The mystery of Mathilda Lorenz: Empty wooden coffin appears on the banks of Stony Run

Published on: July 15, 2022 2:30 PM EDT|Updated on: July 21, 2022 10:43 PM EDT

Heidi Blalock was walking her dogs through Wyman Park when something caught her eye Wednesday afternoon. She picked her way down an eroded embankment, and there, splayed in the sand along the shore of Stony Run, was an old, empty casket.

The casket, a little more than five feet long, was made of weathered wood. A lid, also made of wood, lay shattered next to it. A small metal plaque adorned the casket. In a mix of old-fashioned fonts it read: “Mathilda Lorenz; Died July 26, 1882; Aged 18 years, 2 months and 1 day.”

As her dogs, Mookie and Astro, nosed in the creek, Blalock, 57, pondered her next move. “It’s unnerving,” she said. “I don’t know what a good citizen does when you come upon an unearthed casket. It feels like my civic duty to do something. It has a story and a person attached to it.”

Blalock, who lives in Hoes Heights, posted photos of the casket to a North Baltimore Nextdoor group. The members, as folks so often do on Nextdoor, recommended calling the police. Was a grave robber afoot? Could the casket have floated free from the soil during heavy summer rains? Was it refuse from a haunted house?

Throughout the next day, people wound through the lush woods to inspect the casket, which was resting near a tunnel that runs under Remington Avenue. The box-shaped part appeared to be made of very old wood. There was a hole about the size of a quarter in the bottom, around the spot where a body’s feet would rest. There were streaks of pale green paint along the top edges.

Yet there were clues to suggest that the casket had not remained untouched since the 1800s. Some segments of molding around its base and its lid appeared to be fashioned of newer wood.

The casket rests next to the stream in Wyman Park.

Standing around the casket on Thursday evening, Ethan Berg, 38, a piano tuner from Annapolis, noted that some of the screws attaching the handles to the casket were Phillips-head, which were not invented until 1932. And indeed, behind the handles there were other ornate semicircular stains, like the ghost of the hardware that once adorned the casket.

Jacob Wilkerson, 30, of Hampden, pointed out several ring-shaped stains inside the casket. Were they left by drinking glasses? Paint jars? Something more mysterious?

“Someone had to carry it down here,” said Anand Pandian, 49, an anthropology professor from Wyman Park, who brought his two children, Karun, 13, and Uma, 9, to peer at the casket. “Or perhaps someone dumped it upstream and it floated down here,” he said.

He noted that he and his kids had once observed a giant tree trunk that had traveled more than a mile down the river in heavy rains.

At Bazaar, a shop in nearby Hampden that sells medical oddities, taxidermy and other curiosities, co-owner Greg Hatem said they occasionally stock antique caskets, but always salesman’s samples, not used ones or those with names attached.

An antique casket can fetch $150 to $1,200 depending on the age, size and condition, Hatem said. “There aren’t that many of them and the demand isn’t that high,” he said.

James Wolf, the president of the Friends of Stony Run, said members of the organization had been debating the casket’s origins since they learned the news. The organization, which is entirely staffed by volunteers, recently secured $1.4 million in state funding to revamp signage and trails along the stream, which emerges near the Gilman School and meanders for three miles through North Baltimore before rushing into the Jones Falls.

Occasionally, people dump mattresses, old furniture and drywall into the woods along the stream, Wolf said. But a casket? That’s a new one. And while it is plausible that a heavy storm could have shaken loose a casket from the earth, the condition of the wood suggests it more likely emerged from a house than a century-old grave. “Why on earth would people carry a casket down there?” he said. “And more importantly, where is the body?”

After a Baltimore Banner reporter posted photos of the casket on Twitter, amateur genealogy researchers hunted for records of Mathilda Lorenz.

Carol Ott, a tenants’ rights advocate from Baltimore, was among those who dug up records showing a Mathilde Lorenz who immigrated to Baltimore on a Czech ship in 1877 at the age of 14, which would mean she was around 18 in 1882, the year on the casket’s metal plaque. Others found a census record that showed a 17-year-old Mathilda Lawrence, an immigrant from what was then called Bohemia (and is now part of the Czech Republic), living in Prince George’s County in 1880 with her father, brothers, sister-in-law, nieces and nephew.

Yet whether the casket belonged to this Mathilda, how it came to acquire modern screws and wood — and how it arrived on the banks of Stony Run — remained a mystery Friday.

“She is risen,” posted one wag.

“And so it begins. ... ” wrote another.

Many posted zombie memes or joked that they had seen a figure in white floating through the woods.

Perhaps it was left in the woods like the board game in “Jumanji,” a portal to another world left to intrigue others on a steamy summer day. Perhaps some answers will come from this story. There is no shortage of people trying to solve the mystery of Mathilda Lorenz.

“Fell asleep thinking about ghost Matilda,” tweeted Hayley Powers of Baltimore. “Woke up thinking about ghost Matilda. I gotta know more about ghost Matilda.”

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