to wash off."  Apparently, a granite supplier from Conneticut named John Salter had hired Pausch to make the knockoff and had told Agnus that Pausch had permission to make the copy.  The only difference between the two statues is that the original was made from pink granite, while Pausch's was made with a stone of gray coloring. The original sculptor's wife sued Salter and won.  General Agnus decided to place the statue at the Agnus Monument anyway and did so in 1907.  Agnus faced scrutiny and criticism for the copied sculpture, but he claimed he was just an innocent victim.  

Agnus had a pedestal built for the sculpture and then had his mother's body brought over from France and she was the first to be buried at the Agnus Memorial.  Agnus' wife Annie died and was buried there in 1922 and Agnus joined her in 1925.  The statue came to be known as Black Aggie based on her coloring and the fact that she sat at the Agnus Memorial.  No grass would grow before the statue, but what did grow was the legend of Black Aggie.  The sculpture no longer is in the Druid Ridge Cemetery.  It was donated to the Smithsonian by the Agnus family because of the defacing the sculpture had received at the hands of graffiti artists and because of the lore building around the monument that brought unwanted attention.  The Smithsonian decided they did not want a knockoff statue and it was given to the General Services Administration and they placed it in a courtyard at the National Courts Building in 1987 behind the Dolly Madison House, where it still sits today.

Black Aggie as it appears today in its new place
This brings us to the urban legend.  Numerous claims have been made about Black Aggie, all of which lead to the belief that this melancholy figure is cursed.  Claims of a curse gained strength when people noticed that no vegetation would grow near the memorial.  Rumors began to circulate that the spirits within the Druid Ridge Cemetery would gather around Black Aggie as though she were calling to them on certain nights.  People would claim that if anyone met the vacant stare of Black Aggie for too long that they would be struck blind.  Still others claimed that Black Aggie's eyes would glow red.  And if a pregnant woman were to gaze upon Black Aggie, she would soon find herself miscarrying or giving birth to a stillborn child.  Clover Adams had been unable to have children and many attribute this curse to her.

A fraternity at a college near Druid Ridge Cemetery decided that they wanted to include the statue in their hazing rites due to growing urban legend.  New initiates were required to spend a night in the cemetery curled in the lap of the statue.  Part of Black Aggie's lore was that anyone sleeping in the figures lap at night would be strangled or suffocated as they slept.  There is a tale about one such initiate being crushed to death.  One evening, the cemetery caretaker heard a blood curdling scream and found another initiate dead at the feet of Black Aggie.  Two other fraternity brothers who had been with him had run away earlier after, they claim, they saw the statue move and reach out and grab the initiate.  Are these stories based in truth or just a part of the legend?

The monument soon faced desecration when young people would break into the cemetery and spray graffiti on the statue and its pedestal.  Groundskeepers placed thorny bushes around the statue to protect it, but people continued to vandalize the statue.  Others placed coins in Black Aggie's hand for luck.  One man who put his cigarette out in Black Aggie's hand was found dead a few years later, a victim of a gunshot to the head.  Another individual sawed off one of Black Aggie's arms and claimed that the statue had done it to itself.  He was put in jail.

The legend of Black Aggie has reached the ranks of Bloody Mary.  It is claimed that saying Black Aggie three times before a mirror in the bathroom at midnight brings the same results as those brought about by saying Bloody Mary three times.  Black Aggie will appear behind you in the mirror and then stab you or take you for a ride to Hell.  There have been no reports of Black Aggie being a part of supernatural activity since being removed from the cemetery.  This may only be because many people are unaware of her new home or no one who sees the statue realizes that she is part of an ongoing urban legend.

Does the spirit of either Clover or Henry Adams possess the Black Aggie?  Is this somber statue cursed for some other reason?  Are the stories about Black Aggie simply from the imaginations of the living who just want to claim some part of the urban legend?  The grass now grows at the Agnus gravesite.  Is that just a coincidence?  That is for you to decide.

*A great website for more information on America's urban legends can be found here:

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