Ashley Kidner and his wife, Jennifer McBrien, were strolling through the Wyman Park woods to reach their art studios in Hampden’s Mill Centre when they spotted several police officers bending over an object near the shores of Stony Run. What could it be?
Kidner and McBrien scrambled down to the spot on their way home that July afternoon and discovered an object that has beguiled Baltimoreans this summer: the coffin of Mathilda Lorenz. The empty wooden coffin, which bears a nameplate dated 1882, first appeared in the North Baltimore park in July. Less than two weeks later, a Remington woman spotted the casket heading out of the park in the bed of a turquoise pickup. Who was taking it?
The answer was Kidner, an artist who creates living works of art from native grasses and shrubs and wooden tubes in which bees dwell, as well as works in more traditional media. A wiry man with bright orange hair woven into a straggly braid, Kidner lives just a few blocks from the spot where the coffin was found.
“It seems extremely Baltimore that a coffin could sit down by a stream for two weeks and nobody removed it,” said Kidner. “With all the storms we’ve been having, I was worried it was going to be washed away. It was fast becoming part of Stony Run folklore and it needed to be taken away and preserved. So, I was like, yeah, let’s make something out of it.”
Kidner, who owns a landscaping company focused on eco-friendly and native plants, enlisted a few of his employees to help him haul the coffin out of the park and load it onto his turquoise truck. Now the coffin rests in a nondescript garage behind Kidner and McBrien’s Wyman Park home, nestled among bags of compost, wheelbarrows and plastic planters.
Kidner, who is originally from Norfolk, England, aims to preserve the coffin and then make it into a bee hotel, lining it with small wooden tubes in which leafcutter, mason and carpenter bees can set up housekeeping. Much of Kidner’s artwork examines themes of ecology and the importance of pollinators, particularly bees. His yard bursts with native plants: feathery ostrich ferns, elderberry bushes laden with dark berries and black-eyed Susans. Kidner hopes to secure the permission of the Friends of Stony Run to install the finished creation in Wyman Park. But before he begins the project, he plans to hold onto the coffin for a few weeks to make sure no one claims it.
Although the mystery of the coffin’s whereabouts has been solved, the larger questions loom. Who brought the coffin to the banks of Stony Run, and why? And just who was Mathilda Lorenz, the woman named in the metal plaque attached to the wood? Another Baltimore artist, Jennifer Wilfong, said she saw two young men taking a coffin out of a car near Wyman Park in early July. A few days later, a Baltimore woman first spotted it in the park and posted photos to Twitter.
Last week, Kidner pulled the coffin out of the garage to show it to his friend and neighbor, archaeologist Dave Gadsby. Gadsby and Kidner remarked on the inconsistencies of the coffin. Some of the wood appears quite old, while other parts appear newer. The coffin is octagonal, which is highly unusual; older caskets are usually hexagonal and newer ones are rectangular. The handles are attached at the head and foot of the coffin, not the sides, which would make it difficult to carry.
“You generally want to avoid a coffin flopping back and forth as you’re carrying it,” Gadsby said.
Some of the screws that attach the handles to the coffin are Phillips head, which were invented in 1932. And then there are several pieces of unusual hardware inside the casket, each of which has three different openings, as if something could be hung inside at three different levels. Streaks of paint and faint numbers lead Gadsby to think it was made out of pieces of wood that originally served another purpose.
The metal plaque attached to the casket does appear to be authentic, Gadsby said. It is decorated with ornate flourishes and says: Mathilda Lorenz; Died July 26, 1882; Aged 18 years, 2 months and 1 day. Families often would save such plaques as keepsakes, Gadsby said.
A local expert in German-American genealogy, Shelley Arnold, tracked down a Mathilda Lorenz who was born in 1863 — making her around 18 in 1882 — but this Mathilda married a man named Wilhelm Hempel and was buried beside him in the Baltimore Cemetery. Just a few yards away sits another stone marked Lorenz where a person named Tillie, who lived from 1864 to 1935, is buried.
Amid the graying angels and crooked headstones of the centuries-old cemetery, both headstones stand neat and upright, offering no clues to the mystery of Mathilda Lorenz.