The Rooftop Madman of Baltimore (1951)

By Joseph Trainor (UFO Roundup, 3/23/2005)

Right now, the hottest story in Forteana is El Loco de los Techos (Spanish for Rooftop Madman–J.T.), the weird black-clad entity that’s been terrorizing the barrio (neighborhood) of San Lorenzo in Santa Fe, Argentina for the past couple of weeks.

But this was not the Madman’s first appearance. No, that took place fifty-four years ago, in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Indeed, the eyewitness descriptions of the Baltimore “phantom” match precisely the descriptions coming out of Argentina.

Without further ado, here he is–Baltimore’s Rooftop Madman.

“A dying moon sank slowly behind St. Stanislas’ Cemetery and the squat, flat-roofed houses of O’Donnell Heights.”

“Its pale light revealed not only the closely spaced rows of low-rent dwellings but a whole community on the verge of hysteria.”

“It was just after midnight yesterday morning (Tuesday, July 24, 1951) and throughout the project people waited–in nervous groups on porches and behind drawn shades–for the phantom to strike.”

“At the rear of the house in the 1200 block of Gusryan Street, a man kept watch on a garbage can with a .12-gauge shotgun. In an upstairs bedroom on Carbore Way, Hazel Jenkins, still suffering from the time when the black-robed prowler grabbed her last week, tried to sleep.”

“In other houses, residents stretched out on the floor, too frightened to go upstairs. Police squad cars prowled the streets. Somewhere in the darkness, a dog barked, a baby cried.”

“Every now and then, a face appeared at a door or window to inquire fearfully of bands of patrolling youths: ‘Has anybody seen him yet?'”

“At the home of Mrs. Agnes Martin, 1211 Gusryan Street, 30 or 40 people, varying in ages from 5 to 50 years old, had gathered on the back stoop to wait for daylight.”

“‘For the last two or three weeks since that man began appearing around here,’ said Mrs. Martin, ‘people are afraid to go to bed.'”

“‘I haven’t closed my eyes since Thursday night (July 19, 1951),’ declared Mrs. Melvin Hensler, a neighbor of Mrs. Martin’s. Since her home was broken into last Friday (July 20, 1951), Mrs. Hensler has been staying with her sister-in-law.”

“‘My husband is beginning to talk in his sleep for the first time in his life,’ she said, ‘He and the children are all sleeping on the floor at his brother’s house right now. He says his eyeballs ache from staying awake so long.'”

“William Buskirk, 20, of 6452 Fait Avenue, described his encounter with the phantom, which took place around 1 a.m. last Thursday.”

“‘I was walking along the 1100 block Travers Way with several of my buddies when I saw him on a roof,’ related Mr. Buskirk, ‘He was a tall, thin man dressed all in black. It kind of looked like he had a cape around him. He jumped off the roof and we chased him down into the graveyard.'”

“‘He lives in that graveyard,’ remarked Jack Cromwell of 1203 Joplin Street.”

“‘Yeah,’ put in Lynn Griffith of 1217 Wellsbach Way, ‘One night I heard someone playing the organ in that chapel up there. It was about one o’clock.'”

“‘He sure is an athlete,’ said one of the other boys, ‘You should have seen him go over that fence–just like a cat.’ (The fence bordering the graveyard in question is about 6 feet tall with barbed wire along the top.)”

“Most of the people who have seen the phantom describe the ease with which he leaps on and off roofs–a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that the roofs of most houses in O’Donnell Heights are a minimum of 20 feet (6 meters) from the ground.”

“‘But that’s nothing,’ announced Regina Martin, ‘We kids used to jump off these roofs all the time.'”

“Mary Ellen Bennett, 14, of 1415 Gregor Way, offered to demonstrate. ‘You’d better not,’ advised a friend, ‘Mr. Pettinger might think you’re the phantom and shoot you.’ Charles Pettinger of 3848 Quarry Avenue was the man with the shotgun.”

“Myrtle Ellen, who in the company of Hazel Jenkins, has seen the monster twice at close quarters, described him as a man with a horrible face, dressed in black. ‘He walks like a drape (Baltimore slang for a Zoot-Suiter of the 1940s–J.T.) and runs like a horse,’ she added.”

“‘I saw him two nights after he tried to break into our house,’ remarked Randolph Jenkins, Hazel’s brother, ‘He was just beginning to climb up on the roof of the Community Building. We chased him all the way to Graveyard Hill.'”

“(The Community Building is the tallest structure in the project and at night is completely empty.)”

“Mrs. Hensler said that when she returned to her house on Saturday morning (July 21, 1951) after it had been burglarized the night before, nothing had been taken, but there was a strange ‘potato bag lying on the ironing board.’ She concluded that the bag must have been left there by the phantom for some devious purpose. ‘I’ve seen him three different times,’ asserted Mrs. Hensler, ‘One time he looked like he had a hump on his back.'”

‘Esther Martin, according to reports, saw the stranger once under an automobile. He was beckoning to her. ‘Come here, little girl,’ he said.”

“‘I don’t know,’ remarked Mrs. Ruth Proffitt of 1229 Cavendish Way, ‘The other night my son saw him at one place at the same time another person was seeing him somewhere else. He couldn’t be both places at once unless he had wings.'”

“Two hundred angry, aroused residents of O’Donnell Heights chased the area’s phantom prowler around midnight Tuesday (July 24, 1951) but the wraith of the rooftops again eluded them.”

“He was spotted on the roof of 6200 Plantview Way by the Heights’ self-formed ‘vigilance committee,’ searching for him since he started terrorizing the area several weeks ago.”

