Poet Shirley Brewer gives voice to life, legacy of slain Johns Hopkins’ researcher Stephen Pitcairn

I long for a career that allows me to explore my intellectual curiosities while at the same time interacting with and aiding others.  I find a life devoted to medicine to be formidable, but ultimately fulfilling.  Thus it is with great conviction that I seek to acquire a medical education.  — Stephen Pitcairn

An uneasy silence gripped the audience at the Village Learning Place on Wednesday night, as Shirley Brewer paused for a moment in the middle of her reading to note, “The title of this next poem is Two Years After My Murder, but it might just as well be Three Years…”

In the three years that have passed since the moonlit evening of July 25, 2010, there have been more that 650 homicides in Baltimore City.  But for a city known to many through shows like Homicide and The Wire – a city awash in blood – the horrific events of that summer night in 2010 still stand out.  That was the night Stephen Pitcairn, a promising young medical researcher at John Hopkins University, was assaulted and brutally murdered while walking from Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station to his home in Charles Village.

Stephen Pitcairn

The story of Pitcairn’s slaying shook a public which has largely become desensitized to the staggering statistics of the annual slaughter.  And it moved Shirley Brewer, a poet and educator, to pen Stephen’s story in words many believe to be heaven sent.

Who will trust

the voices of the dead?

This strange language

may not be heard,

from the poem Two Years After My Murder

Brewer’s book, After Words (2013 Apprentice House) contains 13 poems, with several written in the first person voice of Stephen Pitcairn.  It also contains the thoughts, as Brewer envisioned them, of Stephen’s mother, Gwen; of Reggie Higgins – the neighbor who held Pitcairn as he lay dying; and of three inanimate witnesses: the tree, the moon and the murder weapon.

The details of Stephen Pitcairn’s murder were pieced together by police investigators and presented at his killers’ trial.  On the night of July 25, Pitcairn was walking north on St. Paul Street, when he was approached and robbed by John Wagner and his girlfriend Lavelva Merritt.  After complying with Wagner’s demands and giving up his possessions, Pitcairn was senselessly stabbed by Wagner, while Merritt hit the helpless victim in the head.  Wagner (who at his trial denied all guilt) was convicted of the killing and sentenced by Judge Charles Peters to life plus 20 years in prison.  Merritt was sentenced to serve 15 years behind bars for her part in the crime, after striking a deal and testifying for the state.  Both Wagner and Merritt had additional time tacked on for parole violations.

This photo of Stephen with the little girl was taken during his junior year of college which he spent in Japan. He lived with a family, and the child is the daughter of his hosts. (Courtesy photo)
This photo of Stephen with a little girl was taken during his junior year of college which he spent in Japan. He lived with a family, and the child is the daughter of his hosts. (Courtesy photo)

When you kill a son,

you kill his mother, too.

from the poem To My Killers

Gwen Pitcairn was on the telephone with Stephen when Wagner and Merritt accosted him.  And she heard the groan that, she later learned, was the sound of her son being slain.  Brewer knew all of this, so it was with some trepidation that she sent Gwen Pitcairn her first poem, Offering.  And so began a correspondence which continues to this day.

Brewer observed that she never set out to write a book, but the poems just came to her.  The verses in Stephen’s voice are particularly poignant to the Pitcairn family.  In one correspondence, Gwen Pitcairn told Brewer, “You have no idea how much you have touched my life.”

When death is fresh,

everyone pays attention.

A face in the news,

flowers at the murder site –

from the poem Two Years After My Murder

The site of Pitcairn’s slaying – beneath a tree in the 2600 block of Saint Paul Street – is less than two blocks away from the Village Learning Place and just one block from where Brewer lives.

Brewer scheduled Wednesday’s event to coincide with the tragic anniversary and planned a pre-reading visit to the tree.  About 20 people attended the reading and joined Brewer at the hallowed site.  Gilford resident, Anne Giroux, graciously supplied the flowers Brewer laid at the base of the tree.  Several other people brought bouquets as well.  Two neighborhood merchants donated refreshments in the way of wine and baked goods.

Flowers mark the hallowed spot.
Flowers mark the hallowed site where Stephen Pitcairn was murdered. (Bill Hughes)

Brewer told the audience, “Any family who has lost somebody would hope that (that person) would be remembered; would not be forgotten.”  Brewer added, “The family is so grateful to Reggie Higgins; that their son did not die alone.  That’s a comfort to them.”

My words still shine like candles

tossed into the white cauldron of the moon

I’m restless, feverish — so much

unsaid, undone.

from the poem Lifeline

In an email to his mother, Pitcairn once wrote, “I want to give a lot and at the end to have left some small mark that people will remember.”

Pitcairn’s desire was admittedly modest, but the research he conducted in seeking a cure for breast cancer may someday help millions of women and men.  Johns Hopkins is preparing to publish an academic paper later this year summarizing the work of Pitcairn and his fellow team members

Shirley Brewer reads a poem to the audience.
Shirley Brewer reads a poem to the audience. (Bill Hughes)

A plaque at Johns Hopkins reads: “In memory of Stephen Bradley Pitcairn ~ his endless enthusiasm and kindness will not be forgotten by those whose lives he touched.”

Death cannot take everything;

I know I mattered.

After words, my heart

still warms the earth.

from the poem After Words

*   *   *   *   *

Shirley Brewer will be reading selections from her book, After Words this Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.  Brewer’s reading, part of the New Mercury Nonfiction Reading Series, will take place at The Windup Space, 12 W. North Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland.

(Feature photo by Anthony C. Hayes.)


One thought on “Poet Shirley Brewer gives voice to life, legacy of slain Johns Hopkins’ researcher Stephen Pitcairn

  • July 28, 2013 at 9:01 PM

    People rioting about the Trayvon trial and seeing only blacks as targets, need to read stories such as this. I am sure they would be radical, if similar action were taken in these cases. It is not one race that is being targeted, and voices and actions need to be taken to try and civilize all violence.

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