“black aggie”

 the haunted history of one of america’s strangest grave monuments

Black Aggie as she looked in 1966. As the stories claimed, no grass would grow in front of the monument (Photo courtesy of Pat Bailey)

Black Aggie as she looked in 1966. As the stories claimed, no grass would grow in front of the monument (Photo courtesy of Pat Bailey)

When General Felix Agnus, the publisher of the Baltimore “American”, died in the 1925, he was buried in Pikesville's Druid Ridge Cemetery, right outside of Baltimore. On his grave was placed a rather strange statue. It was a large, black mourning figure. The statue's creator (sort of), Augustus St. Gaudens, called her “Grief.”

In the daylight hours, the figure was regarded as a beautiful addition to the graveyard art of the cemetery. The sculptor was one of the premier artisans in Maryland at the turn-of-the-century and the statue was highly regarded..... at least until darkness fell and the legends began.

Augustus St. Gaudens was a premiere American sculptor of the late 1800’s. Before his death in 1907, he created some of the most honored works in America, including the figure of Diana that once topped Madison Square Gardens and monuments to American heroes and statesmen like Lincoln and Sherman. One of his greatest pieces of work was a memorial for Marian Adams, the wife of Henry Adams. Marian, called “Clover” by her friends had fallen into a dark depression after the death of her father in 1885. In December of that year, she committed suicide by drinking potassium.

Henry Adams plunged into his despair and in search of comfort, traveled to Japan in June 1886 with his friend, artist John La Farge. When he returned from his trip, he decided to replace the simple headstone that he had ordered for his beloved “Clover” in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery with a more elaborate memorial. He turned to St. Gaudens and asked him to create something with an “eastern” feel to it, perhaps combining the images of the Buddha with the work of Michelangelo.

The endeavor took over four years, frustrating Adams, but creating what some called “one of the most powerful and expressive pieces in the history of American art, before or since. It was placed in the cemetery in 1891 and Adams was delighted with both the design and the setting. The statue was never officially named, known as the “Adams Memorial” and later by the more popular name of “Grief”. The stories for this nickname vary. Some say that the statue was dubbed this by St. Gaudens himself and others say the name was coined by Mark Twain, who viewed the memorial in 1906.

Strangely, the original monument was something of an enigma itself. Henry Adams refused to ever speak publicly about his wife's death and would never officially name the monument. He also refused to acknowledge its popular nickname. Thanks to Adams' silence and the fame of his esteemed political family (he was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams), many became curious about the monument. Adams furthered this curiosity by refusing to have an inscription placed on the monument and by placing it behind a barrier of trees and shrubs. The challenge of finding it only fueled the public interest, first by word of mouth and later in guidebooks and magazine articles. The grave became a popular site for the curious, especially as the statue was so unnerving to look at. It was fascinating that it became the subject of an incredible piracy by a sculptor named Eduard L.A. Pausch.It would be from the original Adams design that the sculptor created his own, unauthorized copy of “Grief” in the early 1900’s. The statue would later come to be known as the infamous “Black Aggie”.

Within a few months of the statue being placed on Marian Adams' grave, Henry Adams reported that someone had apparently made a partial casting of the piece. He wrote to Edward Robinson in 1907 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."

The copy would go on to become even more famous than the original!

General Felix Agnus purchased the Pausch copy of the sculpture in 1905, perhaps after having admired the original work at the Adams grave. Why he decided to use the copy to grace his family tomb, instead of commissioning an original work, is unknown... but perhaps something about the Pausch statue compelled him to own it. We will never know for sure.

Felix Agnus was born in France in 1839. At the age of only 13, he traveled around the world and at 20, fought in the army of Napolean III against Austria and later served with General Garibaldi’s forces in Italy. In 1860, he came to New York and went to work as a silver chaser and sculptor at Tiffany’s. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted as a private in the Union Army and began a war record so incredible that he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General by age 26. He saw action in dozens of battles, including Big Bethel, Richmond, the Siege of Port Hudeson and the Battle of Gaines’ Mills. He was wounded more than 12 times by both bullet and saber. His friend, writer H.L. Mencken later said that Angus “had so much lead in him that he rattled when he walked.”

