Category Archives: Boston

What was before – What once occupied the site of today’s Pru?

From the South End, the Prudential Center towers above the newer 111 Huntington Building (Photo via Fogster / Wikipedia, Public Domain Image)

Seen from any approach to Boston, the Prudential Tower has figured prominently into Boston’s skyline since its construction in the early 1960′s.  And, with 52 floors, the Pru stands as Boston’s second-tallest building, just behind the John Hancock Tower‘s sixty.  The Tower, completed in 1964, rises 749 feet, or, with its radio mast (pictured atop the building), 907 feet, making it the 77th tallest building in the United States.  The Pru contains some 1.2 million square feet of retail and commercial space, the highest observation deck in New England (that is currently open to the public), and a restaurant on its 52nd floor, Top of the Hub.

Announced in 1957, the plans for the new Prudential Center were seen as ‘a rebirth’ for a section of Boston that had been considered dated and in need of renovation.  Mayor Hynes announced that the construction, led by Prudential Insurance, proved that “the  city of Boston [was] about to be reborn.”  At the time, the new skyscraper promised to be the tallest in Boston, dwarfing the nearby John Hancock Mutual Life building, built by its rival and standing 26 stories.  (Hancock eventually got its revenge several years later when it constructed the slightly taller Hancock tower.)  Prudential planned to build a structure standing 45-50 stories for its new regional home office, citing that the construction as a good long-term investment in Boston.

The Prudential Tower is just one of twelve buildings that were planned to be built as part of the Prudential Center, which occupies 31 acres on a site bordered by Exeter Street on the east, Dalton Street on the west, Boylston Street on the north, Belvidere Street on the southwest, and Huntington Avenue on the southeast.

But, what stood on the site of the Prudential Center before its construction?  Twenty-eight acres came from land belonging to the Boston & Albany Railroad and used as a freight yard.  Another half-acre came from the Mother Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist.  The remaining two-and-a-half acres came from Mechanics Hall, described in 1957 with such words as “grim” and “dated”.

Mechanics Building, Huntington Avenue, Boston, and the Boston & Albany Freight Yard. Future Site of the Prudential Center. (Taken: 1920 - Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)

The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association built Mechanics Hall on Huntington Avenue in 1881.  During the Victorian era, it was one of the city’s largest halls with a seating capacity of 8,000 people and housed many of the day’s exhibitions and fairs.

Even by 1881, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association had deep roots in Boston, dating to the association’s founding in 1795.

The Association’s annual income went to providing relief to mechanics and their families who had fallen upon hard times.  Any funds left were used for loans to young mechanics and to establish schools and libraries to support the profession and further the education of apprentices.

Mechanics Hall covered an area of over 110,000 square feet.  Its frontage on Huntington Avenue was 600 feet; on West Newton Street, 300 feet.  Its tower, 90 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter, formed the eastern end of the structure.  The Hall’s two entrances, one from the sidewalk on Huntington Avenue and another from the carriage porch, were made from a combination of brick and stone.    Following the Hall westerly along Huntington Avenue, the next section after the tower was the administration building and then the exhibition hall, which boasted spacious galleries and a large basement.   Past the exhibition hall was the grand hall, which formed the west end of the building.  It was the grand hall that sat some 8,000 people, and which held the Hall’s famous Roosevelt organ.

Mechanic's Building, Interior - March 1911 (Photo from BPL Flickr Photostream)

The administration building had, on its first floor, offices.  Small dining rooms filled the second floor.  The third floor contained another large, ornate hall.  Within Mechanics Hall, exhibitions frequently showcased the latest innovations in the field of science and mechanics.  During its 19th-century heyday, visitors to the hall saw a strength-testing machine, railway electric safety signals, and a postal stamp cancellation machine.

The destruction of Mechanics Hall in 1958 and the subsequent construction of the Prudential Center were seen as supporting the urban renewal embraced by many mid-century Bostonians.  This same urban renewal scheme brought Boston such ‘modern’ architecture as Government Center and left a lasting mark on the city’s historic West End.  Today, the Prudential Center is a vibrant commercial and retail hub, frequented by many residents and visitors to the city.  Still, there’s a certain sense of loss that one considers when viewing photographs of Mechanics Hall, which once stood on the site, when Huntington Avenue was a much quieter place.

