Stranglings, Salvation, and Syrup Tsunamis… All in a Day’s Walk.

Last weekend I went on a tour of Boston led by Kevin Ford, chaplain for the MIT Graduate Christian Fellowship.  I learned a lot of interesting trivia about the city and even saw some new sights.  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1.   From Three Hills to One:  Boston underwent a massive landfill project in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which greatly redefined its topography.  The original name for Boston was Tremontaine, in honor of the three hills that distinguished its land:  Pemberton, Mt. Vernon, and Beacon.  Pemberton and Mt. Vernon no longer exist; they were flattened in the early 1800s to supply fill for the Back Bay and South End.  The height of Beacon Hill was reduced by half and the New State House built atop its lowered peak, where it still stands today.  The name “Tremont Street” is a reference to Boston’s original tri-mountainous topography.

2.  Beacon Hill Home to Famous Authors:  I loved kicking down the cobblestones of this quaint, historic neighborhood made up of narrow, gas-lit streets and brick row houses.  My sidewalk ramblings through Beacon Hill took on a pointed purpose when I found out that some of my favorite American authors once lived there:  Henry James in the 1880s, at 102 Mt. Vernon Street; Robert Frost from 1938 to 1941, at 88 Mt. Vernon Street; and Louisa May Alcott, who lived in rented rooms on Pinckney Street as a child in the 1830s and then purchased a home for her family at 10 Louisburg Square in 1885, where she lived until her death.  What an enlivening experience, to stand outside the homes of these literary greats!  Other famous residents (past and present) include John Hancock, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Singleton Copley, John Kerry, Sylvia Plath, Carly Simon, and Uma Thurman.

(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)



3.  A Hub of Abolitionist Activity:  Beacon Hill was one of the staunchest centers of the anti-slavery movement and the heart of Boston’s 19th-century African American community.  It was instrumental in the operation of the Underground Railroad, as blacks and whites alike provided secret routes and safe houses to fugitive slaves.  The African Meeting House at 46 Joy Street, built in 1806 by free African American artisans, is the oldest standing African American church building in America.  William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here in 1832, and in 1863, recruitment to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment—one of the first official black units in the United States—took place within its walls.  Many famous black leaders, including Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, and Sojourner Truth, spoke at the African Meeting House.

4.  The Boston Strangler:  The last stop on our tour of Beacon Hill was 44 Charles Street—the site of the thirteenth and final silk stocking murder.  Over an 18-month period from 1962 to 1964, a wave of terror swept over Boston as woman after woman was found dead in her own apartment, after having been sexually assaulted and then strangled with a pair of stockings.  All thirteen victims were single and between the ages of 19 and 85.

In 1964, 33-year-old Albert DeSalvo confessed to the crimes.  DeSalvo was able to recall details from the crime scenes that had never been printed, but there was never any physical evidence linking him to the crimes, so he was never tried or convicted for them.  He was, however, sentenced to life in prison in 1967 for a series of unrelated violent crimes.  He was stabbed to death in prison six years later.

Investigators have since suggested that the Boston Strangler murders were not committed by just one person and that DeSalvo was probably not guilty of any of them, though he probably knew the real serial killer.  Some think he chose infamy over obscurity, that his confession was a ploy for public attention and money (he had started writing a book in prison), and that the real Boston Strangler got away scot-free.  So there you have it:  Boston’s very own murder mystery, with loose ends yet (and unlikely) to be tied.  Dum, dum, dummm…

5.  Moody’s Shoe-Store Conversion:  In April 1855, at age 18, Dwight L. Moody accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in a shoe store that stood in what is now Court Square in downtown Boston.  His uncle owned the store and made him promise that if hired, he would attend the Congregational Church of Mount Vernon.  Moody agreed.  His Sunday school teacher, Edward Kimball, had a special burden for him, so he visited Moody at the shoe store one day and there presented the gospel to him.

Moody describes that day as one in which he felt powerful conviction:

“When I was in Boston, I used to attend a Sunday school class, and one day I recollect my teacher came around behind the counter of the shop I was at work in, and put his hand upon my shoulder, and talked to me about Christ and my soul.  I had not felt that I had a soul till then.  I said to myself, ‘This is a very strange thing.  Here is a man who never saw me till lately, and he is weeping over my sins, and I never shed a tear about them.’  But I understand it now, and know what it is to have a passion for men’s souls and weep over their sins.  I don’t remember what he said, but I can feel the power of that man’s hand on my shoulder to-night.  It was not long after that I was brought into the Kingdom of God.”

Moody went on to become one of the 19th century’s greatest evangelists, founding a church, a Bible institute, two schools, and a publishing company and leading thousands of souls to Christ through his preaching.

6.  John Adams Defends the Red Coats:  On March 5, 1770, five Bostonians were shot and killed by British soldiers outside the Old State House in an event that has come to be known as the Boston Massacre.  It began when a mob of men and boys started taunting a sentry standing guard at the city’s custom house, throwing rocks at him and mocking him.  The disturbance attracted a larger mob of colonists and became riotous, so British soldiers came in for reinforcement, and shots were fired into the crowd, killing five colonists.