After a severe shoulder injury at Gaines’ Mills, then Lieutenant Agnus was brought to Baltimore for treatment. There, he met Charles Carroll Fulton, the publisher of the Baltimore “American” newspaper and his daughter, Annie, who nursed Agnus back to health. Fulton met the young officer at the Pratt Street Pier when the medical steamer docked and took him to his home for care and rest. When the war was over, he returned to Baltimore and asked Annie to marry him. She quickly accepted. After that, Agnus continued his remarkable career, working briefly in the internal revenue office, then as Consul to Londonderry, Ireland for the United States Senate. He later retired from this position to take over for his father-in-law at the newspaper. He remained the publisher of the newspaper until his death.

In 1905, Agnus began construction of a family monument in Druid Ridge Cemetery. It was during this time that he purchased Black Aggie and then had a monument and pedestal created that would closely match the setting of the Adams Memorial in Washington. The first burial at the site was of the General's mother, who had been brought over from France.

A year later, the widow of the artist Augustus St. Gaudens sent a letter to Henry Adams to inform him of the poor reproduction that had been done of "Grief" and which was now resting in Druid Ridge. There was nothing they could do legally about the theft of the design so St. Gauden's widow traveled to Baltimore to see the site for herself. She discovered a nearly identical statue, seated on a similar stone, but with the name "Agnus" inscribed on the base. She also noted that the stone was a nondescript gray color and not the pink granite of the original. The Baltimore site also did not have the bench and the rest of the stonework as the original Washington gravesite had.

After seeing the site, Mrs. St. Gaudens declared that General Angus "must be a good deal of a barbarian to copy a work of art in such a way". Agnus quickly responded and claimed to be the innocent victim of unscrupulous art dealers. The artist's widow then requested that he give up the sculpture and file suit against the art dealers. Strangely, Agnus did file suit (and won a claim of over $4500) but he refused to give up the copy of the statue.

The General's wife, Annie, died in 1922 and Agnus himself died three years later at the age of 86. He was also laid to rest at the feet of "Aggie".... and shortly thereafter, her legend was born.

While the Agnus Monument seemed innocent enough in the daylight, those who encountered the statue in the darkness, gave her the nickname of "Black Aggie". To these people, she was a symbol of terror and her legend grew to become an occasional story in the local newspaper and of course, the private conversations of those who believed in a dark side. Where else could you find a statue whose eyes glowed red at the stroke of midnight?

The legend grew.... and it was said that the spirits of the dead rose from their graves to gather around her on certain nights and that living persons who returned her gaze were struck blind. Pregnant women who passed through her shadow (where strangely, grass never grew) would suffer miscarriages.

A local college fraternity decided to include Black Aggie in their initiation rites. Not really believing the stories, the candidates for membership were ordered to spend the night in the cold embrace of Black Aggie. Those who remember the statue recall her large, powerful hands. The stories claimed that the local fraternity initiates had to sit on Aggie's lap and one tale purports that "she once came to life and crushed a hapless freshman in her powerful grasp."

Other fraternity boys were equally as unlucky.... One night, at the stroke of midnight, the cemetery watchman heard a scream in the darkness. When he reached the Angus grave, he found a young man lying dead at the foot of the statue.... he had died of fright, or so the story goes. Just another legend that grew over the years into a ghost story? Maybe, and then, maybe not.

One morning in 1962, a watchman discovered that one of the angel's arms had been cut off during the night. The missing arm was later found in the trunk of a sheet metal worker's car, along with a saw. He told the judge that Black Aggie had cut off her own arm in a fit of grief and had given it to him. Apparently, the judge didn't believe him and the man went to jail.

However, a number of people did believe the man's strange story and almost every night, huge groups of people gathered in Druid Ridge Cemetery. The public attention gained by the news story brought the curiosity-seekers to the grave and the strange tales kept them coming back.

Were the stories told about Aggie merely “urban legends” and eerie tales told about a spooky piece of graveyard art? Some thought so... while others weren’t so sure. One man that I was able to interview (who we’ll call “Frank”) grew up in the New Jersey area and became intrigued with the stories of Black Aggie, especially after a strange event that took place in the early 1950’s. Was what happened just a coincidence... or something more? I’ll let you be the judge!