A quieter time on Boston's Huntington Avenue - 1897 - (Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)


The Immigrant Experience in 1892: New York’s Cholera Scare and its Effect on Boston

The emigrant ship Moravia crept into its dock in New York late on the night of August 30, 1892.  The ship was sent straight to quarantine.  On its ten-day voyage from Hamburg, Germany, 22 of its 358 passengers had been buried at sea, victims of Asiatic Cholera.  Two more passengers convalesced in the ship’s hospital, suffering from similar symptoms:  vomiting, nausea, and excessive diarrhea.  Those aboard ship did not know that cholera had been discovered in their departure city in the days after their ship left port. Consequently, they did suspect cholera was aboard ship with them as they travelled toward the United States.

Photograph of working class people crowding two decks of a transatlantic steamer, ca. 1907 (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

The Moravia set sail from Hamburg, Germany on August 17, 1892.  Less than a day later, a small boy aboard ship in steerage began suffering from severe and excessive diarrhea.  No one yet suspected Asiatic cholera.  Sickness among emigrant children in steerage was common on transatlantic steamships.  By the end of the second day, however, the little boy suffered convulsions of increasing severity and eventually became rigid and died.  Hours later, a nine-month-old girl succumbed to similar symptoms.  Those aboard ship did not comment much on the deaths of the youngsters as their bodies were sewn into weighted gunney sacks and cast into the Atlantic.  The deaths of five other children soon followed and the hospital filled.  Within days, more children began to develop diarrhea, cramps, and cold chills.  Their skin began to blacken from their illness.

The ship’s doctor, Dr. Israel, observed the sick infants and children aboard the ship, but dismissed their illnesses as the more common and non-epidemic cholera morbus instead of Asiatic Cholera.  The doctor blamed the children’s symptoms on the hot August weather and the tight conditions within steerage.  Dr. Israel called for all children to come on deck, thinking the open air and sun would help them.  The next day, though, two more children died, and, on the day after, one more perished.  Deaths were common aboard immigrant ships, especially among children; but when four more deaths occurred two days later, people began to grow nervous; two of the four deaths were adult passengers.  The rapid onset of death was also troubling to the passengers.  All of the deaths occurred within 48 hours after the first symptoms began to show; most died within 12 to 16 hours.

The Ship Manifest listing passengers aboard the Moravia: top of the first page.

As the Moravia approached New York toward the end of its journey, Joseph Roth, a pilot for the port of New York, boarded the Moravia carrying news of Asiatic Cholera’s spread into Hamburg, the ship’s origin.  He noted some sickness aboard ship, but was reassured by the Moravia’s medical personnel that all of it could be attributed to the non-epidemic cholera morbus.  The Moravia’s medical personnel learned from Roth that the spread of cholera into Hamburg had been announced.  The officers and passengers aboard the Moravia had no idea of the panic that had since surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic.

22 passengers died from cholera during the Moravia's voyage from Hamburg to New York; their causes of death were noted on the Moravia's Ship Manifest

Passengers began to grow alarmed as the ship was turned away from New York and toward quarantine.  The following morning, its passengers were removed from the ship to Hoffman Island, where they were bathed and their clothing was fumigated.  After that, they remained in quarantine while doctors waited to see if cholera would develop among them.

While the Moravia languished in quarantine, other steamers approached New York, the Rugia – three days behind with 300 passengers, the Normannia, five days behind that with 700 aboard, and the Scandia, which had left two days after the Normannia with nearly 900 aboard.  The US quickly determined that the country was at risk of a cholera outbreak.  The US Consul ordered the steamship lines to fumigate the baggage of all incoming passengers with sulphur fumes for no less than six hours.

Boston nervously listened as news reached its streets that cholera had been identified on board the Moravia, and that 22 cholera victims had been buried at sea.  Older residents recalled the city’s cholera outbreak of 1849, which resulted in 611 deaths.  Boston port officials had been enforcing stringent health regulations at immigration ports, singling out Russian steerage passengers, and enforcing the disinfection of all arriving vessels that contained them.  Disinfection was eventually extended to include all ships arriving from Havre and Hamburg too.

At Boston, all luggage belonging to immigrants was steam-heated to 230ºF for 20 minutes. Also, all immigrants were removed from the ships while it was washed and disinfected.  Any cholera patients among them were diverted to Gallop’s Island.  In the city, health precautions extended beyond those aimed at immigrants  Filth was removed from city street, cellars, and dirty tenement houses.  Plans were laid to prevent the spread of cholera to New England were it to surface in Canada.  In this case, health officials planned to stop all Canadian immigrants arriving by train, where they would be examined.  They, along with their clothes and belongings, would be disinfected.

