Tuesday Tip: Trick-or-Treating at Mount Vernon

Still figuring out your Halloween plans? Trick-or-treat at Mount Vernon!

Built by our first president on his family’s Virginian land, Mount Vernon was George Washington’s home until his death there in 1799. Just 15 miles from the capital city that would bear Washington’s name, Mount Vernon opened to the public in 1860 and has continued welcoming visitors ever since.

Mount Vernon is a gorgeous palatial estate on the banks of the Potomac River. The museum offers various events throughout the year, from whiskey sampling to candlelight tours, and it is always a popular destination for history-buff tourists.

For the first time, Mount Vernon will this year be hosting a special trick-or-treating event on Halloween. Among the themed events will be a costume parade, creepy stories, and chocolate-making demonstrations. Costumed interpreters will interact with the kids, and there will even be a Martha Washington on hand!

Parents will enjoy the location, and kids will love the Halloween-y fun. It’s a great way to trick-or-treat, tour the grounds, and experience history all at the same time.

Activities begin at 3:30 PM on Friday, October 31. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children; buy passes online here.

Mondays in Maryland: Spirit Boards in Baltimore

Baltimore, John Wilkes Booth, and…an Ouija board?

It started off, as so many of my adventures do, with a visit to a graveyard.

I was at the un-name-able Baltimore cemetery to find John Wilkes Booth’s penny-covered grave. The cemetery map highlighted many famous–or, in the case of Booth, infamous–names, but one person was conspicuously absent from the roster: Elijah Bond.

Who the heck is Elijah Bond, I hear you ask. Stay with me. Elijah Bond, eternal bedfellow of a presidential assassin, was a late-nineteenth-century lawyer and inventor, and he was not in any way involved with the plot to kill Lincoln.

He was, however, the man who invented the Ouija board.

To be fair, planchettes–the moveable pointing pieces associated with Ouija boards–had been around for centuries before Bond. They traditionally included a pencil on the end, and rather than point at letters, movement of the piece would result in the pencil writing.

Bond had the idea to market the planchette with an alphanumeric board. He received a patent for the bundle in 1891, and soon after the Baltimore-based Kennard Novelty Company began producing the toy.

When Bond died in 1921, he was buried in the same Baltimore cemetery as John Wilkes Booth. And he originally shared Booth’s destiny of eternal anonymity, in that both were placed in unmarked graves.

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It was not until 2007 that Bond’s grave was rediscovered. 21st-century admirers raised funds for a more-appropriate headstone commemorating Bond’s contribution to the spiritual world.

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Finding Bond’s grave is a bit more complicated than finding Booth’s. For whatever reason–most likely because the printed guides have not been updated since 2007–Bond is not included in cemetery’s list of famous burials. A little detective work, though, and you’ll soon see a giant Ouija board in the stoney sea of 19th-century headstones.

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It’s a beautiful memorial. The “good bye,” although printed on every Ouija board, is so final, so sad, in this context.

I wonder if anyone has tried using the gravestone board to communicate with Bond. I confess to briefly entertaining the idea myself.

Bond’s gravesite has thus been saved for future generations, but most of the buildings associated with this story haven’t been so lucky.

The Kennard Novelty Company’s original factory is today the site of the Baltimore Convention Center, while the Ouija Novelty Company–Kennard’s successor–is now a tattered parking lot.

Not all has been lost to the ages. Multiple imitators sprang up after Bond’s 1891 patent, and one of them–the Baltimore Talking Board Company–has survived. Down on Paca Street, next to the University of Maryland Medical Center and, coincidentally enough, just two blocks from Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, its factory lives on as swank condos.

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It’s ironic that the company dedicated to speaking with the dead has itself died, while a cheap knock-off continues to shape Baltimore.

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So, when you dust off your old Ouija board for Halloween this Friday–or go to see the new Ouija movie–pause a moment to thank Elijah Bond and the great state of Maryland for the entertainment.

