by E. A. Black
I have always had a soft spot for cemetery statuary. I own a replica of the Bird Girl statue seen on the cover of the book Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. The original statue resides in a cemetery. (Editor’s note: It use to reside in Bonaventure Cemetery, but out of fear of vandalism, it was moved to the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah.)
When I die, I want to be interred in a huge mausoleum complete with Coptic or Masonic symbols around the door, even though I’m neither Coptic nor a Mason. If I can’t have a mausoleum, I’d love to have a beautiful statue of a shrouded woman or a classic adult female angel hovering over my grave.
I know none of this is possible (or affordable), so instead I have decided to donate my body to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, popularly known as the Body Farm. I told my husband about it and he’s interested, too. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted to be buried beneath the floorboards of my home, with my skull sitting in a curio cabinet in the living room, so I may haunt the house, but that’s likely illegal, so the Body Farm it is.
Although I love statuary, one particular statue has frightened me since I was a child. Her name is Black Aggie. It was popular in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to scare the bejesus out of kids by telling her story. I didn’t see Black Aggie when I was a kid, although she stood in Druid Ridge Cemetery in nearby Pikesville. I begged my mother to drive me to Druid Ridge to see her, but she refused.
To me and many of my friends, Black Aggie was the stuff of legend. The life-sized statue depicted a grown woman (or man: the sex was indeterminate, but most thought of her as female) seated on a chair wearing a long, flowing shroud. The shroud covered her head, which looked down upon you from its height on a pedestal. Her expression was hard to read. She seemed pensive or sad. Considering her real name was “Grief,” such an expression seemed appropriate.
The original statue was designed by a premiere sculptor of the late 1800s – Augustus St. Gaudens. She was commissioned by Henry Adams (grandson of President John Quincy Adams) in honor of his late wife Marion, who had committed suicide following the death of her father. It took St. Gaudens four years to create the statue, but once finished, she was described as “one of the most powerful and expressive pieces in the history of American art, before or since.” She became known as the “Adams Memorial” and later, “Grief.” Some say Mark Twain coined the latter name, after he saw the memorial in 1906.
However, the original statue is not the statue that became known as Black Aggie. That statue is an unauthorized gray replica made in the early 1900s by Eduard L. A. Pausch. The replica sat on the grave of General Felix Agnus, a local publisher. It is this replica for which the legend of Black Aggie was born.
The replica statue was harmless in daylight, but her legend took flight at night. My friends and I had plenty of stories to tell. She moved of her own accord at night. Her eyes supposedly glowed red at the stroke of midnight. If you returned her gaze, you were struck blind. Spirits of the dead rose from their graves to gather around her. Pregnant women touched by her shadow miscarried. Grass refused to grow in front of the statue. If you stood in front of a mirror and repeated “Black Aggie,” she’d scratch your face. The only positive legend about her was that if you left coins in her palms, you’d have good luck — if you were brave enough to get that close.
Rumors abound that a college fraternity hazed initiates by requiring them to spend the night sitting in Black Aggie’s lap. One young man took the dare and was left at dusk in Druid Ridge Cemetery. When his frat buddies returned in the morning to fetch him, they found him lying in the statue’s arms, dead. The horrified expression on his face made it clear he died from fright.
Another story involved a young man who came to visit the statue at night with some of his friends. The friends wanted to leave coins for good luck, but this idiot decided it would be great fun to put his cigarette out in her palm. A decade later, his body was found in a dump in South Carolina. He had been shot in the head. The culprit remained at large, motive unknown. Us kids simply knew Black Aggie was responsible.
Sadly, the statue was vandalized. Names and messages had been scrawled on her, her granite base, and the wall behind her. Although most of the graffiti had been removed, much of it remained, defacing the statue. Despite efforts to prevent further damage, the vandalism continued into the 1960s. The Agnus family sought to donate the statue to the Maryland Institute of Art, but she ended up donated to the Smithsonian.
Her final resting place brings me to my own encounter with the statue.
In the early 1980s, I was working as a camp counselor at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. Several new groups came in every week. One week, a high school camp came in with an architecture teacher. I sat in on his classes and we took a trip to Washington, DC, but this wasn’t your usual trip to the nation’s capitol. Instead of visiting the museums, we toured the various important forms of architecture in the area. I saw parts of DC I had never seen before.
The highlight was the Dolley Madison house. I can’t remember anything about the architecture anymore. I believe it was American Colonial. We toured the house inside and out and it was lovely. The garden was especially gorgeous. I wandered around by myself and came across a beautiful, life-sized statue of a person. In a shroud. Sitting on a chair. The teacher was standing next to me with a big shit-eating grin on his face. I stared at the statue and finally said, “Is this…?”
“Yup, it sure is.”
I stood in front of Black Aggie!
It was broad daylight. I couldn’t pull myself away. I turned to the teacher and laughed. “Her eyes aren’t glowing red.”
“Not during the day. Wait until nighttime. Bwahahaha!”
I don’t recall whether or not both of her arms were intact. There were stories that one of her arms had been severed. I also didn’t see any graffiti. Despite my childhood fears and the tall tales I had heard, I felt reverent standing in front of Black Aggie. She was an incredibly beautiful statue. Bigger than life. Kind of grayish. Her pensive expression was indeed very sad, as if she had suffered great loss. Her hands were exquisitely sculpted and quite large. I imagined that frat boy who supposedly died in her arms. Gave me the shivers.
I couldn’t resist. I touched her. The marble felt cool. Nothing happened to me. I didn’t drop dead a second later, nor was I rendered blind. I didn’t notice if any grass grew around her. She sat in the shade of some trees and seemed downright peaceful. I glanced at the ground and saw that her shadow fell across me.
“Good thing I’m not pregnant,” I said.
“Yup,” the teacher said. “You’d be a goner by now.”
Luckily, I had a camera with me and took a few pictures, but sadly I have not retained them. Still, I was delighted to have finally stood in front of the statue that scared the piss out of me when I was a kid. I was pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful she was.
I’d have been honored to have such a statue sitting on my grave. The local kids would come visit in fear of seeing her eyes glow bright red. I’d have risen from the dead just to see them running off, screaming. Black Aggie is one of the more exciting legends from my youth and I got to see her in the flesh (so to speak) when I grew up. As far as I know, she still sits in the garden courtyard of the Dolley Madison House. I should stop by for a visit the next time I’m in DC.
I’ll bring coins.
E. A. Black has written dark fiction and horror for numerous publications including Zippered Flesh 2: More Tales Of Body Enhancements Gone Bad, Mirages: Tales From Authors Of The Macabre, Teeming Terrors, and Wicked Tales: The Journal Of The New England Horror Writers Vol. 3.
Ms. Black’s latest release, her erotic sci fi thriller Roughing It, is available at Amazon.
She also wrote about visiting Poe’s grave for Cemetery Travel.
E. A. Black Amazon Author Page
E. A. Black blog and website
Elizabeth Black Facebook page
Elizabeth Black Twitter
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.