Several days later, another ship, the Catalonia, arrived at Boston’s quarantine station at one o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 12, 1892.  One thousand passengers were aboard, including 700 immigrants.  Even though an order had been issued prohibiting the transport of immigrants, the order had taken effect after the Catalonia had sailed.  Bostonians nervously read the 692 of the steerage passengers came from Europe, and that some of these likely hailed from Hamburg.  Health officials watched the steamer as it approached Boston and noted no signs of cholera.  Soon, a port physician boarded and carefully examined steerage passengers.  Still, no traces of cholera were detected.  The ship was eventually diverted to Gallop’s Island where immigrant passengers, 30 passengers from second class included, were administered a scrubbing as part of the disinfection procedures.  At Gallop’s Island, the Catalonia was delayed for two or three days before it was allowed to dock.  Non-immigrant passengers from the ship’s first- and second-class cabins were brought to Boston a few days earlier on tug boats.

New hospital building, Ellis Island; quarantine buildings on Swinburn Island and Hoffman Island (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

As September progressed, officials reassured the public that the cooler weather would slow the spread of cholera.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia and the other infected ships remained under quarantine at the Swinburne and Hoffman Island hospitals.  By September 12, deaths from cholera had slowed considerably.  The Moravia had not had a new case in nearly a week.  Officials vowed to hold the infected ships away from the city for at least ten more days, which soothed the fears of those in New York and beyond of the immigrants carrying cholera to their wharves and into their streets.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia did not reach dry land until September 22, 1892, over three weeks after they had first approached New York, and over a month since they had left Hamburg.


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s North Union Station, 1895

A view of Boston's North Union Station on Causeway Street, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Any discussion on “Lost Boston” has to include Boston’s North Union Station, which once stood on Causeway Street, on the current site of the TD Garden (better known locally as “the Boston Garden” and by some as the “Fleet Center”).  North Union Station, which consolidated the operations of four different railroads into one building, was completed in 1893  and demolished in 1928.  Traffic through Boston’s North Union Station came mostly from Boston’s north and northeastern suburbs, although some traffic also originated from central and western Massachusetts, and even further afield from places like Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada.  Soon after it opened, the Boston Sunday Globe stated that a number of people equal to the then-population of the United States (62.6 million) passed through its entrance once in every two years.

Boston, Massachusetts. Boston and Lowell Railr...

Lowell Station, Image by Boston Public Library via Flickr

North Union Station, actually three adjoined buildings, was completed in 1893 and included the former Boston & Lowell Station, which dated from 1873 and was known as just ‘Lowell Station’ to the locals.  Lowell Station, the left-most building in the photograph above (almost lost in the haze), had over 200 feet of frontage on Causeway Street and was 700 feet long.  Built by General Stark, it replaced an even earlier station, the first on the location, which dated from 1857.  The Lowell Station housed the head offices of the railroad and boasted some of the largest and most accommodating waiting rooms in the country.  Opened in December 1873, the Lowell Station quickly became known, simultaneously, as one of the finest stations in the country, and  as “Stark’s Folly”; many Bostonians thought it too grand and expensive for Boston’s needs.  Even after its absorption into the larger North Union Station, Lowell Station remained somewhat distinct, retaining its own waiting rooms and toilets.  The station also housed the inward baggage room.

On the other end of North Union Station was the “office tower” (the right-most and closest building in the photograph above).  The top two stories of the structure served mostly as offices.  Its ground floor contained the outward baggage room and space that had been leased to the express companies.  The Causeway Street frontage of the building included a 45-foot tower; the reminder of the building measured over 300 feet in length.

North Union Station, Boston, Mass.

Boston's North Union Station - Main Entrance, via Boston Architectural Club Catalog, via Wikimedia Commons

Connecting them was a central building sporting a rather elaborate set of stone columns, which had been designed by the architecture firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, the same firm that designed Boston’s first skyscraper, the Ames Building, which also dated to 1893.  In other photographs, the name “Union Station” appears, prominently carved above its entrance.  Connecting these three main buildings were two corridor structures, known as ‘midways’.  The view from the interior of one of the midways appears below:

