Author Archives: Forgotten New England

The Billerica Car Shop Murder of 1918

As news of World War I and Spanish flu filled the local papers, the first headlines related to Billerica’s car shop murder almost could have gone unnoticed.  In fact, the murder itself went unnoticed for several days.  The last anyone had seen of Fred Soulia, an employee at Billerica’s Boston & Maine car shops (today’s Iron Horse Park), was when he began walking home from work on a Thursday evening in early November.  Somewhere during the two-mile walk to his home on Oak Street, Soulia disappeared.

Front Page Headlines – Lowell Sun – November 5, 1918

His coworkers noticed his absence on Friday morning, grew concerned, and went to his home that afternoon.  No one answered the door.  Then, Fred Soulia didn’t come to work on Monday either.  His two friends walked to his home again and knocked.  Again, no one answered.  Soulia lived alone and had no family in Billerica; maybe he had gone home.  One of the men noticed blood on his walkway.  The men followed the blood stains out to Oak Street.  A half-mile away, the trail ended in a mound of loosened earth.  The men called the authorities.

Officers O’Brien and Livingston responded and investigated the loosened earth.  They soon found Soulia’s lunch pail.  Then, they found his spectacles and hat.  When they discovered the blood stains on his hat, they scoured the area.  They found another patch of loosened earth, further from the path.  The officers didn’t have to dig far before they found Fred Soulia’s body, still clad in his work clothes, so bloodied that they couldn’t determine just what had killed him.  The killing marked the town’s first in almost 25 years.

The officers summoned Lowell’s medical examiner Dr. Smith, who soon found another spot, a quarter-mile away, where the ground had been trampled.  He found more blood there – and a path of blood, showing where Soulia’s body had been dragged past his house, and to its shallow grave.  Dr. Smith surmised that the body had been buried first, the hat, pail, and spectacles later, when they were found – to hide any evidence of the crime.  An autopsy later revealed that Soulia had been shot three times and stabbed fifteen.

Finding a motive for the murder stumped Lowell and Billerica authorities.  Soulia, 50, lived alone, in a quiet little house he had built himself on Oak Street, in what was then a sparsely populated area of Billerica.  Of French descent, he had lived in Billerica only a few years – working a while for the Tewksbury constable, and then the most recent two or three years at the car shops in its scrap reclamation department.  Everyone liked him, though no one knew if he had any relatives in the area.  He was a faithful attendant of St. Andrew’s Church.

Theories soon emerged around potential motives for the killing.  Soulia was found with one of his pockets turned out, and without money.  Perhaps he was killed for his cash.  Or, some news was emerging from the car shops that a large theft of brass had occurred from his scrap reclamation department.  Maybe he knew something about that.

Days before he died, Soulia had been walking to work, on a forest path between Oak Street and the car shops, when he came across a culvert and some men who were contractors at the car shops.  Soulia struggled to see past them into the culvert.  The men tried to obstruct his view, but he saw enough to spot some of the brass that had gone missing at work.  He left, but later brought the foreman of his department to retrieve the stolen brass – over a ton of stolen brass, in fact.  The car shops retrieved the brass and didn’t involve the police – until Solia turned up dead a week later.

Lowell Sun – November 6, 1918; Page 1

Investigators soon found three sets of footprints leading away from the murder scene, to a road nearby.  Billerica Police began looking at the men Soulia had turned in for the brass theft, contractors from a Reading construction company.  Billerica police visited the home of Joseph Cordio, who lived on Oak Street near Soulia.  A search recovered a long knife and a revolver.  When police found his shovel coated with the same type of sand found in Soulia’s shallow grave, Cordio grew nervous and his story fell apart.  Investigators next identified the other two men, Lawrence brothers Francisco and Luigi Feci.  At Francisco Feci’s home, they found a shoe matching the footprints found at the murder scene.  A gun found in his coat had recently fired three shots.  And a Zira cigarette box found in the woods near the body matched the many cigarette boxes found in Feci’s home.  Police arrested Francisco Feci;  his brother Luigi fled before he could be captured.

The trial lasted six weeks, ending on May 18, 1920, when Francisco Feci was found guilty.  His brother Luigi, having fled, was not tried.  Due to a lack of evidence, Joseph Cordio was found not guilty.  Francisco Feci was sentenced to death, and, despite a somewhat credible last-minute appeal to Governor Coolidge, died by electrocution on August 16, 1920.  He went to the chair smiling, professing his innocence, and insisting that it was his brother Luigi who had killed Soulia, not him.


