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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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

John Childs Promises to Fly from Old North Church

On 12 Sept 1757, the Boston Gazette carried this unusual announcement:

This is to give Notice to All Gentlemen and Ladies, that John Childs has flown off of most of the highest Steeples in Old-England, and off of the Monument by the Duke of Cumberland’s Desire, and does intend this Day, and two Days following, to fly off of Dr. Cutler’s Church, where he hopes to give full Satisfaction to all Spectators.
The Monument was the 202-foot-tall column built in London to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666.

The Duke of Cumberland was Prince William Augustus, younger son of George II. As a British army commander, he had just been captured by the French at Klosterzeven, but Boston didn’t know that yet.

Dr. Cutler’s church was Christ Church in the North End of Boston, the same church that today we call Old North. And today a plaque on the building reads:
Here on September 13, 1757, John Childs – who had given public notice of his intention to fly from the steeple of Dr. Cutler’s church – performed it to the satisfaction of a great number of spectators.

In 1923, the year of the first continuous flight across the continent, this tablet has been placed here by the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America to commemorate the two events.
For perhaps two hundred years now people have been puzzled about how exactly John Childs “flew.” And tour guides love to fill any vacuum of knowledge with confident statements of fact, however shaky. iBoston says Childs flew with “an umbrella-like contraption.” Citysearch says he used “a rudimentary glider.” CelebrateBoston says he was “Tethered to a rope, and attached to a feathered glider.” All wrong. Harvard’s First-Year Urban Program, to its credit, says, “no one really knows what this [flying] means.”

TOMORROW: What this “flying” means.

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