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, March 05, 2013

Charles Bahne on the Boston Massacre Site Today

This is the anniversary of the shootings on King Street in 1770. That street became known as State Street, and the event became known as the Boston Massacre. Today guest blogger Charles Bahne, author of Chronicles of Old Boston, continues his analysis of exactly where the shootings happened.

Under the balcony at the east end of the Old State House, a circle of stones sits in the sidewalk, surrounded by a bronze ring proclaiming the “Site of the Boston Massacre.” Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people pause at that circle each year, to take a photo or listen to a tour guide, as they contemplate the events of that fateful fifth of March, 243 years ago.

They’re standing in the wrong place.

When first installed in 1887, the memorial stones were embedded in the middle of the intersection, nearer the site where Crispus Attucks actually fell. Since then, the circular marker has been moved at least three times: once in 1904, for Blue Line subway construction; again in the 1960s for Government Center urban renewal; and most recently in 2011 to build the plaza that’s there today. Its current location was chosen merely for safety, so that people can stand around the stones without being hit by traffic.

Published here for the first time anywhere, this diagram above shows how present-day landmarks relate to the buildings and events of March 5, 1770. My goal in creating this diagram was to update Paul Revere’s plan of the Massacre—described yesterday—into the 21st century. It’s a project that I first envisioned thirty years ago, now made far easier by online availability of historic maps and modern satellite views.

Running from right to left in my diagram is King Street, now known as State Street. At the left is present-day Washington Street, called “Main Street” by Revere, but designated as “Cornhill” on other colonial-era maps. (Remember that the Revere map is oriented with north to the right, so Cornhill is at the top.)

South of State Street, today’s street patterns remain remarkably similar to those in Revere’s day. Going from west to east, Revere labeled the streets as Pudin [Pudding] Lane, Court Square, and Quaker Lane. Today these are Devonshire Street, Quaker Lane, and Congress Street. (Note that the name Quaker Lane has been transferred from one thoroughfare to another in the intervening centuries!) Devonshire and Congress Streets are wider now, but Quaker Lane remains as a pedestrian pathway. The present buildings south of State Street—erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—still stand upon historic property lines, just as the 1770 structures did.

But north of State Street substantial changes have been made in the last half-century. The Government Center project obliterated streets that had survived the centuries, and skyscrapers are now set back from the historic street lines to create wide plazas.

To the right of the Town House on Revere’s plan is an unnamed street, called Crooked Lane on other colonial maps. Known as part of Devonshire Street until the 1960s, it would have run right through today’s skyscraper at 28 State Street.

The Custom House, at the lower right of Revere’s plan, stood at the corner of what he called Exchange Lane. Widened multiple times, it’s now an extension of Congress Street, four times its original breadth. Thus the Custom House—and the Massacre soldiers—stood where the northbound lanes of Congress Street flow today. To its west, the Exchange Tavern of Revere’s day was mostly in the southbound lanes of new Congress Street.

At lower left in Revere’s drawing is the house where Edward Payne was shot on his doorstep; today a stone wall of the Exchange Place high-rise stands on the site.

The main Guard House, headquarters of His Majesty’s armed forces in Boston, stood just south of the Old State House on the site that was until recently the entrance to a National Park Visitor Center at 15 State Street. It was here that Capt. Thomas Preston “walked up and down…for near half an hour” before deciding to bring relief troops to aid the besieged sentry in front of the Custom House. Shown, but not labeled, on Revere’s drawing are the two fieldpieces or cannons that the army placed in front of the Guard House, pointing directly at the Representatives’ Chamber just across the street.

One other colonial building of note is the Old Brick Meeting-House, home to Boston’s oldest Congregational parish, whose cupola is prominent behind the Old State House in Revere’s engraving. On his plan it would be just beyond the margin at upper left; on my diagram, a corner of it is visible to the left of the “C” in the label “Cornhill.”

It was fairly easy to determine the footprint of 1770s buildings as they relate to modern-day landmarks. My basic assumption was that colonial buildings were on the property line, and not set back from it. Especially on major thoroughfares—such as King Street and Cornhill—their façades made a uniform row at the boundary between private land and the public street. This assumption is borne out by the appearance of King Street both in Revere’s engraving of the Massacre and in the plan described here yesterday. An 1801 view of State Street and the Old State House also confirms this assumption.

The thick red lines in my diagram then, technically indicate property lines, but I assume they are the same as or very close to the building lines. Those property lines are well documented in a series of highly-detailed atlases prepared for fire insurance underwriters. Atlases from 1867 to 1938 are now available online at several sources; with design software, I could overlay maps from different eras over satellite views from sites like Google Maps. Also of assistance were an 1895 map showing how streets had been widened and a detailed map of Boston from 1814.

Revere’s drawing served as my chief source for the places where the soldiers and victims stood. But as noted here yesterday, the exact sites where some of the victims fell—especially the fifth fatality—has been, and will always be, fodder for speculation.

A larger version of Charlie’s “Boston Massacre Site, Then and Now” diagram will be featured in the fourth edition of his guidebook The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, coming this spring. Look for it at finer shops around Boston and online. Or, if you can’t wait, the third edition is available here.

Thanks for sharing your work, Charlie!


AdamC1776 said...

As I used to say when I did tours on the freedom trail. "Urban planning trumps History"

Sean McGuire said...

This is an absolutely fascinating post. I love seeing things like this! It's a shame to realize just how much has been torn down, but it's great to see things like some of the streets running in the same places, as well as the modern building property line!

G Lovely said...

Thank you for the post. Though I've been there literally thousands of times, I'll take a short detour on my way home from the office tonight and once again try to visualize that night amidst its modern context.

We are fortunate that the State House remains to give us not just a soild reference point, but, perhaps more importantly, a real sense of the human scale of the events that transpired that night.

Robert S. Paul said...

This is great. I'm glad I didn't know this before Saturday last, I would've gone nuts.

I guess I'll go nuts next year instead.

Anonymous said...

Huzza Charlie!

I'm going to get the 4th edition.
-Chris the Woburnite

Anonymous said...

That's a fine guest blog! Is the little circular item the location of the present-day marker? I would be interested in seeing how far the city is off. Thanks, Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the wheel on the tan triangle to the right of the Old State House represents the circle of cobblestones in its latest position.

Charles Bahne said...

The original location of the circle of stones was quite close to where Crispus Attucks fell, that is, the star closest to the row of soldiers.

From 1904 to the 1960s the stones were just to the east (right) of the two stars that are above the building now occupied by the Bank of Ipswich (SE corner of State & Congress).

From the 1960s until 2011 they were further out on the same peninsula where they are now, that is, under the "X" that is close to that peninsula. Of course, the peninsula then was an island; it was attached to the other sidewalks just two years ago.

MM said...

I've heard people say that the star in the marker points to the north - and is supposed to be a subtle reference to the North Star, drawing on Attucks's reputation and connection to the abolitionists over time. Any truth to that, as far as you've heard? Seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that's a stretch. For one thing, compasses traditionally point north already. For another, in Attucks's time Canada was not a refuge for escaped slaves because slavery was legal there, too. He in fact appears to have traveled south to the Caribbean as a sailor during his decades of freedom.