Jailbreak at Rainsford Island – Boston Harbor: August 1899

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, ...

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A steady stream of ten boys, each jumping from the classroom windows of the Rainsford Island House of Reformation, sprinted for the shore under the cover of the night fog on August 19, 1899. They found their way through the brush by the light of the fire that raged through their prison behind them.  As the boys reached the shore, a boat appeared and several of them  crawled into it.  The rest found another boat nearby, belonging to a lobsterman, and stole away in that.  From there, the boys escaped first to Moon Island, and then into Boston itself.

While the boys slunk off into the darkness, the prison’s superintendent, John C. Anthony, was the first to notice the flames issuing from the north wing of his House of Reformation.  Just days earlier, the same building had been set afire.  And the day before, a boy named Joseph Sullivan escaped by jumping off the island’s gangplank and swimming over to Hull, across Boston Harbor.  Sullivan had told his fellow inmates that, if his escape was successful, he would return to help the others.

Superintendent Anthony issued the alarm.  Within moments, his sixteen officers directed the House’s remaining inmates as they took the fire hose and began their efforts to fight the raging fire.  It proved little use.  The poor quality hose kept splitting. Whatever little water pressure they had was leaking away before the water even had a chance to hit the flames.

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston...

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the fire raged, Superintendent Anthony called Superintendent Hopkins of Boston Harbor’s Long Island for help.  Their ship, the John Howard, soon arrived.  The men from the Howard found the north wing completely ablaze, and the inmates fighting the blaze with their single line of hose that had burst in many spots.  The crew of the Howard aimed two streams of water at the fire while Superintendent Anthony put in a call to Boston, which also sent a ship of firefighters to the island.  Their ship arrived, and their crew fought the flames alongside the crew of the Howard, and the inmates.  The fire was gradually brought under control, but not before the North Wing’s top two floors were destroyed.

In the commotion caused by the fire, twenty-five Boston City policemen arrived to guard the island’s shores trying to prevent the boys still missing from escaping the island.  They found boys running about the island “as they pleased, like Fijis”.  Some tried constructing rafts and floating away into the harbor.  One boy, named McNulty, nearly drowned about 50 yards off the shore of Hull, before he was rescued from his floating log by a reporter named Frank Sibley.  Two other boys were later found crawling through a cornfield in search of driftwood that they too hoped to use for a Hull-bound raft.

As midnight approached on that Saturday night, Boston police had rounded up nearly all of the boys who hadn’t managed to escape the island’s shores.  The boys were gathered on the House of Reformation’s recess yard and spent the night in the chapel, which had not been destroyed in the fire.  Sleeping atop mattresses that had been pulled out of the burning building, some of the island’s more unruly boys caused trouble for the guards, yelling, hollering, and calling them names.  The guards tolerated the abuse, owing to the boys’ agitated state of mind, but after some time, they adopted ‘extreme measures’ to restore the peace.

A few ‘knock-down’ battles ensued between police, prison officials, and prisoners.  Eventually, the law got the upper hand.  With the unruliness reigned in, the officials picked out eight of the worst offenders and subjected them to “the administration of the rattan stick” the next morning, when they were made to bend over a bar and were flogged.  As for the boys who escaped, they remained at large for weeks before law enforcement was able to recapture them.

In the investigations occurring in the weeks and months following the fire, cases of prisoner abuse were unearthed, and Superintendent Anthony resigned his position.  Four of the ten escapees were later charged with setting the fire.  Their names were not immediately released by authorities, but were known to the local press soon after the arson.  James McNulty, the boy later rescued while adrift on a log several hundred yards from Hull was among their number.

The investigation found that the boys used shavings, paper, and oil that they had hoarded during the months before the fire.  Escaping to the attic on that Saturday night, the four boys lit several spots in the attic at once, and watched as the fire rapidly gained ground.  McNulty, after his recapture, was later implicated in the August 1900 burning of a barn at another reformatory school, in Westboro, Massachusetts.

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. For more in...

