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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Monday, July 27, 2009

Nailing Down Mount Whoredom

One of the mysteries of great importance that Boston 1775 has poked through is the term “Mount Whoredom,” used by British officers in 1775-76 to describe a promontory west of Boston Common. That area became the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Beacon Hill.

As Christopher Lenney and I tracked down, there was a landmark of the same name in greater London, near the Royal Artillery training ground. So was that name brought across the Atlantic by the British officers themselves? Or was it local?

Recently a Boston 1775 commenter alerted me to this entry in the diary of Judge Samuel Sewall back in 1715:

Monday, Augt. 8. Set out at 11. at night on Horseback with Tho. Wallis to inspect the order of the Town. Constable Eady, Mr Allen, Salter, Herishor Simson, Howel, Mr John Marion. Dissipated the players at Nine Pins at Mount Whoredom.

Benjamin Davis, Chairmaker, and Jacob Hasy were two of them. Reproved Thomas Messenger for entertaining them.
So Bostonians were referring to Mount Whoredom many decades before the Revolution, and it was already a site of iniquity—of sorts. On this night the worst behavior the Puritan authorities found was “Nine Pins.” (Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!)

I’ll also quote a letter from Samuel Blachley Webb to Silas Deane, dated 16 Oct 1775:
in my last I mentioned the building the flat Bottom Boats which are now almost compleated and the men are daily exercising in them, such as learning to Row—paddle—land & clime a precipice & form immediately for Action,—they behave much beyond expectation,—this exercise will be of great service if ever we land on the shore of our Enemies, which it seems they much fear as they have hall’d up another Frigate in the Bay back of Mount Whoredom
This amphibious-landing training came a few months before my earlier example of American commanders using the term. Finding additional examples from 1775 will show the name to be even more established in America.

So what’s the full story of Boston’s “Mount Whoredom”? Was that hill:
  • named for a similar hill near London? (London certainly has a livelier night life than Puritan Boston.)
  • the inspiration for naming the hill in London? (The Boston usage is documented earlier, after all.)
  • named after a common term for a red-light district throughout the British Empire? (In that case, there should be more examples out there.)

8 comments:

George Lovely said...

While rarely found on any map, or otherwise documented, around many colleges and in many small towns you can find a "Beer Can Hill" that identifies a secluded spot well known to both local miscreants and the local constabulary, and whose name and location is past down by oral tradition.

My guess is that for our ancestors, Mt. Whoredom served a similar, though slightly more biblical sounding, function. If so, written references would likely be difficult to come by.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that’s a plausible theory, even though the term did show up in a respectable map of London. (Not that the British army officers’ maps of wartime Boston aren’t respectable, but they weren’t necessarily respectful of the local society.)

To get behind the idea that lots of big cities had a “Mount Whoredom,” however, I’d like to see a range of examples in the British Empire beyond Boston and London.

One possible source: The Journal of James Yonge, 1647-1721: Plymouth Surgeon. A Google Books snippet indicates he went to a “mount whoredom,” but I can’t tell where he was at the time.

A Staunch Whig said...

Which map do you use here? Here's another depiction of it, a map from 1776.

J. L. Bell said...

I believe it was a different map by the same British army cartographer, Thomas Hyde Page.

Yoni said...

Stumbled across this fascinating old thread, and it inspired me to plug the term into a few databases myself. In "An Account of Spain..." a work signed by "R." and published in 1700, the author writes of Alacante:At the bottom of this, stands that Celebrated Place, well known to the English Sailors, by the Name of Mount-Whoredom, and it well deserves such an Epithite; for there is not such another spot of Ground in Europe, for all manner of Pollutions.
There's an even earlier use of the term in the Journal of James Yonge, a Portsmouth Naval Surgeon - which you turned up on Google Books. He writes of visiting Lisbon in 1662: "I one day went with some of our people to Mount Whoredom. It's a street on a hill..."

Put those two early references together with the map of Woolwich (home to the eponymous dockyard) and Sewall, and you've got suggestive evidence that Mount Whoredom was a name in use by English sailors to designate the red-light districts in their various posts and ports of call.

And I think there's some reason to believe, given the paucity of later references, that this particular bit of slang was peculiar to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Revolutionary Boston, in some ways, was a city frozen in time - preserving English political ideas, pronunciations, and even slang of the seventeenth century. By the time English officers arrived in Boston in the 1770s, I suspect the name Mount Whoredom would've struck them less as a feature common to every port than as a fairly unique, and perhaps titillating, feature of the local landscape. I know that's speculative. But I think it fits.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing those finds. With your permission, I’d like to quote that comment at length in a blog posting.

Yoni said...

Feel free!

Greta LaFleur said...

Hi there,

I came across your excellent blog while doing research on an area in early C19 Boston ("Beacon Hill," sometimes called "Negro Hill") in which free blacks and working-class whites lived and socialized together, and also in which there were numerous brothels and unlicensed taverns. I'm currently doing research at the American Antiquarian Society on the last chapter of my book, which looks at this section of Boston, and one of the archivists brought me a 1776 map on which "Mount Whoredom" is also labeled. It looks like "Mount Whoredom" is slightly to the west of Beacon Hill, but in the texts I'm looking at, "Negro Hill" and "the West End" designate the same area of the city (at least c. 1818), and this area was a target for a number of urban reform organizations, many of which were specifically organized around the prevention and eradication of prostitution. So, it looks like Mount Whoredom was, indeed, the re-light district, at least in the early C19. Thanks so much for your posts on Mount Whoredom-- they were very helpful for me!

From _A brief account of the origins and progress of the Boston female society for missionary purposes_ (1818):

"With propriety it may be said, there [the Hill] is the place where Satan’s seat is. There awful impieties prevail; and all conceivable abominations are practiced; there the depravity of the human heart is acted on; and from this sink of sin, the seeds of corruption are coveyed into every part of the town. Five and twenty or thirty shops are opened on the Lord’s days from morning to evening, and ardent spirits are retailed without restraint, while hundreds are intoxicated, and spend the holy Sabbath in frolicking and gambling, in fighting and blaspheming; and many in scenes of iniquity and debauchery too dreadful to be named. The street is filled during the day with old and young of all complexions, numbers drunken and sleeping by its sides and corners; and awful noises and confusions are witnessed. Lord’s Day evening is the period when greater numbers collect than at any other season of the week; hundreds of boys from all parts of the town, on this evening repair thither, where their ears are assailed with the dialect of the dark world; while all the oaths are uttered, which the powers of the mind, long exercised in the service of the adversary, and excited to action by a totally depraved heart, could possible invent. Here these lads enter a school, calculated to give then an entire disrelish for all moral and religious restraint; and to cause them wholly to disregard parental authority and instruction:-- A school pre-eminently calculated to erase from their minds all thoughts of God, and their accountability—a school, entirely suited to train them for the commission of all conceivable crimes, to be a disgrace to their family connections, to be pests in society, and subjects for a world of despair. Here, week after week, whole nights are spent in drinking and carousing; and as the morning light begins to appear, when others arise from their beds, these close their doors. Multitudes, evidently in different professions and employments, clad in a manner indicative of affluence and high life, as soon as the sable curtains of the evening are drawn around them, pass and repass from one end of the street to the other; and beyond all doubt contribute much in different ways to the support and encouragement of the abandoned and the prostitute."