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

The Causeway Street facade of the entirety of North Union Station spanned 586 feet and boasted as its main entrance an archway of cut granite some 80 feet wide and 70 feet high.  Upon entering North Union Station through the arch, one would find the main waiting area, some 98 feet square, and filled with benches (or settees, as they were called) that could accommodate several hundred people.  The men’s and women’s lavatories were provided on each end of the waiting area.  Each boasted Italian marble, the latest innovations in plumbing, and were quite spacious – they could accommodate nearly 100 people.  To the right of the waiting room was the parcel room, where up to 1000 pieces of luggage could be checked at once.  To the left stood the ticket office, an elaborate system of sorting, processing and selling railroad tickets for the B&M railroad as well as other railroad companies.  The ticketing system was so large and complex that it took 18 men to run it in 1894.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station, Boston, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

The scene outside Boston’s North Union Station wasn’t entirely unlike today’s.  Foot traffic and vehicle traffic clogged Causeway Street and pedestrians needed to take care crossing the street to catch their train or meet their friends arriving from points north and west of the city.  The scene above, from the Detroit Publishing Company’s photograph collection, dates from 1895. To arrive to, or depart from, North Union Station most relied on public transportation, i.e., electric cars, if they lived beyond a comfortable walking distance.  The station’s hack stand was designed so that its waiting area was under the station’s roof, to protect waiting travelers from the elements, a luxury that was much appreciated by Boston’s masses.

Of course, if you were “of means”, you might arrive in your own personal horse-drawn buggy, such as this gentleman appears to be doing:

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station - Gentleman arriving, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like today, people rushed to and from Boston’s North Union Station.  The station’s train shed was said to be the largest in the world, covering nearly 6 acres and boasting over 20 tracks.

Union Station, Boston - 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Below, passengers disembark from an electric car outside Boston’s North Union Station.  The station had an extensive newsstand just inside the main entrance to the left, as well as its own barber shop and restaurant.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals , via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, Boston’s North Union Station stood only for a few decades before it was demolished and replaced with the Boston Garden (and a new North Station) in 1928.  The Boston Garden, itself demolished in 1997, and replaced by the TD Garden, saw many celebrities perform under its roof, including The Beatles (1964), James Brown (1968), the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead (multiple times).  The Garden also saw many championship seasons from the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.  Today, the TD Garden stands at the site, with yet another North Station underneath.   Even in its day, the North Union Station had its detractors, who claimed the building’s beauty was too extravagant and came at too great a price.  Others claimed its incorporation of three very different buildings was incongruous, and well, just plain ugly.  Seen today, more than 80 years after its demolition, North Union Station is seen in a much kinder light.  It becomes a part of the lore of “Lost Boston” and elicits a certain sense of nostalgia for a part of Boston that no longer exists.


The Ebbing Excitement Surrounding the Opening of Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, 1897

Have you visited Boston?  Do you have ancestors who lived or visited here?  Since you’re reading a blog called Forgotten New England, chances are good that you, or someone on a branch of your family tree, has ridden Boston’s subway.  Boston’s subway, or ‘the T’ as its locally known, makes a very walkable city even more accessible.  The T is also the first, and oldest, subway system in the United States.

Much fanfare heralded the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, now part of the T’s Green Line route, during the months leading up to its opening on September 1, 1897.  Prior to its opening, Tremont Street had been so thick with horsecars and foot traffic that residents of the city quipped that you could make better time walking across the tops of the electric cars and carriages than by trying your luck battling elbows, feet and horse traffic at street level.  Residents of Boston were justifiably excited by the prospect of pushing all of that mess underground.

A scene showing the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, in 1896 (via Wikimedia Commons)

From the Boston Daily Globe, Front Page, September 3, 1897

Soon after the Tremont Street Subway opened, the novelty of this change to the daily commute quick wore off.

And that excitement appears to have lasted . . . one day.  Like anything, the novelty soon wore off.  As early as September 3 – two days after the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, a Boston Daily Globe reporter wrote that the number of passengers had already dropped on the subway.  This development wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  The crowds of curious “pleasure riders” hitching rides on the new subway cars had already begun to chafe at the evening rush-hour commuters just wanting to get home.

By the afternoon rush of the second full day of subway operations, the Boston Globe writer reported that subway cars coming through the Park Street station actually had room for people wishing to get on, and get off.

Perhaps hastening this “cooling off” in pleasure riding interest in Boston’s subway system were the cooling temperatures outside.  As early September greeted Boston in 1897, temperatures dipped both outside, and in Boston’s subway system, which he described as ‘chilly’.