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island, an 11 acre island in Boston Harbor, is named for Edward Rainsford, one of the island’s earliest settlers.  In its history, Rainsford Island has been known by a number of names including Hospital Island, Pest House Island, and Quarantine Island.  Since 1996, Rainsford Island has been a part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area.  A municipal institution, the House of Reformation at Rainsford Island housed boys between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who had been sent there for all sorts of crimes, ranging from serious crimes like assault with intent to kill and larceny to the crimes that were substantially less serious like stubborn child and ‘playing ball on the Lord’s day’. The House of Reformation, later named the Suffolk School for Boys, operated on the island from 1895 to 1920.  The school housed a three-and-a-half story building with two wings, known as the North and South Wings.  At the time of the fire, 140 boys had been incarcerated there.  Most were housed in the House’s North Wing, which held 115 boys.


Oh, The Many Queer Lights of Franklin Park! – The Advent of Bicycle Lights in Boston, 1899

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

Blue lights, green lights, and red lights rose out of the dusky fog.  Men emerged carrying bright Japanese lanterns; women held dim electric bulbs.  As summer waned in Boston during the last days of August in 1899, a new regulation came into effect.  Starting on the night of August 21, 1899, bicyclists in Boston were to carry lights as they rode.  No longer would the 19th century darkness of Boston’s streets, paths, and byways yield unseen horrors like speeding bicyclists.

The only issue was that no one had thought to define exactly what kind of light the law should require for bicycles, or how many would do, or even where or how they should be mounted.  And this seemed perfectly daft to a populace accustomed to a world of darkness after twilight faded into night.

The patrolmen charged with enforcing the new law suffered for that vagueness; some suffered the abuse more amiably than others.  On the night of the 21st in that enlightened August of 1899, patrolmen were made aware that the regulation had gone into effect, but were asked not to enforce it until the following night.  Instead, for the night of the 21st, they were to ‘remind’ bicycle riders of their new responsibility.

English: Franklin Park, Boston

Franklin Park, Boston (Photo credit: Wikipedia).  In 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo would be founded, thirteen years after the passage of the bicycle lighting law.

Andy Cramm, a Franklin Park patrolman well-known for his joviality and affability, took his orders to heart.  On that Monday evening, the last before the new law took effect, Andy promised that violators would be ‘pinched sure as faith’ if they didn’t carry lanterns on the following evening.  Said he:  “I have only warned them tonight and lots of ‘em have sauced me, but I just want to see ‘em do it tomorrow night.”

Patrolman Cramm, whose beat included the part of Franklin Park known as the ‘roof garden’, saw one bicyclist who had attached a big reflector lantern to a pole extending from the front of his bicycle, much like what he had seen hanging in a “country doctor’s doorway”.   Andy called after the bicyclist as he pedaled off into the darkness, amid the cheers of the spectators and pedestrians who had assembled to watch the unexpected fun brought on by the new regulation.

Many of the bicyclists taunted Cramm and other patrolmen with their varying interpretations of the new vaguely-worded regulation that only required that they carry a light.   Some came carrying Japanese lanterns. Others carried bullseye lanterns.  Still others, like the bicyclist above, carried a huge reflector.  A few carried small, dim electric lights that were barely visible.  The lights spanned all of the available colors.  And then there were the bicyclists who hadn’t even heard of the new law, and who had come as they always had, in the dark, without any lights whatsoever.

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

And it fell to Andy Cramm and two other policemen to inform all of the bicyclists in the nearly 600-acre Franklin Park of the new regulation and to evaluate their sometimes half-serious attempts to comply with it.  Cramm, who was stationed near the Blue Hill Avenue entrance that night, was said to have suffered the worst of the abuse.  Known for his jovial, approachable manner, he handled the pranksters with ‘kid gloves’, but promised to bring his ‘boxing gloves’ the next night after the regulation really went into effect.

As Andy Cramm stood in the middle of the path leading from Blue Hill Avenue, prankster bicyclists rode past him, taunting the new law, their bicycles bedecked with red, green, and blue lights, of every variety.  Efforts had clearly been made to be the bicyclist with the most ridiculous light set-up.  Some bicyclists carried the lights in their hands; some attached them to the rear of their bicycles.  Others affixed them to long poles and attached these to the fronts of their bikes.

One young couple, riding a tandem bicycle, hadn’t heard of the coming regulation and drove without a light, wheeling around Patrolman Andy Cramm as he kindly, but firmly berated them.  They eventually wheeled off into the darkness as the man called back: “Ta-ta Andy, I’ll see you in church.” Another man, attempting to make a good faith attempt to comply with the law, showed up at Franklin Park with a well-lit corncob pipe in his mouth.  A light?  Surely.  But, Patrolman Andy Cramm still told him the error of his ways.

