J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Boston boys and their ghosts

On the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere displayed a picture of Christopher “Seider’s pale ghost” in a window of his new home in the North End. Gentlemen orating about the Massacre invoked the ghosts of the five people killed at that event. But for many young Bostonians, ghosts weren’t just metaphors, but quite real.

“The people of New England at that time pretty generally believed in hobgoblins and spirits, that is the children at least did,” North End boy John Greenwood (born 1760) later wrote in his memoir. Greenwood discussed this belief in the context of the region’s old Puritan tales:

While I was at school the [political] troubles commenced, and I recollect very well of hearing the superstitious accounts which were circulated around: people were certain a war was about to take place, for a great blazing comet had appeared and armies of soldiery had been seen fighting in the clouds overhead; and it was said that the day of judgment was at hand, when the moon would turn into blood and the world be set on fire. These dismal stories became so often repeated that the boys thought nothing of them, considering that such events must come in the course of nature. For my part, all I wished was that a church which stood by the side of my father’s garden would fall on me at the time these terrible things happened, and crush me to death at once, so as to be out of pain quick.

Benjamin Russell (born 1761) certainly believed in ghosts one memorable night before the Revolutionary War, as he later told his printing colleague Joseph T. Buckingham:
It was a part of my duty as an assistant in the domestic affairs of the family, to have the care of the cow. One evening, after it was quite dark, I was driving the cow to her pasturage,—the common. Passing by the burial-ground, adjoining the Stone Chapel, I saw several lights that appeared to be springing from the earth, among the graves and immediately sinking again to the ground, or expiring. . . . I left the cow to find her way to the common, or wherever else she pleased, and ran home.
Russell’s father led him back to the graveyard and showed him that the lights came from “a sexton, up to his shoulders in a grave, throwing out, as he proceeded in digging, bones and fragments of rotten coffins. The phosphorus in the decaying wood, blended with the peculiar state of the atmosphere, presented the appearance that had completely unstrung my nerves.”

As for Greenwood, he actually hoped to see one particular ghost in 1770:
I remember what is called the ‘Boston Massacre,’ when the British troops fired upon the inhabitants and killed seven [actually five] of them, one of whom was my father’s apprentice, a lad eighteen years of age, named Samuel Maverick. I was his bedfellow, and after his death I used to go to bed in the dark on purpose to see his spirit, for I was so fond of him and he of me that I was sure it would not hurt me.

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