Oddly, another reason might have been the system’s exit turnstiles, which were called out as one of the system’s greatest inconveniences.  Although they stood some seven or eight feet in height, no one could figure out their purpose.  Fares were paid to conductors aboard the subway cars or through tickets that had already been purchased.  The only purpose that the turnstiles seemed to serve, riders guessed, was to slow people’s exit from the subway, and to make the platforms even more crowded.  With their considerable height, they obstructed the view past the exit and apparently resulted in some passengers being struck in the face by the revolving bars as they struggled to escape.  In addition, at the Boylston Street station, the turnstiles at the Tremont Street side reached almost to the edge of the platform, leaving little room for passengers to negotiate their exit, as others were jockeying for prime positions for boarding the next incoming subway car.

By Boston Daily Globe (Sign at Park Street station) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A copy of a newspaper page from the day of the Tremont Street Subway's opening, (via Wikimedia Commons)

One other confusion persisted into the first week of subway operations.  No one seemed to understand where the subway cars stopped on each platform.  Riders waiting at the Park Street station lined the entire platform, not understanding that the incoming subway cars pulled as far ahead as possible.  As the slowing cars pulled ahead of the waiting passengers, they then scurried down the platform to board their cars, not ‘paying much attention to any who happened to be standing in their way.’

Maybe the subway experience of 1897 isn’t so much different from that of a modern-day commute.  Boston’s Green Line route, even today, still retains a lot of its Victorian-era charm – some intentionally, through the placement of posters showing scenes of the Victorian-era city, and some not so intentionally, like the stop-and-go lurching of an electric car trolley that likely feels quite similar to what our ancestors experienced for the first time, more than a century ago, under the streets of Boston.

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Worries of the Past: Smallpox and Boston’s Epidemic of 1872

A smallpox inoculation sign from 1801, via Wikipedia Commons

First, flu-like symptoms emerge -fever, aches, pains, nausea.  Exhaustion soon follows.  It’s not until a few days later when the telltale, flat, red spots appear about the face, hands, and arms.  The spots evolve into pus-filled blisters that scab first and then fall off, to reveal deep, pitted scars.  Smallpox was one of history’s most dreaded diseases, not only for its tendency to produce significant and deep scarring to victims’ faces, but also for its ability to cause blindness, or even worse, death.

Smallpox deaths in Boston, 1811-1873

Fear of smallpox never lurked far from the worries of 19th-century Bostonians.  Older folks still spoke of an epidemic that had struck Boston during 1721 and 1722 and killed 844, which was then more than 7% of the population.  The chart at right, from a February 1881 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal shows the level of smallpox contagion in Boston during most of the 19th century.  During the century’s first decades, after the first smallpox vaccinations were introduced in 1800, smallpox all but disappeared from Boston.  From 1839 forward, the presence of smallpox remained more or less constant in the city.  The epidemic that everyone talked about, though, dwarfed all the others and even rivaled the earlier outbreak of 1721.  The smallpox epidemic of 1872 claimed over 1,000 lives before it finally abated in the first weeks of 1874.

During the 1872 epidemic, smallpox victims, or even those suspected of having smallpox, were brought, sometimes against their will, to Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor.  During the epidemic, those who could not get to the island or afford care there, were re-directed to the city’s smallpox hospital on Albany Street.  The hospital, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of smallpox infections, quickly found its 30-patient capacity stretched to 48.  Charges soon emerged that those admitted to the Boston Smallpox Hospital on Albany Street did not receive proper care or food and that they were forced to endure substandard conditions.  The testimony provided by patients and medical staff has been preserved and provides some interesting insights into the experiences of 19th-century hospital patients.

The main complaint emerging from the hearings seems to have been the casualness around the enforcement of the smallpox quarantine.  Several hospital patients claimed seeing the hospital’s gates open at different times of the day.  Others reported seeing smallpox patients come in very close contact with women who came into the hospital yard to collect rags or boys who had come to collect nails.  Several saw sailors near the hospital’s gates.  Nearly all could not recall ever seeing the red flag (indicating smallpox contagion) hung at the gates to warn passersby and visitors of the smallpox infection inside.

Late 19th century sanitary water closet

Another complaint involved the hospital’s water closet, or bathroom/restroom as we call it today.  Nearly all patients complained that the water closets were filthy and that most did not work.  Administrators did acknowledge that toilets did not always work and explained the difficulty in finding plumbers who were willing to enter the hospital, make the repairs, and risk infection.  Nevertheless, the stench from some water closets was so oppressive that several patients took it upon themselves to clean the water closets.