Mondays in Maryland: Baltimore’s Notorious Juice Joint

“A wise old owl sat on an oak
the more he saw the less he spoke
the less he spoke the more he heard.”

Those simple verses once shared a vital code with patrons of Baltimore’s premiere speakeasy, the Owl Bar: its glowing bird statue was no mere decoration. No, the bird was instead the very key to not getting busted by raiding feds.

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If his eyes were blinking, a shipment of illegal alcohol had arrived and it was safe to drink. If his eyes were not flashing, something fishy was afoot. Look to the owl, and never speak of booze.

Alcohol wasn’t always a dirty word at the Owl Bar. Built in 1903, the bar started life as a legal establishment in the back of the majestic Belvedere hotel.

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The Belvedere instantly became the It place for members of high society. Its Owl Bar, on the other hand, was not quite as refined. Elegant lady guests of the Belvedere were far too cultured to visit a bar, and the drinking establishment was therefore relegated to men only.

The bar chugged along in this way for more than a decade, until in 1920 something strange happened: the United States banned the sale of alcohol.

Prohibitionists insisted that the “Great Experiment” would reduce crime. The Owl Bar and thousands of other establishments across the US seemed to take this as a sort of challenge.

Illegal booze flowed in through the Belvedere’s underground tunnels. Suddenly, the Owl Bar was the hottest destination in town. It became known throughout the Eastern Seaboard as the best place in Baltimore for women, gambling, and all kinds of nefarious fun.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Owl Bar’s sordid chapter came to an end, but its good times did not. Movie stars, presidents, and foreign dignitaries across the decades have paid a visit to the former speakeasy, and today the bar is still a hip place to be.

Its location is no doubt part of the appeal: just a few blocks from busy Penn Station and abutting Baltimore’s trendy Mount Vernon neighborhood.

Picture of Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland

Around the neighborhood

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Charles Street

Once shrouded in secrets, the Owl Bar is today celebrated for its history. The back hallway leading to the bar is lined with owl mementos and pictures of famous patrons, from Clark Gable to Al Pacino.

Picture of A Halloween-themed chalkboard in the Belvedere's lobby beckons thirsty customers to the bar

A Halloween-themed chalkboard in the Belvedere’s lobby beckons thirsty customers onward

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The bar itself is darkly lit, even in the middle of the day, and gives the illusion of a smaller space. Owl chotchkies spill over every mahogany surface.

Entering the bar (decorated for Halloween)

Entering the bar (decorated for Halloween)

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Blazing above the bar are faux stained-glass windows crafted into verses from “A Wise Old Owl,” the words paying tribute to the bar’s sordid past.

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The Prohibition-era owl, too, remains. Perched high on the wall with his gaze directed at the entryway, his blinking eyes still let all who enter know if the hootch flows freely.

The thrill of illegal booze may be gone, but the Owl Bar remains a great time.

The Owl Bar is open seven days a week, though daily times vary. Happy Hour runs weekends from 4-7PM and offers $3 drafts and house wines. Food is plentiful but a little highly priced; plan on paying for the experience in addition to the meal.

Tuesday Tip: The Serpentine Bar & Kitchen

London has many, many wonderful pubs and restaurants. This tip is not based on a food recommendation, but rather an atmosphere one.

Located at the end of Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen is one of the city’s best options for relaxing.

There are the beautiful surroundings to admire, a constant flow of people to watch, and even a few cheeky herons that might try to nab your food. No matter the time of year, the spot is a happening place for tourists and locals alike.

The Serpentine Bar & Kitchen is open seven days a week, 8AM-8PM, and is reasonably priced for the location.

If you can, snag an outdoor table for a better view. And even if it’s a brisk day, don’t worry – the plentiful drinks will warm you up!

Mondays in Maryland: An Assassin Rests in Baltimore

It’s an unmarked stone sitting peacefully in the middle of suburbia. Hidden beneath it? The mortal remains of one of America’s most notorious assassins: John Wilkes Booth.

