A Ghost Tour of Baltimore’s Riots

EVERY CITY HAS SEAMS where the past peeks through, spots especially vulnerable to echoes and reverberations. Take Camden Yards, the iconic retro stadium where drunk baseball fans and splinter groups of protestors clashed in Baltimore. Before Camden Yards was a stadium, it was a B&O railyard; before that, it was the “Frenchtown” neighborhood, and before that, a packed dirt camp for colonial troops.

Baltimore is haunted, but I mean that in the 13th century sense, when to haunt was to frequent, to be familiar with. Baltimore has a habit of brawling and plundering and brick-throwing, with most instances dwarfing the recent destruction. Camden Yards (once Camden Station, before that Camden Street, and before that just an oak tree at the end of what was called Forest Street, and before that a sapling, and before that a seed) is a spot more haunted than most. Like the waterfront Pratt Street, Camden Street was named after Charles Pratt, first Earl of Camden. This Englishman never set foot in Baltimore, but he did side with the Colonies against the Stamp Tax, which had inspired riots of its own.

Two weeks ago Saturday, when police moved in when protesters neared the stadium itself, when some white suburban fans taunted protesters with racial slurs, scuffles erupted. Most of those fans had entered the stadium that afternoon via the pedestrian walkway at the intersection of Camden and Eutaw Streets, right at centerfield. They had milled around the shops and restaurants, treading on brick stacked upon asphalt paving over what was once Donovan’s slave jail. Most of these fans would have no idea they were doing so— there is no plaque or marker. Most of these fans would end up stuck inside the stadium, where beleaguered Union troops barricaded themselves another mild April evening 154 years earlier. Coincidence or convergence?

By now, you’ve probably heard references to Baltimore’s Pratt Street riots, which erupted on April 19, 1861, when a mob attacked a Massachusetts regiment on its way to D.C. Shots had been fired at Fort Sumter the past week, both sides had been posturing, but there had been no casualties. It was in Baltimore that the very first blood of the Civil War was drawn— four soldiers and twelve civilians died that day. After that, there was no backing down.

The song “Maryland! My Maryland!” was inspired by the Pratt Street Riots and written by a local English teacher. Set to the tune of “O Tannenbaum,” this Confederate fight song called upon troops to “Avenge the patriotic gore/That flecked the streets of Baltimore.”

This is our official state song, a song that opens with a reference to Lincoln as a “despot” and wraps up by praising how our state “spurn[ed] the Northern scum!” Note that “Maryland! My Maryland!” was adopted by the state legislature in 1939, almost 75 years after the end of the Civil War.

Traditionally, the third verse of “Maryland, My Maryland” is sung at the Preakness Stakes by the Naval Academy’s Glee Club, a verse that was intended to intimidate on the battlefield, which rejoices that our “beaming sword shall never rust,” immortalizing our propensity for violence.


The 1861 riots are not even the incident that earned Baltimore its moniker of Mobtown. The city’s nickname was probably coined during the 1812 riots, which culminated in an angry mob setting upon a newspaper editor and his armed supporters (which included the father of Robert E. Lee) holed up with muskets in what is now trendy Federal Hill. But there were also the Bank Riots of 1832, the Nunnery Riots of 1839, the Know Nothing Election Riots that occurred annually between 1856-1859, the Federal Hill and Fells Point Riots of 1858, the Railroad Strike of 1877, the Red Summer race riots of 1919, and, of course, the MLK riots of 1968.

These riots that occur cyclically are pressure-valves built into our system to keep it from imploding.

Baltimore has enjoyed periods of integration during prosperity and cycles of ethnic or racial strife in tough times. The city depends upon having the working poor police those even poorer, upon setting their interests against one another.

In 1835, a year after the state Bank of Maryland failed and lost millions of the common people’s dollars, those on its board were accused of fraud and corruption. The board had promised a financial settlement but had been dragging its feet for well over a year.

In an attempt to speed the process along, an angry throng smashed a few windows at the home of the powerful Bank Director (and U.S. senator) Reverdy Johnson. The mayor not only called up troops to protect his friend’s property from the mob, but went himself to try to personally dissuade them.

Unable to destroy the bank director’s home, the mob satisfied itself with trashing the homes of other board members.

After the violence subsided, the mob leaders were jailed. The bank directors who had already bankrupted the taxpayers went on to successfully sue the state of Maryland for failing to protect their property.


I teach at a small university in Baltimore bordered by two thoroughfares: Charles Street, with its million-dollar Federalist and Tudor homes; and York Road, with its check cashing places and fast food restaurants, a short stretch one visiting poet said reminded her of her hometown of Harlem. They are separated by a distance of a half mile.

In the past quarter century I’ve lived in the neighborhoods of Waverly, Charles Village, Hampden, and Cedmont, before becoming part of the problem and moving across the county line. I know my white flight makes me complicit. Still, I can no longer believe farm-to-table/organic/eat local/hipster-quirky/Main Street initiatives are going to be enough to plaster over our past.

Baltimore is like no other city. Baltimore is like too many other cities. It is not just a city that has fostered inequality, but one founded upon it, upon a Land of Pleasant Living forged through violence and intimidation.

At the same spot Confederate sympathizers fired upon Union troops, the Maryland National Guard fired upon a large group of railroad workers and their families in 1877. The workers had been out on strike because the B&O had cut their wages at the same time they paid their shareholders a record 10% dividend. Ten civilians were killed and more than two dozen were wounded.

That regiment also ended up barricaded in Camden Station, trapped for days until Marines were sent in to rescue them. In the meantime, to avenge the protestor’s deaths, the mob set to burning down anything that was not brick.

The National Guard had been sent in in the first place not to keep the peace and protect the citizens of Baltimore, but to protect the railroad.

Protect and serve. Protect the bank director’s home. Protect the B&O. Protect the Orioles.

What if Baltimore’s demonstrators had chanted the following at police:

We will not crook to your control,

Better the fire upon us roll,

Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,

Than crucifixion of the soul.

Would we have thought them patriots for singing our state song?

Maryland, My Maryland!

Oh, Baltimore, my Baltimore.

All a ghost, any ghost asks, is to be acknowledged. Every legend, every story, starts with this premise. Or else we remain haunted, throwing the same bricks and shouting the same slogans. And while we are busy sweeping up the glass and putting out the fires, the same folks keep making money.

The ghostly Reverdy Johnson.

The ghostly Reverdy Johnson.


About Shelley Puhak

Shelley Puhak is a poet and essayist from Baltimore. She is the author of two poetry collections, the more recent of which is the critically-acclaimed Guinevere in Baltimore. Her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Fourth Genre.
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2 Responses to A Ghost Tour of Baltimore’s Riots

  1. John Gery says:

    Many thanks for this sobering history.

    As, maybe, some solace, also not to be forgotten is what Frederick Douglass writes in Chapter 5 of NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS AN AMERICAN SLAVE. WRITTEN BY HIMSELF (1845):

    “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.
    “I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.”

    I hope this other important ghost of Baltimore’s history may also arise from the rubble and broken glass.

  2. mary mary says:

    A very good take on Baltimore. Lived there for many years and always thought the city was haunted. I’m linking one article from Baltimore Sun about the horrific slave trade history of Baltimore.


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