There are secrets within the old houses of Baltimore. The secrets are stashed away in attics and hidden under floorboards and buried in privies.

When Joanna Meade’s family moved into a 1910 house in Roland Park, she tried to picture all the residents who had come before her. How many hands had turned the old brass doorknobs? What mysteries might they have left behind?

Then, one day, a bathroom renovation opened a window into a long-forgotten world.

Her contractor removed a wall and found something hidden amid the plumbing. He wiped off the dust — a little black box made of tin and painted with gold stripes. The lock was broken.

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Later, Meade eased back the lid. Stacked inside and bound with twine were old letters. The browned paper was as delicate as onionskin. Every letter was addressed to a woman, “Mrs. R.A. Spaeth.”

Joanna Meade reads aloud love letters from the 1920's in the sun room of her home on February 27, 2024. The letters were found inside of a wall during a renovation.
Joanna Meade reads one of the letters found hidden inside a wall of her Roland Park home. A contractor was renovating Meade's bathroom when he discovered the tin box containing them. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Gently, carefully, she unfolded some letters and began to read. One was dated June 3, 1921.

Dearest, I have been writing you many stupid letters recently, when I might have been telling you I loved you. I see you doing your hair, looking sideways from dark eyes at me out of the mirror …

These were love letters from a century ago.

My inspiration is of lying upon my back, with closed eyes, and my whole consciousness drawn to one focus — the sensation of your warm mouth fast upon mine.

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The loopy cursive was difficult to read. The antiquated language was hard to follow. Meade counted one, two, three ... 67 letters. All but one postmarked 1920 or 1921. Her imagination was humming. The letters contained the desire and intrigue of a paperback romance.

I have been unable to rid my mind of you in the black thing. Have you been wearing it, by any chance, to hypnotize my thoughts?

For page after page, the writer contemplated her kisses and her curves. He contemplated German philosophers, too.

The letters presented more questions than answers. Who was Mrs. R.A. Spaeth? Who was the writer? He simply signed, “R.” His envelopes showed no return address.

The envelopes were bundled with twine and spanned 1920-1921. (Stokely Baksh)

The old house had whispered a secret. Meade wanted to know everything.

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Her search for answers would plunge her into 1920s Baltimore society: a celebrated Johns Hopkins scientist, a famous mountaineer and a trailblazing female journalist.

The letters would capture imaginations across the city and, with help from curious neighbors and The Baltimore Banner, unfurl a tale of lust and scandal and fortune.

Chapter One: Meade falls in love

July 13, 1920 –

My darling, my darling, I bury my face in you, and strain to me all of you that I can clasp.

Squinting at the old handwriting, Meade could make out a first name for Mrs. Spaeth: “My dearest Edith.” And scattered lines suggested Edith was swept up in a tumultuous romance.

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“I shall behave in a way to you utterly asinine.”

“Goodnight dark eyes and glorious hair.”

Meade went through four or five of the letters, and she was hooked.

“It was like eavesdropping,” she said.

A quick internet search told her that an R.A. Spaeth had published zoological papers in the 1910s and 1920s on topics such as color changes of fish. A collection of gibbon ape specimens in Switzerland bore his name. Meade posted on the website Nextdoor.

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A woman in Waverly sent a newspaper article on Dr. Reynold Albrecht Spaeth. The zoologist and Johns Hopkins public health professor was ahead of his time, giving lectures on the merits of birth control and education for women factory workers. By 1920, he was 34 and already renowned in the field of immunology.

The love letters were to his wife, Edith.

67 letters were found in a wall during a construction job. The letters were addressed to Mrs. R.A. Spaeth.
Every one of the 67 letters were addressed to a woman, "Mrs. R.A. Spaeth." (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Curiously, the letters were addressed to another house, on Longwood Road. That’s around the corner from Meade’s home. Her neighbor discovered in city directories that Reynold and Edith Spaeth had lived on Longwood Road in 1920.

Another neighbor found documents online about Edith: A daughter of the mayor of Yonkers, she came from the prominent Taussig family. The society pages reported her attendance at dances and on steamers abroad. In the summer of 1913, she married Reynold, who was finishing his graduate studies at Harvard.

Edith was educated at the best women’s colleges, Wellesley and Radcliffe, and wrote newspaper articles on everything from guinea pigs to vitamins. She’s remembered as one of America’s first syndicated woman science writers.

More neighbors sent Census records, newspaper articles and obituaries. Meade’s post online drew more than 200 comments.

That’s when The Banner went to see the letters. Meade has a young daughter and a job as a fitness trainer, and while riveted by her find, had little desire to parse more than 100 pages of faded, old cursive.

She handed over the tin box and the discoveries by her neighbors. Maybe there was something more to find.

Chapter Two: Tracing a love story

In the newsroom, we spread the letters across the table in a small office. Reporters came and went. Everyone wanted to help decipher juicy turn-of-the-century love letters.