The Baltimore cemetery that houses Booth is built like a fortress. The entrance is an uninviting brick castle with an entryway just wide enough for a single car. Soaring 19th-century stone walls outline the boundary of the dead, topped with modern steel cables and razor blades.

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It is not in a good neighborhood. People cluster on the barren street corners, aimlessly sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. Cop cars are on a constant crawl, burned-out units melt between current living spaces, and nearby sirens punctuate the sounds of city life.

It’s a different world inside the cemetery. Quiet, empty, and peaceful.

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After assassinating Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled from Washington, DC, through Maryland and into Virginia. The Southern sympathizer and his co-conspirators were discovered two weeks later hiding in a tobacco barn. Although the others surrendered, Booth refused and was ultimately shot to death.

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The Booth family was well-known in Maryland society. Their family burial plot in Baltimore contains elaborate, ostentatious memorials, marking their wealth and prestige for future generations.

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The assassin rests here. In life, he vehemently disagreed with the rest of his family, who did not share his treasonous beliefs. In death, he is remanded to the very edge of the family burial plot, with no other Booth grave touching his.

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His burial stone contain no official identification. Unofficially, it is covered in pennies left by cemetery visitors. Whether this is to commemorate Lincoln’s ultimate legacy or to celebrate his assassin is unclear. I choose to believe it is one final token of contempt for Booth’s revolting beliefs.

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Another final token of contempt is Baltimore itself. The city that surrounds Booth’s cemetery is predominantly African-American, with an African-American mayor (a woman, no less). Booth may have killed the great liberator, but he could not kill what Lincoln started.

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But this place feels too peaceful for Booth. Baltimore citizens continue to find a final resting spot within these stone walls, and I wonder what they think about spending eternity with a murderous traitor. I wonder what the people on the street corners outside think about their proximity to him, if they even realize such an infamous man is but a few steps away.

You may be wondering why I have not named the cemetery nor the part of Baltimore in which it resides. Per cemetery guidelines, I am not to specifically identify the location of my photographs. If you’re interested, you can easily Google the information–and if you live in this region, I hope that you pay it a visit.

Booth’s Baltimore grave is just one of a litany of strange facts about Maryland. I’ll explore the fascinating area each Monday in my new Mondays in Maryland feature–I hope you’ll join me!

A Change of Scenery in Alexandria

By the time I got to Alexandria, one of the last stops on my 2007 tour of Egypt, I was ready for a change. It had been endless days of antiquities and ruins, the hieroglyphs and temples and statues all blurring together in my mind. Alexandria promised something different, something modern. I was so looking forward to it.

Although founded in 331 BC, Alexandria was an important part of 19th- and 20th-century society. It has an active harbor and a lively cultural life with opera houses, trendy cafes, and beautiful gardens. It is an African city with Western sensibilities, a wholly unique experience.

Picture of Alexandria's harbor in Egypt

The harbor

And yet, I felt exposed in Alexandria in a way I hadn’t anywhere else in the country. My friend and I were alone there, parting ways with the tour group for just a few days. And everyone in Alexandria seemed to know it.

Picture of street in Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria

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On the streets

As we walked along the city to admire the sights, we were constantly given the impression that we were unwanted. Anti-Western scowl peered at us from the windows of European-style buildings. My friend was shoved into oncoming traffic by a group of passing women. We constantly felt like we were being followed.

No matter where we went, groups of people always seemed to be watching, judging, menacing.

Tired of the wordless harassment, we sought shelter in our hotel. We watched Gothika and Anchorman and anything else airing in English, telling ourselves we’d just take the night off and sight-see some more in the morning.

But it was a struggle to make it to the Library of Alexandria. And even there, at a place of learning, grimaces were thrown our way.

Picture of the inside of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt

Inside the library

Picture of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt

The library

When our tour guide finally picked us up again the next day, we were relieved.

Our hotel in Cairo felt like home. We wandered the local city streets without conflict, without abuse. I don’t know how we had wronged Alexandria, but clearly we were unwelcome. And I have no desire to ever see it again.