The Perpetual Lightbulb...

     At 5 West Mount Vernon Place, the Walters House forms the cornerstone of the Walters Art Gallery. The stately square around the Washington Monument, coupled with the spectacular Baroque/Gothic architecture of the surrounding mansions and churches has long been hailed as one of the world's most scenic urban settings. Not impressed by the highbrow loftiness of architecture or urban design, generations of Baltimore natives instead were facinated with the lightbulb on the house's front porch.

     A 1922 Baltimore Sun article reported that the light had been burning perpetually "beyond the memory of even the city's oldest residents". In fact, there was a time that the legend of the Walters's Light was known by practically every Baltimorean. Through all hours of the night and day, the light burned without interruption. Frequently repeated by storytellers and in the press, the legend contended that the Walters' initially kept the light on as a signal to their wayward daughter who had either eloped or was suspected to have perished at sea, depending on the version of the story. Long after their deaths, the spirits of the mourning parents were said to tend the light from beyond the grave.

     Things really got spooky, though, when the house was abandoned in the late 1950's. Even though the house had passed through several owners over the years and now sat abandoned and in disrepair, the light continued to burn. Finally, in 1958 (?), a passing reporter noticed that the light had at last burned out. He tracked down the caretaker of the property, an elderly black man, who had once been employed by the Walters family.

     When questioned about the light, the old man laughed knowingly, "No sir, I've been changing this lightbulb myself for years." Hmmm. He explained that the house, being one of the oldest residences in the downtown area, was one of the first properties to be wired for electric light. Not aware of the potential market for electricity, the utility contracted their service for a one-time fee. The Walters burned their light all day simply because it would have cost them no less to turn it out. It remained on all night to protect the house's hand-carved doors which, at the time, were high-theft items.

     So much for legends.

An excerpt from "Don't Eat the Devil: A Dirty Hands Guide to the Meat of Baltimore", Copyright © 1998, Rob Wallace and Chris Lease"

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