Cramm and his two fellow patrolman eventually found the very darkest section of Franklin Park – at ‘Lovers’ Lane’, where they found many bicycles lacking lights – and riders.  None of the riders, had they even been found, were arrested, the patrolmen said.  To do so would leave their beats unprotected for too long, they reasoned.  An arrest cost the patrolmen about an hour, the time it took to bring the perpetrators to the police station and then to return to the park.

Said one of the men, “I never saw such carrying’s on in my life.  I suppose they wanted to make the most of the last night without lights.”


All in the Same Building: A Jail, Catholic School and later Condos

City Jail, Lowell Massachusetts – (Credit: Library of Congress)

Many in Lowell recall the vast granite and brick buildings at Thorndike’s intersection with Highland as the Keith Academy building.  Before Keith Academy, though, the buildings housed the Lowell Jail.  The Lowell Jail was the city’s second, replacing the first which had been located at the corner of Dutton and Cushing streets, and dated from 1838.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the new jail was designed and built.  Ninety cells were constructed for men, and 12 for women who were housed in the building’s northern wing.  The jail boasted two hospitals as well as four cells for solitary confinement.  A chapel was added a few decades later, around 1900.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Lowell jail housed some 124 inmates.  Most were men who were serving short-term sentences of less than three years.  Men who were convicted of more serious crimes were kept at the Cambridge Jail.

Jail Life

Entering the prison, new inmates were showered, given a prison uniform and underwear.  Some inmates worked in the kitchen.  Some worked in the boiler or engine rooms or as launderers.  Others, those deemed most trustworthy, worked in the barns, gardens, or with the chickens.  These inmates with greater liberties were known as “trusties”.

It was important to prison officials that inmates were kept reasonably busy, and that they weren’t allowed to be too idle or too overworked.  Each morning, the men showered with the soap and towel given to them by the jail.  Showers were followed by breakfast.  At breakfast, each inmate received a cup and plate when they passed by an opening that connected the line of inmates to the kitchen.  Through that opening, they received their food, however much they wanted, and took it back to their cells to eat their breakfasts.  The food, while wholesome was not fancy at all and was cooked “under the most sanitary procedures”.  The men were served desserts once weekly on Sundays.  Each evening, the men received enough tobacco for a smoke after supper.  All smoking ceased when lights went out at 8 o’clock.

English: Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Old post card showing the Lowell Jail

Women prisoners, though few, experienced a similar life.  They spent their days doing laundry, sweeping, and doing general housework throughout the jail.  Women were kept separate from men.  All inmates were kept on one of the jail’s three floors.  Men, who had earned the trust of prison officials, were allowed to share their cells with roommates.  The lowest floors of the jail housed the storerooms, kitchen, and laundry.

The Lowell Jail housed just two cells that were used for solitary confinement.  The most frequently used cell was used only a couple of times a year.  Most often, the cell was used for men who arrived to the prison and refused to acknowledge and accept the rules of the jail.  The solitary confinement jail cell contained a bed, which was basically a hard board, and a blanket.  The cell contained no window, and for ventilation, had a few small holes punched through the iron door.  And that was the ‘nice’ solitary confinement cell.  The other, never used, was in the facility’s basement, and described as a dungeon.  Padded cell were available to hold those who were suffering from ‘wild delusions’.  The need for this cell was quite frequent, apparently.  The padding, in long strips, stretched from floor to ceiling.

Jail Diversions

On each Sunday, Rev. N. W. Matthews, the jail chaplain, held a service in the chapel.  Inmates were obligated to attend.  The jail also had a library, which had about 500 books, in the areas of fiction, history, and travel.  All of the jail’s vegetables were grown in its garden, and tended by the inmates.  The vegetables were stored in the jail’s vegetable cellar.  Hothouses were also on the jail’s grounds.

Some inmates at the jail were vagrants too poor to afford their own housing during the cold winter months.  Knowing well the sentences for a long list of crimes, they plotted carefully to receive a sentence long enough to protect them from the winter.  Upon release, prisoners were given a suit of clothes and shoes, if they were too poor to afford their own.  Some returned, occasionally, looking for a night’s shelter.

