Independent Gray's Privy (18BC133)

Site 18BC133, also known as the “Independent Gray’s Privy”, is the archaeological remains of a late 19th-early 20th century domestic privy in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. In 1845, two contiguous lots at the northwestern corner of High Steet and Mechanics Court were purchased by a volunteer militia unit known as the Independent Grays.

The Independent Grays Flank Company, a rifle regiment attached to the 53rd Regiment of the Maryland Volunteers, was organized in 1833 “on the cellar door at the corner of Gay and Exeter streets”. The Grays were associated with the First Light Division of Maryland Volunteers, a state militia unit authorized by the Maryland General Assembly. The members of this group apparently were drawn from the ranks of the smaller merchants in the city. Membership was awarded by vote of the organization’s Standing Committee or general membership. One of the Grey’s most influential members was Lt. Augustus T. Shutt, son of the owner of the sugar factory that operated between 1804 and 1829. By 1845, the younger Shutt owned a factory at 10 North Gay Street that manufactured “Fancy and Windsor” chairs. Other members of the organization included Thomas Humes (a wholesale liquor dealer), James Pawley, Jr. (a china and housewares merchant with a retail shop on Calvert Street and a stoneware kiln on Russell Street), and William Clagget (associated with the Claggett Brewery on East Lombard Street. At its height in the 1850s, the unit boasted 142 members, including 119 “muskets”, 5 officers, and an 18-piece band.

This combination social and military organization was governed by a Standing Committee whose minute book for the period between 1841 and 1847 is extant. In April 1845, a special committee reported that a 43 X 100 ft lot was available on High Street near Hillen, and the membership voted the next month to acquire this lot, the boundaries of which incorporated Site 18BC133. By September of 1845, construction had been completed on a 30 X 60 ft armory building. It was this armory that appeared on the 1865 Baltimore City Tax Assessors’ notebooks on a double lot on High Street at its intersection with Mechanics Court.

Like today’s National Guard, the Independent Grays participated in a variety of military and social activities. Weekly drills and parades were held, and the entire group went on a summer encampment to a local area such as North Point or Frisby’s Woods. During the Civil War, the Independent Grays’ armory was raided by Union forces, who seized about 60 muskets and “some” accoutrements. Post-war efforts to reunite the unit were largely ineffective, and it disbanded during the 1870s.

Occupation of the properties along High Street, however, continued. The 1880 census indicated that the families of Christian Glantz (a bootmaker) and Patrick Lafferty (a drayman) lived immediately north of the former armory building. By 1890, both the original High Street dwellings and possibly the old armory building had been demolished. The Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1890 depicts the former armory site as occupied by a large frame stable at the corner of Mechanics Court and High Street, and the parcel immediately north of it as vacant. Between 1890 and 1914, the two large lots were subdivided to accommodate construction of seven dwellings.

The site was first investigated beginning in 1996 as part of a combined Phase I, II, and III archaeological investigation undertaken at the site of a new Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore, MD.

In order to locate sites, fieldwork initially employed the mechanical removal of overlying modern features or surfaces, followed by the excavation of 5 m long mechanized trenches to assess stratigraphy and site integrity of the underlying deposits. At 18BC133 a single mechanized trench was initially placed across the site to test for features. Removal of the overlying asphalt parking lot surface exposed two features: an articulated complex of unmortared brick walls enclosing a square feature tentatively identified as a privy and a section of unmortared brick foundation wall that had been built over the walls of the privy shaft itself. Two fragments of creamware (1762-1820) within the builder’s trench suggests that this privy probably was constructed during the 1st third of the 19th century, a date that conforms to the documentary background surrounding the initial development of the parcels in this area.

Analysis of the artifact assemblage recovered from the Phase II investigation of the privy supported an interpretation of vertical integrity. The two uppermost strata clearly dated from the early to mid-20th centuries. Stratum I contained primarily modern materials, including machine-made bottle and window glass, mixed historic ceramics, a late 19th- century Irish “Home Rule” tobacco pipe, nails, plumbing fixtures and tiles, and unidentified metal fragments. The remains in Stratum II included earlier material intermixed with the more modern materials similar to those in Stratum I. The third strata, which contained the majority of the contents of the intact privy deposits, presented a generally late 19th century profile. Stratum III contained a higher proportion of animal bone and other faunal remains: mid -19th-century ceramics (including creamware, stoneware, pearlware, Rockingham, and Bennington glazed wares), and a variety of glass. It became clear that almost all of the organic deposits potentially associated with earlier occupations of this property, including that of the Independent Grays armory, had been removed from the shaft. Stratum 4, which contained a concentration of brick and mortar, may in fact be the sole surviving deposit from that period. If so, it almost certainly represents the final demolition stages of the militia occupation.

Although the privy feature designated as Site 18BC133 probably was constructed and in use prior to the Civil War, it disappointingly did not contain elements that could be related directly to the occupation of the adjacent property by the Independent Grays militia company. Expected items of militaria were not contained within the excavated privy fill. If indeed this feature served a function for the Independent Grays, any privy deposits relating to their use of the site apparently were cleared out, leaving only a vestige of antebellum refuse represented by a mere 26 artifacts recovered from Stratum 4, and some fragmentary undatable materials obtained from flotation of Stratum 5 (subsoil).

The primary privy deposits (Strata 2 and 3) clearly related to one or more late 19th- to early 20th-century domestic occupations of the site area. However, it is possible that the individuals who placed their household debris within this shaft were not the residents of the ca. 1900 rowhouses between 418 and 431 High Street, since their yard areas did not include the privy site. Based on the lack of significant 19th-century deposits within the privy shaft, the site did not retain the research potential hoped for.

(Edited from the Maryland Historical Trust Synthesis Project)


  • Williams, Martha R., Nora Shennan, and Suzanne Sanders
  • 2000. Archeological Investigations at the Juvenile Justice Center, Baltimore, Maryland. 4 vols. R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc.

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