67 letters were found in a wall during a construction job. The letters were addressed to Mrs. R. A. Spaeth.
Every letters was folded neatly back in its envelope. Someone had hidden the letters carefully. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Patterns began to appear in the handwriting. He put the tails of his “g’s” on the wrong side, like “p’s.” He used “+” for “and.”

What a sweet romance: an esteemed Hopkins scientist, whose research took him away from home, writing love letters back to his wife in Baltimore. Or so it seemed.

“R” emerged as a man consumed by his studies and passions. His emotions poured out in a heady rush of steamy fantasies, jealous accusations, cold indifference. He quoted Kant and worried about money. One letter rambled on for 16 pages.

He fixated on someone named “Reu” — who was that? “R” wrote that legal trouble in Philadelphia threatened to ruin him.

By 1920, the Spaeths would have been married for seven years and raising a young son. Oddly, there was little mention of routine domestic affairs in the letters to Edith.

One letter stood out like a decoder ring. It was typed and dated Aug. 6, 1913, two weeks before the Spaeths’ wedding.

This Aug. 6 1913 letter, the only one typed, provided a clue to who "R," the letter writer was.
Only the Aug. 6, 1913, letter was typed. It helped confirm the identity of "R." (Stokely Baksh)


… What accessory duties are involved in my functioning at your little game of the 18th. Do we have to practice maneuvers, and if so, when? Before Monday morning? … Please make it as late as possible, as I’m getting a lot of valuable work done here just now, and when I once leave it will be nothing but Ossining, probably, for the rest of the summer.

Why would Reynold spend the summer after his wedding in Ossining, New York?

… Also please tell me what other fellows in dear old Nineteen-Nine are going to usher, or for that matter are pretty likely to show up, so that I can arrange to get hold of them after the performance.

“Your little game” and “the performance.” The words seemed dismissive for a young man writing to his fiancée about their wedding plans. Then came a line from a June 5, 1921, letter:

Awfully good thing we aren’t married.

Was this tongue-in-cheek 1920s humor? We turned back to the 1913 letter.

… what other fellows in dear old Nineteen-Nine are going to usher?

Could this be written not by the bridegroom, but by one of his ushers?

The Yonkers Herald Statesman reported the wedding of Reynold Spaeth and Edith Taussig. The couple planned to honeymoon in Kiel, Germany, not Ossining, New York.

The newspaper named their six ushers. One of them was Robert L. Underhill, of Ossining.

A clue in this wedding announcement of Reynold Albrecht Spaeth and Edith E. Taussaig from The Yonkers Herald Statesman August 18, 1913 edition provided a clue to who "R" might be. (Source:
The wedding announcement for Reynold Spaeth and Edith Taussig in the Yonkers Herald Statesman contained a hidden plot twist. (Source:

The puzzle pieces suddenly fit.

“R” was not her husband.

Chapter Three: Old friends


I can often kiss you more deliciously elsewhere — in some beautiful curve, or darling spot of my own — but never with that quietly voluminous feeling that in the kiss itself one finds the world.

Now, the letters revealed an altogether different romance, a hidden one. Our next discovery confirmed the identity of Edith’s admirer “R.”

His 1913 letter alone lists a return address in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of 32 Conant Hall, a Harvard dorm.

The university archives contain a student catalog for 1912-1913. Robert Underhill is listed at 32 Conant Hall as a graduate student in philosophy. He taught math and philosophy at Harvard for a few years, too. Remember how “R” quotes Kant in his affections for Edith?

We recognized new patterns in his handwriting. He attached his I’s to the verb that followed. “I wish” became “iwish.” More of his letters came into focus.

He was desperate and aching to meet Edith at a New York hotel just before Christmas of 1920.

My only object in life is now to get near you …

My darling, do you think of me at all? …

He urged Edith to set boundaries for “Reu,” writing that the man was squandering opportunities and must settle down to work. But that sloppy cursive wasn’t Reu at all; it was “Ren,” for Reynold. Robert was writing to Edith about her husband.

I dreamt three times, one night, of being unable to get at you, be alone with you. Sometimes you were disguised, sometimes in open character. Various things got in the way, other people, Ren!

She must have asked him the pivotal question because he wrote back:

Don’t ask me whether you should have married Ren. I can’t answer without bringing in myself.

Each new discovery pulled us in deeper. We could picture Edith, in her early 30s, a working mom of any era, seeing youth’s bright possibilities dimming and questioning her choices. Maybe she steals a moment to herself with a letter. To read Robert’s letters was to hear his voice. They were ghosts, but alive.

We had missed a startling detail, though. The scientist Reynold Spaeth and philosopher Robert Underhill had both attended Haverford College, in the same 34-man class of 1909, no less. Remember the wedding letter? ... what other fellows in dear old Nineteen-Nine.