After the Jail Closed 

Keith Academy

Keith Academy (Photo credit: uzi978)

The building remained a jail until 1919, when it was closed due to concerns related to rising fuel costs, as well as a lower incarceration rate brought on by the increase in men being recruited into the military to support US involvement in WWI.  When the jail closed, its nine remaining inmates were moved to the jail in Cambridge.

The building remained closed and unsold for seven years before it was purchased by the Catholic Church and converted into a boy’s preparatory school.  The remodeling did little to change the exterior, but completely gutted and remodeled the interior.  Keith Academy remained in the building until 1970.  Today, the building that formerly housed the Lowell Jail and Keith Academy had been divided into 56 condominium units and still stands on Lowell’s Thorndike Street.


A Train Accident in Lowell – 1928

Few people living today remember the 1920s – let alone the specifics of travel during the era.  Luckily, New England‘s commitment to preserving its history makes it relatively easy to envision the region as it appeared in decades past.  This becomes obvious during any ride through many of its cities.  The YouTube video below shows the Boston streetscape as it appeared in the 1920’s.  In watching it, you will see many familiar sights, and some sights, period cars and fashions, that have faded with the passage of time.

Like today, travel on the roads and rails of the 1920s carried its risks.  Auto and train accidents occurred and, at many times, were more serious than today’s accidents, given the era’s lack of safety equipment and regulations to minimize accidents and their impacts.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

At one o’clock during the afternoon of November 19, 1928, two passenger trains of the Boston & Maine railroad crashed head-on just beneath the Hale Street bridge.  Fifteen were taken to local emergency rooms at St. John’s, Lowell General, and the Lowell Corporation hospitals in ambulances, private cars, and trucks.

Three cars of the two trains derailed and overturned.  Train 10, which was travelling southbound to Boston from Woodsville, NH, had received a clear signal to enter the northbound track.  Moments later, as it was passing through the crossover and back onto its southbound track, a northbound express, Train 9, which had left Boston to travel to Woodsville struck the lead car on the 10 train.  The impact was so great, the southbound train overturned and derailed.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

By the next day, one man had died.  John J. Hart, a Boston & Maine brakeman on the southbound train, died on the night of the accident at Lowell General after a blood transfusion had failed to save him.  A Stoneham resident and a 25-year employee of the railroad, he left a wife, and two children.  Another brakeman on the same train, Frederick  H. Lucas, of 786 Merrimack Street, was in serious condition.  He survived, along with 10 others who were also seriously hurt.

B&M officials ultimately concluded that the train accident was a result of the failure of the engineer of the north-bound train to control his speed and obey a block signal that had been set against his train.

Like today, travel in the past carried its perils and was sometimes visited by tragedy.  Unlike today, many of the regulations and laws that now prevent accidents, or at least mitigate their effects when they occur, did not yet exist. Train accidents, like the Lowell accident exhibited in this post, occurred frequently, and sometimes resulted in fatalities that affected the lives of our ancestors.


A (true) story about Victorian Billerica Center, a church and its scandal

Familiar sites greet you as you step from the twenty-minute electric car ride on the Lowell & Suburban into the Billerica Center of 1896.  Like today, Town Common dominates the view, its Soldiers’ Monument and flagpole just now disappearing behind the late spring foliage.  The Unitarian church and Town Hall (now the Library) bookend today’s Masonic Hall building; in 1896, it houses Frederic Morey‘s General Store.  Looking north, past the Bennett Library and Fred Parker’s home, you see the Stearns Boarding House at River Street.      

You sidestep the ruts left by passing horse traffic on Bedford (now Concord) Road, brimming with stagnant water from yesterday’s rain.  Passing south by the future site of the Council of Aging building, you see instead two residential homes and, beyond that, the First Baptist Church.  Despite threatening clouds overhead, a crowd has gathered outside the church to learn the charges against its pastor, Reverend Samuel D. Anderson.  Reporters and onlookers wait under the 44-star flag on the Common and shuffle about the street, as they steal anxious glances at the sexton, seated on the church’s front porch, blocking its locked doors.  He ‘politely’ advises them to ‘view the beauties of nature outside while the meeting is in progress’.  Several, hoping to hear the proceedings inside, approach the church’s windows only to be disappointed to find them closed due to the cool weather.

