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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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stones in My Passway

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that the cobblestone circle set out to mark the site of the Boston Massacre (shown here in a Globe file photo) had been removed for roadwork and eventual replacement. Boston 1775 friend Charles Bahne wrote into the paper with a historic perspective, and has graciously offered his full letter for posting here.

As a historian and tour guide, I regularly point out the circle of stones marking the Boston Massacre site in front of the Old State House. I was shocked to see the stones missing a few days ago, and I thank the Globe for printing an explanation.

This will not be the first time that subway construction has required the stones’ relocation. They were originally placed in the street pavement in 1887 near the corner of State and Exchange Streets, much closer to the present site of 60 State Street. (Exchange Street is now gone, but it roughly corresponded with the southbound lanes of Congress Street.)

In 1904 they were removed to allow construction of the subway to East Boston, and replaced in a new site right in the middle of the intersection, near where James Caldwell had died.

Again in the 1960s, when urban renewal caused reconfiguration of the streets, the circle of stones was moved to its most recent site, apparently chosen simply because that’s where the city wanted to place a traffic island.

All this means that the circle of stones no longer represents the spot “where Crispus Attucks fell.” To stand on that site, you'd have to go back to the 1887 location of the stones, and you’d probably get hit by a truck as soon as the traffic signal changed.

I’ve long marveled at how research located the Massacre exactly where city planners saw the need for a traffic island. Now I understand how the process of historic revision continually updates the accuracy of that siting, reflecting the changing present’s priorities and interests.


Peter Ansoff said...

The last paragraph reminded me of the joke about the Civil War buff who travels all over the country visiting historic sites. He goes back home and remarks "It's a very strange coincidence -- all of the big Civil War battles were fought in National Parks."

John L. Smith said...

Safety first over History! If a tourist got killed standing in the real Massacre spot, even John Adams couldn't successfully defend the City Fathers!

EJWitek said...

I seem to recall a History Channel (?) program some years back in which they used modern scientific methods to pinpoint exactly the site of the "Massacre" and concluded that the stones were in the wrong spot.

J. L. Bell said...

If that was the same basic-cable show that I remember, the segment involved measuring the Old State House and then the distances on Revere’s overhead view without ever verifying that Revere had drawn the scene to scale. That rendered the presentation useless in my eyes.

But even one glance at Revere’s map shows that the shooting victims were spread over a wide area, so the cobblestone circle could never encompass the whole of the event.

Charles Bahne said...

I haven't seen the video program mentioned above, so I can't comment on its accuracy. But for the last 30 or so years I've studied various maps and diagrams of the area, drawn over time.

Putting aside the question of whether Revere drew his diagram to scale or not, his diagram does show a many nearby buildings, and it shows the nearby streets. It's clear that the soldiers were near the corner of the Customs House, at the corner of what later became Exchange Street.

During the 1800s a number of maps were produced, all of them to scale, which showed the buildings and property lines current at the date of those maps. Those buildings and property lines match almost precisely the buildings shown by Revere, so with some logical assumptions one can figure out pretty accurately where the buildings stood in 1770. There are also detailed municipal records of when and how the streets were widened or altered.

Until about 1960 the intersection was pretty much like it had been in 1770, although some of the streets had been widened. It was the Government Center urban renewal project of the 1960s that massively changed the intersection, making the north side of it totally unrecognizable.

But J. L. is right, the bodies fell over a huge area, and a 12-foot circle of stones is hopelessly inadequate to convey the whole story. Even if that circle was anywhere near where the British soldiers had stood, or anywhere near where any of the victims had fallen.