One night, Frank and two of his friends came down to Baltimore from Atlantic City for a visit. They wanted to see some young women they had met previously, while the girls were in New Jersey on vacation. The group decided to go sightseeing and one of the stops they made that night was to see the legendary statue of Black Aggie. The young women took them to the cemetery and told them a story or two about the monument.

Frank and his friends walked over for a closer look, curious to see (as the girls told them) if anyone had placed coins in Aggie’s hands for good luck, as was the local tradition. They didn’t find any coins, but Frank’s friend, “Freddy”, thought it would be funny to snuff out his cigarette in Aggie’s hand instead.

“We told him not to,” Frank later recalled, “but Freddy just laughed. He didn‘t believe in any of that stuff..... about ten years later, Freddy was found in a dump in South Carolina. He had been shot in the back of the head, mafia-style. They never found out who did it.”

Frank paused for a moment and appeared thoughtful. “”It’s been many years now, but I will never forget the feeling that I had standing in front of Aggie that night... as if she knew the future and could see what lay ahead for us.”

Such lurid tales brought many listeners and the Agnus grave site began to be trampled by teenagers and curiosity-seekers. Although Pikesville (where Druid Ridge is located) was fairly remote at the time, the site was visited, and vandalized, by hundreds or perhaps thousands of people over several decades. In addition to the statue’s arm being stolen, hundreds of names and messages were scrawled on the statue, the granite base and the wall behind it. Today, these have been blasted away, although some evidence of the damage sadly remains.

Cemetery groundskeepers did everything they could to discourage visitors, including planting thorny shrubs around it, but they failed to keep people away. There is no indication as to why the cemetery was not better patrolled at night, but perhaps they just couldn’t afford it. For every trespasser arrested, dozens of others managed to reach the site. A fence surrounds the grave of the Agnus family today, but back then, the cemetery was wide open, especially at night.

Eventually, the number of nighttime visitors and the destruction they caused became too much for the cemetery to handle. By the 1960’s, it had gotten so bad that the descendants of Agnus elected to donate Black Aggie to the Maryland Institute of Art Museum. However, this move never took place and the statue remained at her resting place for one more year, until 1967. On March 18, the Agnus family donated Aggie to the Smithsonian Institution for display.

For many years, this donation would prove to be quite an enigma for researchers who attempted to track down the whereabouts of Black Aggie.... you see, according to the Smithsonian, they didn’t have her. Despite some people recalling that Aggie was displayed in the National Gallery for a brief period, officials at the Smithsonian claimed they had never displayed her at all. Conspiracy theorists “smelled a rat” and believed that perhaps she was simply placed in storage, rather than put on display... because of her cursed past. "Maybe, just maybe," wrote a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, "they're not taking any chances."

The real answer would not be as strange. Somewhere along the line, the staff at the Smithsonian gave Aggie away, which explains why she does not appear in their records. They had no interest in displaying her and instead, gave her to the National Museum of American Art, where she was then put into storage and never displayed. For years, she would remain in a dusty storeroom, shrouded in cobwebs, until recently... when Black Aggie would “rise from the dead”!

In 1996, a young Baltimore area writer named Shara Terjung did a story on Black Aggie for a small newspaper. After having been long fascinated with the legends, she became determined to track down the present location of the statue. Finally, shortly after Halloween, she got a call from a contact at the General Service Administration who was able to discover where the elusive Aggie had ended up. The statue can still be seen today at the Federal Courts building in Washington, in the rear courtyard of the Dolly Madison house.

The mysterious statue had finally been found!

Black Aggie may be gone from Druid Ridge Cemetery, but she’s certainly not forgotten. “We still have people coming to Druid Ridge, asking for Black Aggie all the time,” said one of the cemetery spokesmen in an interview. “I don’t think there’s a week that goes by when we don’t get a call about it.”

The Angus grave site is well cared for today and shows little sign of the desecration of the past. Grass grows now in the place where for many years it could not. The only lingering evidence of Black Aggie is a chipped area on the granite pedestal and a faint shadow where she once rested. At least that’s the only lingering presence that can be seen... some say there is more. Who knows? Whether the Angus grave site was ever haunted or not, Black Aggie has left an indelible mark on not only Druid Ridge Cemetery... but the annals of the supernatural in America as well.