The men, in bowlers, and the women, in long dresses with exaggerated sleeves, chat around McKinley’s recent presidential nomination and the supposed atrocities committed by Spanish troops in their Cuban territory.  Not much time passes, however, before conversation returns to the church and Rev. Anderson, who is inside defending himself against these hushed charges.  Rev. Anderson has been reticent to speak on the subject in the weeks leading up to this meeting, saying only that the “church is the proper body to consider reports about him”.

The townspeople, each with their own versions of the case, talk in hushed tones so that the press will not reveal Billerica’s matters to the wider readership.  Increasingly emboldened by the passage of time, however, the papers grow critical of the insular nature of the ‘peaceful, little village’,  ‘its trim housewives’ and their efforts to keep the ‘rude and outside public’ ignorant of the case and begin to speculate in print.  They hint that a fellow church member, a former deacon, has brought the charges months after the alleged event was said to have occurred.  The ex-deacon, they say, has ‘good reason’ to be upset as he is ‘a man of family’.   A seemingly misplaced sentence in one article informs that the man’s daughter had been an organist at the church.

When the 30 or so members leave the church meeting 90 minutes later, several report that the charges were not actually heard; instead, the opposing sides tried, unsuccessfully, to agree on a moderator.  When questioned later, both the ex-deacon and Rev. Anderson state that there is ‘nothing for publication’.  This disappoints the crowd outside and rumors emerge that the ex-deacon brought the charges to light now because he lost his position within the church to a black man.

Confronted by the press, the ex-deacon denies the rumors and tells his story, and says that he had been treated unfairly in the recent election of church officers.  He waited to present the charges, he says, because he learned of them only after his wife’s recent death.  His daughter, the charges do involve the former organist – the paper leaks, told him that his late wife knew, but did not tell him.  Now, knowing the complaint, he must present it to the church, and not to the police.

On July 3, 1896, after several weeks of speculation, the charges are finally read to the church and revealed publicly.  Once, approximately two years before, the pastor ‘acted improperly’ toward the man’s daughter.  Several witnesses are called.  Mrs. McCoy, a boarder at the ex-deacon’s house, states that the woman confided in her after the event and that she, in turn, confronted Rev. Anderson, who admitted his fault.  The woman herself testifies that she cannot remember the event’s actual date, but that it did indeed happen.  Then, Rev. Anderson testifies, stating that the woman had ‘gone absolutely silly over him’ and that she said she ‘would seek revenge if she did not get him’.  He admits the conversation with Mrs. McCoy, but denies admitting any fault.  A last parishioner, siding with Rev. Anderson, speculates that the ex-deacon was angry with Rev. Anderson after he had been dropped as the church deacon and Sunday school teacher, and replaced by a black man.

With the testimony concluded, the church votes and Rev. Anderson wins by a vote of 25-3.  He is invited to speak the following Sunday; the Sun reports and then speculates that he would not stay long in Billerica.  Indeed, he does not.  The town directory shows another pastor leading the church just five years later.  The church itself closed due to decreasing membership in 1923.  With time, the 1896 church scandal faded from memory; today, it provides an interesting insight into Billerica Center society during the Gilded Age, their views of the larger Greater Lowell community, and how that larger community viewed them.


The Story of Lowell’s Rogers Hall

Rogers Street,today, is one of Lowell‘s main gateways into the city, providing access from Tewksbury, the city’s southern neighbor.  Known by many outside Lowell simply as Route 38, the road has a long past that is deeply connected to Lowell’s history, and to the history of its Belvidere neighborhood especially.

Rogers Street gets its name from the Rogers family, who were early landowners in the area during Lowell’s first years.  Members of the Rogers family later went on to found the Rogers Hall School for Girls, a prestigious school that remained in operation for over 80 years before it closed in 1973.  Though its white-columned facade is its most familiar characteristic to Lowell residents, the school actually consisted of four buildings:  Rogers Hall, Rogers House, Rogers Cottage, and the Gymnasium.   The gymnasium was famous in its own right for its pool.  Built in 1922 in the basement of the gym, it was the first of its kind for a private girls’ secondary school in the country. 