“A loaded .22 caliber automatic pistol was found Wednesday (July 25, 1951) on the phantom’s stamping ground and was turned over to police.”

“An O’Donnell Heights lad, Robert Robertson, picked up the firearm, a Colt target model, in a field of the (housing) development.”

“He said the gun went off twice as he raised it. He turned it in at the housing project office where it was held for the police.”

“If the phantom was armed, O’Donnell Heights is now practically an armed camp.”

“Husbands have mounted night guard duty. Housewives keep weapons in their bedrooms, such as baseball bats, heavy clubs, rolling pins, frying pans and other (kitchen) implements.”

“Several women and girls have been frightened by the phantom over the past few weeks.”

“About midnight, he was spotted again, a dark-clad figure against the black sky of the night. An immediate hue and cry drove him fleeing and into escape from his pursuers.”

“Patrolmen Robert Clarke and Elmer Powell, of Eastern (Baltimore) District police, rushed to the scene in answer to phone calls from terrified residents.”

“They said they found about 200 persons milling around in the community, hunting for the prowler.”

“Cruising around the north side of O’Donnell Heights, alongside the old German Cemetery, they found Marvin Finke, 21, U.S. Navy Patuxent River (Maryland) base, walking along the street, wearing dark clothing and carrying a hammer.”

“Finke told police had had been visiting in the neighborhood and had heard there was a reward for the capture of the phantom, so he was hunting for him.”

“He received a suspended $5 fine Wednesday morning on a disorderly conduct charge.”

“Another commotion broke out in the neighborhood about 1:30 a.m. when some of the watchers thought they had seen the phantom again.”

“Sgt. Emmanuel Sandler and Patrolmen Bernard Baranowski and Elmer Weber sped into action.”

“Once more, no phantom. But, the policemen reported, they found a crowd estimated at 500, collected around a wall of the old German Cemetery. Sandler said:”

“‘They told us, ‘He’s in there,’ pointing to the cemetery.”

“The police searched and found five youths and a fifteen-year-old juvenile hiding behind tombstones. They said they had heard about the phantom and were just looking for excitement.”

“Five were fined $5 and the juvenile was released in custody of his parents for a hearing.”

“Sergeant Sandler, expressing the opinion ‘publicity about the prowler is drawing prowlers and youngsters from all over town,’ added this warning: ‘They should stay away. They only aggravate the situation and it is very dangerous for them. Those people out there are angry and really aroused. Somebody is likely to get hurt.'”

“Three more teen-agers were arrested on disorderly- conduct charges last night (Wednesday, July 25, 1951) in phantom-ridden O’Donnell Heights where nervous residents claim they see mysterious prowlers with alarming frequency.”

“Weary, fearful residents of the O’Donnell Heights housing development, whose nights have been given over to watching and waiting since their mysterious ‘phantom’ made his first appearance about three weeks ago, are hoping that their athletic prowler is caught before someone in the community is seriously hurt.”

“The harm could come from more than one source, they fear, from the prowler himself or from accidental injury to an innocent resident from the impromptu vigilantes who roam their streets in search of the phantom.”

But for one incident thus far, the prowler–usually dressed in dark clothing and remarkably agile at travelling across the low, flat roofs of the project–has done little but be seen from afar and attempt to enter homes.”

“Like many other housewives, fearing for the safety of their children, Mrs. Marle Shifflet spends sleepless nights staring into the blackness from the window of her home in the 6200 block Plantview Way.”

“She says, ‘We all sleep with our windows closed and locked despite the terrible heat. Just the other night the phantom was seen on the roof of a house just four doors from us. We’re all scared to death.'”

“Some are prepared more sternly. William Lawrence has brought out an old Army rifle and given it to his wife. It will no longer shoot, but Mr. Lawrence hopes that should the prowler approach his home in the 1200 block Travers Way the gun will frighten him away.”

And so it went for the next two weeks, with repeated sightings of the ‘phantom’ and repeated searches that came up empty.

On Monday, August 6, 1951, the Baltimore Sun reported, “The Phantom of O’Donnell Heights has apparently pulled up stakes and moved away, cloak, dagger, hairy face and all.”

“‘The only commotion we ever have around here now,’ Jerome Martin of 1211 Gusryan Street, said last night, ‘is just the usual fighting among the neighbors. You might say everything is normal again.'”

And that was the last anyone saw of Baltimore’s “Phantom of O’Donnell Heights.”

Until a half-century later–Tuesday, March 1, 2005– when an identical entity appeared in the barrio Centenario (neighborhood) of Santa Fe, capital of the province of the same name, a large city located 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.

The same entity? Good question! (See the Baltimore Sun for July 25, 1951, “Fear in the Night: Phantom Prowler Terrorizes O’Donnell Heights Residents;” the Baltimore News-Post for July 25, 1951, “Phantom on Prowl, Eludes 200 Vigilantes;” the Baltimore Sun for July 26, 1951, “Three More Arrested in ‘Phantom’ Zone;” the Baltimore News-Post for July 27, 1951, “Watch and Wait Still on in O’Donnell Heights;” and the Baltimore Sun for August 6, 1951, “Phantom Makes Himself Scarce.” For more on the Phantom of O’Donnell Heights, see Fortean Studies, volume 3, edited by Steve Moore, John Brown Publishing, London, 1996, “Spring-Heeled Jack” by Mike Dash, pages 102 to 108.)

This entry was posted in 1950s, Baltimore Babylon, Baltimorons, Dundalk, Highlandtown, Urban Legends and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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