The Haverford College, Class of 1909.
Photos of Robert L. M. Underhill (l) and Reynold Albrecht Spaeth (r) from the Haverford College, class of 1909 yearbook.
The 1909 yearbook photos of Robert L. M. Underhill and R. A. Spaeth. (Stokely Baksh)

Their Haverford yearbook portrays Robert as a moody introvert who chased girls, brooded over philosophy and read the era’s trashy romance. Reynold was the campus overachiever, busying himself in everything from football to the National Audubon Society.

Reynold and Robert both went on to Harvard, too. The university’s 1912-1913 catalog lists them in 32 Conant Hall; they were college roommates.

A flashbulb went off. The romantic triangle burst to light.

Chapter Four: The journalist and the philosopher

The setting was Baltimore of the 1920s, in leafy, affluent Roland Park. Congress had just passed the 19th Amendment to grant women the right to vote. More women than ever before were joining the workforce. Edith looked to step out from her husband’s shadow and establish herself in a man’s field, science journalism.

In the book “Writing for Their Lives: America’s Pioneering Female Science Journalists,” author Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette quotes letters from Edith to her editor.

“I don’t want to write the half-baked, half-true, pseudoscience that has always appeared in newspapers,” she wrote.

"Our Debt To The Guinea Pig," written by Edith E. Taussig and featured in the Dec. 29, 1920, edition of The Evening Sun. (Source:

Edith had married one of the country’s leading zoologists in Reynold, but a figure from the past tugged at her heart — at least, that’s how a back cover of a paperback romance would read. Would Edith remain the professor’s wife or run off with the brooding philosopher?

Christmas of 1920 came and went. Robert did not meet Edith in New York. He wrote her again and complimented her articles.

All comes of being a scientist’s wife; what should you become as a philosopher’s?

Legal trouble had emerged in Philadelphia to complicate their romance. His letters mentioned detectives, lawyers, money, and someone named “Wips,” of alien-enemy status. The term applied to Germans living in the U.S. during World War I.

He assured Edith that she would not be dragged into the scandal. The court case would present new characters and reveal the tragic secret of a wealthy heiress — a story for another time.

By the spring of 1921, it was clear their romance had evolved into a close friendship. Robert’s letters no longer smoldered with urgency and desire. And there was another woman on the scene. Her name with a “B” was illegible.

On May 26, 1921, Robert wrote Edith to square up matters.

We want strength from each other, but to use in divergent causes instead of a common cause. You have your relationship with Ren, which as such is nothing in my life; I, my flirtation with B—, which as such is nothing in yours.

Excerpt from a letter written by R.
Excerpt from a letter written by R.

He sounded hurt and resigned in these later letters.

Before last September the world was all affection; now it is all interests. The change is radical and one doesn’t adapt.

His letters to Edith had spanned almost one year. The box’s final letter was dated June 8, 1921.

Chapter Five: A Baltimore ending

Robert wrote that he might visit Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where Edith and her family spent their summers. He wrote that he could stay in his tent.

Tell me whether I shall have it sent up.

Was he asking her for an invitation? His letters end abruptly.

This was no paperback romance. Real life does not tie up all the loose ends.

The research by Meade, her neighbors and The Banner sketches out an epilogue. A decade after that last letter, Robert married Miriam O’Brien. They had two sons.

He would be remembered as a pioneer of American mountaineering. In 1931, his team climbed the east face of California’s Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. — a feat that had been considered impossible.

The nonprofit American Alpine Club, in Golden, Colorado, presented an annual award in Robert’s name. Two years ago, the club renamed the prize because of antisemitic slurs in his later letters.

Edith, meanwhile, moved to then-Siam with Reynold and their children

In a photo attached to her 1924 passport application before she left, she has bobbed hair, round horn-rimmed glasses and a loose necktie, the boyish fashion of the Roaring Twenties. She sits next to their two children and eyes the camera skeptically — or maybe that’s mild amusement.

A photo of Edith E. Taussig with her children Walter and Elinor that was attached to a 1924 passport application.
Edith with her children, Walter and Elinor, as photographed for her 1924 passport application.

Reynold had accepted a job at a medical school in Bangkok and was studying the native gibbons. Within a year, he became ill and died of blood poisoning.

”Famous scientist is victim of Septicemia — was studying monkeys of Siam,” the newspapers reported.

Widowed, Edith returned to Baltimore, for a time living in what is now Meade’s home. She raised her son and daughter, gave up journalism and worked as a medical librarian in Washington, D.C. She later moved to California and died in September 1968, at age 80.

Robert’s letters present a year of his inner life, but what had this period meant to Edith? His words did not reveal an answer, but together the letters provide one clue.

All those years she saved the bundle and stashed it away, one more secret within the old houses of Baltimore.