Lastly, many patients complained of the food, claiming that there wasn’t enough, or that it was of poor quality.  Several claimed that eggs or meat that had been served them had gone bad, and in the case of meat, contained maggots.

In the end, the Smallpox Hospital was closed in September 1872, and patients were once again cared for either in the facilities on Gallop’s Island or in their own homes.  Claims charging inadequate food or insufficient care were never substantiated.  However, the claims that the hospital was overcrowded and lacked enough help were found to be true.  The committee investigating the claims did decide that more nurses were needed, but also considered that patients, when sufficiently healthy, were expected to patch in too.  Regarding the broken toilets, the committee did find that it was indeed broken, but sympathized with the hospital, which claimed, probably quite truthfully, that no one would enter the hospital to fix them because they were afraid of being infected with smallpox themselves.

No effective treatment was ever discovered for smallpox, a disease that killed up to 30% of those who were infected, and pockmarked up to 80% of its survivors – most often on the face.  In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a successful global eradication program, which led to the world’s last case of naturally-occurring smallpox, in 1977.


1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

From The Boston Globe; 19 October 1918, Pg. 7

During the first weeks of the Epidemic, almost 4,000 people died in Boston as a result of the Spanish Flu.

As summer became autumn in 1918, the Spanish Flu struck hard at the eastern shores of New England.  Cases emerged in Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Gloucester and at Camp Devens.  By mid-September, 21 flu-related deaths were reported in Boston alone.  By October 1, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and the city was experiencing deaths at a rate of about 200 a day.  Doctors, health officials, and scientists rushed to control and find a treatment for the influenza epidemic as they watched victims die within days, or even hours, of the appearance of their first symptoms.

John Owen, my grandfather, was just 17 years old and living in Lawrence, Massachusetts at the time.  He remembered seeing the wagons come around the streets of Lawrence to collect the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the flu.  As he explained it, the horse-drawn wagons would approach from the end of the street and collect bodies placed on the sidewalks, or carried out from houses.  Coffins became scarce at the height of the epidemic and workers were forced to pile the bodies one atop the next, and carry them to mass graves.

By Uncredited photographer for St. Louis Post Dispatch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

From National Archives and Records Administration

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.

As influenza cases and death tolls mounted in Boston and statewide, panic emerged.  Misinformation and fear abounded.  What were the symptoms of the flu?  How could it be distinguished from the common cold?  The US Public Health Service soon released a pamphlet, informing the public that the Spanish Flu came on suddenly, striking the victim with pain and soreness throughout his body, especially in the eyes, ears, back and head.  Some experienced dizziness and nausea; most suffered fevers as high as 104°F that lasted as long as four days.  The US Public Heath Service advised that flu sufferers looked sick and likely would have bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and a cough.

From The Lowell Sun, 27 December 1918, pg. 11

As the flu season progressed, advice to those nervous about getting sick was offered from many sources.

Beyond the pamphlets, schools became a means of disseminating information about the disease to children and their families.  During the height of the epidemic, the National School Boards Association advised the worried public to avoid sick people, crowds, and badly ventilated places, to keep warm, and to change from wet clothes quickly.  This is familiar advice, even for us today.  Local papers took it a step further, perhaps sensationalizing their advice somewhat, in order to attract more readers.

To slow the spread of the disease, public buildings, schools included, in Lawrence and many other New England cities and towns were closed.  Haverhill, Massachusetts went a step further and prohibited its schoolchildren from attending motion picture houses or other public meetings during the epidemic.  In Marblehead, Massachusetts, the high school building was converted into a hospital by the Board of Health in October 1918.  Boston’s Committee of Public Safety asked school teachers to attend flu victims; most did as schools were closed indefinitely.

From: CDC, released into public domain

This May 29, 1919 photograph showed rows of tents that had been set up on a lawn at Emery Hill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated.

During the epidemic, fresh air was thought paramount in protecting against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were set up in many Massachusetts cities and towns to treat the infected.  The first opened on Brookline’s Corey Hill on September 9, 1918.  Gloucester, Ipswich, Brockton, Waltham, Haverhill, Springfield, and Barre soon followed.  My grandfather would have also seen Lawrence open its own emergency camp for flu victims from the city, as well as cases from the neighboring communities of Methuen, Andover, and North Andover.  Controversy surrounded the opening of the Lawrence camp, named Emery Hill, which had been a large dairy farm that supplied milk to nearby residents.  Though the residents objected loudly to Lawrence’s Mayor Hurley; in the end, Lawrence city officials protested that they had little say in the matter.  They maintained that the state had chosen the site and was running the hospital.  By October 12, 1918, the camp had 150 patients.