Most of this I remember from my U.S. history class in high school, but what I don’t remember ever having learned is that seven of the British soldiers were tried for murder, and John Adams agreed to represent them in court.  Two were found guilty of manslaughter, but five were acquitted.  “Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently,” the level-headed Adams said.  “As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”  Even though he knew his decision to defend the enemy would subject him to criticism, jeopardize his legal practice, and quite possibly compromise the safety of himself and his family, he believed that everyone deserved a fair trial, for justice was one of the virtues for which the American revolutionaries fought.

<– Here’s a picture of Paul Revere’s engraving of the event—obviously a piece of propaganda meant to arouse anti-British sentiment, especially with a title like “The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street” (which seems to imply that there were masses of victims who were cruelly and wantonly murdered).





7.  The Midnight Ride of … William Dawes?:

The Paul Revere immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (historically inaccurate) poem is really a composite of several midnight riders, the other two primary ones being William Dawes and Samuel Prescott.  As the men rode to Lexington, they warned countless patriots of the British army’s advancement, and by the end of the night there were probably as many as 40 riders throughout Middlesex County carrying the news.  Revere was most likely chosen as the poem’s sole hero because his last name lends itself more easily to rhyming.  (See Helen F. Moore’s 1896 poem “The Midnight Ride of William Dawes”.)

In reality, Dr. Joseph Warren, commander of the Colonial forces, dispatched shoemaker William Dawes to ride to Lexington by land to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock about the approaching troops.  He sent Revere to the same destination but by a different route (by water), as insurance against Dawes’ capture or detention.  Local physician Samuel Prescott joined them enroute.  Of these men, it was Dawes who rode first, rode the longest, and who effectively carried out his orders.  Revere got sidetracked and was captured by the British near the end of his ride.

8.  Skinny House:  Boston has lots of narrow lots, but 44 Hull Street beats them all.  The house that stands there is the narrowest house in Boston—10.4 feet at its widest point.  The house is four stories tall and has no front door.  (To enter, you have to walk down a narrow alleyway and through a side door.)  It was built shortly after the Civil War as a spite house.  According to local legend , “two brothers inherited land from their deceased father. While one brother was away serving in the military, the other built a large home, leaving the soldier only a shred of property that he felt certain was too tiny to build on. When the soldier returned, he found his inheritance depleted and built the narrow house to spite his brother by blocking the sunlight and ruining his view.”  The current owners (a couple in their early 40s) said they like living there very much because the house has character.

9.  The Great Brink’s Robbery:  When it was committed in 1950, the $2.7 million robbery of Brink’s, a security company with offices at 600 Commercial Street in Boston, was the biggest heist in American history and remains one of the FBI’s most famous cases.  Because it was so skillfully executed (the Brink’s gang had meticulously planned the robbery for more than a year), it was dubbed “the crime of the century.”  The 11 robbers were eventually captured, but most of the money was never recovered.  At least three movies have been made about the Brink’s Robbery:  Blueprint for Robbery (1961), Brink’s: The Great Robbery (1976), and The Brink’s Job (1978, starring Peter Falk).  The Brink’s Building is now a public parking garage.

10.  The Great Molasses Flood:  On January 15, 1919, a tank holding 2.2 million gallons of molasses burst, sending a tsunami of molasses down Commercial Street at 35 miles per hour.  The molasses smashed buildings, overturned vehicles, and drowned and crushed victims, ultimately killing 21 people and injuring 150.  Imagine a 15-foot-high wave of thick, sticky syrup hurtling toward you.  Imagine being trapped underneath it, drowning in it.  Certainly a tragic event.

And a messy one.  After spreading out, the molasses covered several blocks of downtown Boston to a depth of two or three feet.  Crews cleaned up the molasses by hosing the area with salt water from fireboats and then covering the streets with sand.  Ladders were placed over the wreckage to pull the dead and the injured from the molasses-drenched debris.  Some people who live in the North End swear you can still smell the molasses on the streets.

The tank that had exploded was built by the Purity Distilling Company in 1915 and sold to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company two years later.  One hundred and twenty five lawsuits were filed against Industrial Alcohol; the hearings were the longest in the history of Massachusetts state courts to that point, taking six years.  Industrial Alcohol was made to pay between $500,000 and $1 million, as the tank was discovered to have been structurally deficient.


Of course there is much more I could say about historical Boston—about the Puritans who settled here, founding schools and churches and setting up a democracy; the Revolutionary War heroes and founding fathers who rallied together and deliberated and fought here; and all the many firsts in the U.S. that happened here (first college, first public library, first periodic newspaper, etc.).  Our nation was practically born in Boston, and I get to walk its streets every week.  It was really fun to go a little bit off the beaten path last Saturday and learn about the kind of history that isn’t in the textbooks.  Thanks for the tour, Kevin!

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