Rogers Hall, circa 1919 – (Credit: History of Lowell and its People: Vol 2, Page 460: Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

The private girls’ high school accepted both day and boarding students, with the day students sharing in all of the privileges of boarders.  Boarders lived in the “Hall”, the original school building, or “the house”, a nearby Victorian mansion.  Girls participated in activities like hockey, basketball, swimming, glee club, and drama.  And they attended dances and proms at other schools and then invited the male students of other schools back to similar events at Rogers Hall.  An account linked below recalls a 1950 prom, told from the perspective of a visiting male student . . . who tells a rather truthful account that reminds us that alcohol use among prom-goers didn’t really emerge with ‘today’s kids’.

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that Rogers Hall was fading from the scene.  Even though the administration was tight-lipped about the conditions leading to the school’s imminent closure, it was obvious that its financial health had suffered for several years before its closure was announced.  Enrollment had fallen to 47 girls by 1973, less than half of its 100+ peak enrollment reached just 18 years before.

At the time of the 1860 US Census, the Rogers Family had lost its patriarch, Zadock Rogers, Sr. Emily and Elizabeth were among the youngest siblings.

The history of the school’s majestic buildings stretched back beyond the school’s 1892 founding.  Its main building, the Zadock Rogers House, dated to the 1830s when it began as part of a vast farm of almost 250 acres.   By 1880, Zadock Rogers and all but two of his children had died, leaving his considerable holdings to his two surviving daughters, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers.  Emily, who had attended the famous Miss Grant’s Girls’ School in Ipswich for two years during her youth, conceived of the idea to convert the Rogers home into a school after both sisters had died.  She died of pneumonia in 1884.  Carrying on the plans she had discussed with her sister, Elizabeth lived to realize their plan.  In 1892, just a few years before she died, Elizabeth donated her own home to the future school.

The sisters’ original plan had called for the donation of their estate to charity after both had died, but Elizabeth had a change of heart after meeting Mrs. Underhill, who had opened a girls’ school in Belvidere in 1891.  That school, lacking appropriate facilities to board students, was failing when Elizabeth began to look into founding Rogers Hall, while she was still alive.  She approached Mrs. Underhill, asking her to run the new school if Rogers were to provide the appropriate grounds.  Mrs. Underhill agreed, and remained the school’s first principal for its first 18 years.

By the time of the 1880 US Census, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers were the sole remaining members of the Rogers family. They began to discuss the future of their estate once they were gone.

The school was situated on about five acres of the original Rogers property.  In her last years, Elizabeth donated another 30 acres of land across the street from their farmhouse to the City in 1886; this later became Rogers Fort Hill Park.  The rest, over 200 acres, was sold for development and today forms the neighborhood surrounding the park and former school.  Elizabeth died in 1898 of pneumonia, just five months shy of her 80th birthday.

Rev. John M. Greene, pastor at the Eliot Church in Lowell, helped Elizabeth Rogers found the school.  He had also helped found Smith College.  In 1892, the school opened with 11 faculty and 50 students.  All but nine were day students.  The Rogers sisters lived a strict, austere life governed by Christian ideals, which they incorporated into the education provided to the students attending Rogers Hall.  Students lived by a rigid schedule, which left ample time for studying as well as rest.  Lights had to be put out by 9:30 each night.  Appearances were considered very important too.  Nightly, before formal dinners, staff would check the seams of students’ stockings for straightness.  Once dinner began, table manners were carefully monitored and evaluated.

In its earlier years, Rogers Hall was known for enforcing a strict, orderly lifestyle. Prior to admission into formal dinner each night, girls were inspected to ensure that they exhibited proper posture as well as straight seams on their stockings.

English: Collection of U.S. House of Represent...

Edith Nourse Rogers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rogers Hall produced many distinguished alumnae.  Among them, Anne Harvey Sexton, a 1947 graduate, was later awarded the Pulitzer price for poetry.  Dr. Mona Meehan went on to become the first female chief of staff appointed to a US hospital at St. John’s Hospital, now part of Saints Medical Center.  And, Edith Nourse Rogers, no relation to the founding Rogers family, served the Massachusetts Fifth District as a congresswoman for 35 years after her husband died in office in 1925.

At its peak enrollment in 1955, Rogers Hall had more than 100 students.  In its waning years, the percentage of day students soared, from 10% in 1968 to 50% in 1970, and 75% by 1973, when it closed.  Rising tuition prices and the advent of co-educational schools were both blamed for the school’s declining enrollment.  Today, Rogers Hall still sits on Lowell’s Rogers Street and serves as elderly housing.