In the end, more than one in every four people in the US suffered some form of the Spanish Flu, and within one year, the average life expectancy for a US citizen was shortened by 12 years.   Worldwide, more than 50 million people died – more than three times the number of lives claimed by World War I.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is frequently overlooked in discussions about the history of the United States.  Does your family have a story about its experiences with the epidemic?  Did you lose any family members to it?


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, 1886

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Faneuil Hall - circa 1903, via Wikipedia Commons

If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, you would encounter a large assortment of the city’s vegetable and meat merchants, selling their wares from the many wagons crowding the scene.  Today, although these merchants have long since moved on to other areas of the city, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still a great place for people-watching.  Traversing its brick walkways, you’ll see commuters rushing for trains, tourists following the Freedom Trail, shoppers carrying bundles, and even street performers entertaining passersby.  But, even amidst so many reminders of present-day Bostonian life, the history of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still very evident.

Faneuil Hall, first built in 1742, has served as a marketplace since its beginnings and has witnessed speeches by historical figures such as Samuel Adams and James Otis as well as more recent lawmakers like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who declared his candidacy for president there in 1979.  Quincy Market, built a generation later in the mid-1820s, accommodated the  growing demand for shop space on what was then Boston’s waterfront, and provided an indoor shopping pavilion for shoppers and merchants seeking staples like eggs, cheese, and produce.  Butchers selling meat began coming soon after.  Evidence has been found that the butchering occurred on site.

While researching posts for this blog, I found an article in an 1886 edition of the Boston Daily Globe that vibrantly captured life at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, in Boston’s Victorian era.  When looking through old newspapers, it’s rare to find such a vibrant first-hand account as the one below that shows Boston scenes that transpired so long ago.  What follows is a transcription of that account, from the pages of the Boston Daily Globe, November 25, 1886, Page 4:

Great Fun Buying Fowl.

The Market Jammed with Thanksgiving Shoppers – Sights Seen and Bits of Curious Conversation Overheard.

uincy_Market,_Boston,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views_2

Quincy Market, Boston, via Wikipedia Commons

She had come to the market with her mamma the afternoon before Thanksgiving to buy a turkey, and for the want of anything else to do for a minute jumped upon some scales that stood empty on the sidewalk just back of the Cradle of Liberty.  She couldn’t manage the weights very well; but a rosy-cheeked, auburn-whiskered marketman, who doubtless looks as handsome as any in his Sunday clothes, threw himself into the breach.  The young woman weighed 132 pounds.

“That isn’t very much, ” said the marketman, becoming acquainted in spite of himself.  “I’ve got a daughter at home who is only 14, and she weighs 140.”

But 132 wasn’t bad, for the daughter of the old lady who was buying a turkey, besides being a favorite by her very looks and manner, was short and shapely.  She must have been solid, too.

There are a hundred funny things at the market the day before Thanksgiving, because the stalls of Faneuil Hall and Quincy market and the narrow alleys between the rough counters improvised in the streets are crowded from early morning till late at night.  The dealers are prepared for business.  They not only stock the stalls fully, but buy loads of fowl that are brought in from the country and get men to sell them on commission at the stands.  Perhaps twenty rows of these extend almost to the south sidewalk of South Market street, and perhaps 200 men, eager for a trade, stand by.  A thousand people throng around and purchase, if they can decide to do so.

It is an odd sort of person who doesn’t buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Here are a tall young man and a tall young woman, who looks like his wife, taking a lesson in social economy together.  They depend a good deal on the honesty of the man who is extolling the youth and beauty of his birds.  Here is a grey-haired matron who feels the breastbone of a turkey over with her black kid gloves to see if it is as soft as indifferently as if they could be bought for seventeen cents a pair.  Here is a stylish young maiden with a music roll on one arm and

A Turkey, or the Legs of One, 

sticking up, like the handle of a parasol, over the opposite shoulder.  Here is a fat woman, dressed in a shawl that must have been brought from the old country, looking the counters over again to make sure that she had struck a good bargain; and little Mamie, looking satisfied in spite of the big load of fowl she is carrying, trudges along by her side and tries not to get lost till after Thanksgiving.  Here is a policeman, majestic and self-possessed, paying for his dinner like other people out of a very ordinary-looking pocket-book; for why should the spirit of mortal be proud in a crowd like this?  Here is a large-eyed, dark-skinned Italian boy ruinously selling thirty-six bundles of matches for twelve cents; at the risk, too, of seeming out of place.  Here is a little man selling roasted chestnuts out of measures which have their inside bottoms half way up the sides.  Here is a slight, pale-faced dame, in gaudy plush bonnet and ill-fitting threadbare cloak, making her way homeward as well as she can with a live duck under each arm.  Here is General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, inquiring the price of turkeys at a stand where they are thirteen cents a pound, and passing sedately on.

