An exhausted homing pigeon plummeted into the backyard of a Federal Hill building in 1898. Two dozen years later, the building had been transformed into a “desirable saloon” and was seeking a ragtime piano player. But a few years after that, the saloon’s piano was for sale, cheap. Then, in the 1940s, the building was reborn as a drug store.
Today the brick building at 554 E. Fort Avenue is Mindpub Cafe, a sunny coffee shop where, over bagels, Katie Labor recently explained her research project. For more than a year, Labor has been using newspaper archives to dig up the backstories of city buildings. Her research uncovers the hidden sagas, joyful and tragic, that transpired within the properties’ walls.
The project was born in October 2022, when Labor’s car was in the shop. As she waited for a bus, she eyed an interesting home across the street. On a whim, she plopped the address into Newspapers.com and was blown away by the breadth and details of stories that had occurred there.
“Something about that was so striking to me and I wanted to share it,” said Labor, 34, a Texas native who moved to Maryland in 2014 to pursue a doctorate in history at the University of Maryland. She and her wife lived in College Park and Annapolis before settling in Federal Hill with their young daughter.
Labor created an account on X, @BehindBmoreLots, to share her love of local history. Initially, Labor researched addresses posted by @everylot_Balt, but eventually began searching for buildings based on requests from readers and her own curiosity. If you have ever wondered what the walls of your home have seen, Labor could probably figure it out.
Take for example 1600 Marshall St. in Riverside. The location made the news at least twice in the 1920s, first when a little girl named Marie Philips got a pencil stuck in her ear in 1923. Three years later, the apparently accident-prone girl survived getting struck by a streetcar.
Then there’s 2521 Foster Ave. in Canton. In 1910, a young man named Henry Ritter was arrested there on the eve of his wedding night for “firing off a pistol within the city limits,” according to a Baltimore Sun story from the time. While Ritter was despondent, his fiancée, Miss Irene Smith, seemed to take the arrest in stride.
“On leaving the station she shouted back pleasantly: ‘My dearie’s gone to the lockup, hooray, hooray!’” the paper reported.
“I just love that every one of these buildings has 100 to 200 years of stories in it,” said Labor. “There’s so much weird shit that used to go in the newspaper, and often it’s the only reflection we have of people and their lives.”
Labor cut a striking figure as she led a pair of Baltimore Banner journalists on a tour of interesting homes in Federal Hill. She wore a long black and red velvet robe that she found at a Hampden thrift store, a crystal pendant fastened to a small animal vertebra and glittering peacock earrings.
“May I help you?” asked a resident, stepping outside her home with a raised eyebrow.
But Labor didn’t need help, just a moment to pull up the online newspaper archive and search for Durst Alley, a short block of small brick houses dating from the 1850s. “Cheese and crackers,” she muttered, as she scrolled through the results.
“Dog bites; boy drops,” read a 1913 headline about the escapades of a 7-year-old resident of the alley. The boy, Thomas O’Neill, was badly bitten by a dog after he tried to hitch a ride on a passing wagon. He was taken to a pharmacy, the newspaper wrote, where his wounds were cauterized.
Two years later, a man named John Hooper tried to kill his former landlady, Louise Ford, here; he was irate over her refusal to mend his clothing. In 1923, a woman was arrested on charges of bigamy after authorities discovered she was married to three men. And six years later, firefighters fished a man from the sewer after he went down to retrieve a dropped ring.
“He had found an old spoon on the way and was clutching it when the rescuers reached him,” The Baltimore Sun wrote. “The explorer was forced to leave the sewer without his ring and he didn’t like that a bit.”
The stories reveal not only the hidden histories of homes and long-gone residents, but the changing role of newspapers in American life. From the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, newspapers chronicled the minutiae of people’s lives — mishaps, petty crimes and small victories — that would never make the news these days.
In the early 20th century, there were no formal journalism schools, and reporters and editors followed their whims in deciding which stories to cover, said Michael Schudson, a Columbia University professor who studies the history of journalism.
“Any little oddity might seem worthwhile,” said Schudson. “They were trying to build local solidarity and report about things that would make people feel happy and proud of their community.”
Today, many of the events recorded in these long-ago newspaper stories would be fodder for social media, Labor said. But, in the days before TikTok or Nextdoor, the newspaper was the primary way to learn what going on in your community.
Labor said she finds hope and meaning in uncovering the lives of those who walked these same streets in decades past.
“I notice something different every time I go walking,” she said. “I love knowing about people’s lives. As a historian, I really enjoy knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”