A well-kept elderly gentleman, who seemed to know a great deal, stood on the steps of Quincy Market yesterday and surveyed the crowd.  “There will be more of them here later,” said he, “when they get out of work.  These commission men have been here since 4 or 5 in the morning.  They sell for these fellows inside.  A good many seem to think they get better bargains outside.  Well, they do get fowl cheaper, but they get it poorer.”

“Oh, they are selling all the way from ninepence to eighteen and twenty cents a pound.  These fellows don’t make more than 2 per cent profit on the whole, though a good seller will clear $10 or $12 or even $20 a day.  It’s lively, though.  I suppose they will be all sold out by 9 o’clock.  Or, if there are some left, they go to the cold storage to be sold in sixty days, perhaps, or three months, at 4 or 5 cents a pound, for Sunday dinners at the boarding-houses or cheap hotels.  There isn’t any waste.”

A GLOBE young man did not loaf for half an hour in the crowd without catching some curious bits of conversation.

Artist:  Jean Béraud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An 1880's Street Scene, Showing Period Fashions

Mrs. McCarty and Mrs. McIntyre

who both live over in the seventh ward, came face to face in the middle of Quincy Hall, dropped their turkeys in the sawdust, and shook hands.  “Well, now,” says Mrs. McCarty, “ain’t you a stranger.  Ain’t ye niver coming over?”  “Sure,” says Mrs. McIntyre, “I couldn’t tell where ye lived no more than a fool ; but Jamesie he told me it was number 15.  Has the old man got work, thin?”  “Faith, he has,” says Mrs. McCarty, “and the children won’t go hungry tomorrer.”

A rustic couple came down the hall looking this way and that, but faithfully keeping hold of hands.  A fat, good-natured fellow selling bologna sausage in one of the stalls saw them, and said to his companion in arms who was cutting up a rib:  “He needn’t cling to her so; nobody in her wants her.”

One of the marketmen outside very much hurt the feelings of a fine old Irish gentleman by talking to another customer because he wasn’t very quick to purchase.  “These are all young, as you can see, and you can’t do better than fourteen cents.”  remarked the marketman.  “I find no fault with your fowl, my friend,” said the old fellow.  “I know they were born yesterday; but if you don’t sell them cheaper now you will have to before night.  I don’t believe that bird weighs twelve pounds anyhow.”  “Oh, yes,” put in a neighboring marketman, in a low tone; “he’s all right with the scales.  I’ve been watching him all day.”

A sad-eyed lady approached a young man who rested for a moment on the big stone steps.  “Can you tell me, sir,” said she, “how much a 9¼ lb. turkey would come to at fourteen cents a pound?  I think he charged me too much.  But I was so confused with looking around that I couldn’t think.  I could do it out in a minute if I was home.”

“Let’s see,” replied the young man, slowly, “9¼ lbs. at 14 cents a pound.  Nine times 10 would be 90, and 9 times 4 would be 36; that’s $1.26.  Fourteen times 1/4 would be 3½; that’s 1.29½.  How much did he charge you?”

“He charged me $1.32,” said the woman not very disgustedly; “but that ain’t much.  I guess he can have it,” and she took her basket up and went away.

Two portly, well-to-do gentlemen, both on Thanksgiving errands, met near the door of Faneuil Hall.  One had made a purchase.  “That’s a good turkey,” said he proudly, “and it only cost ninepence a pound.  “Why don’t you try this man?”

“I think I will later,” replied the other.  “Er – we lost Dr. Withrow, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” said the first, “I guess it’s all right; though I can’t help thinking it would have been better if he had come right out and said in the first place that he’d better go.”

“Yes, yes,” answered the second again; “he’s done right.  Here’s this row coming on and there was a tempting offer.  It’s all right.”

“How your daughter has grown,” exclaimed the first as he hurried away.  The daughter was indeed a bouncing girl of 8.