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.
- Billerica, 1904: The Peddler’s Sons and Their Buried Treasure (forgottennewengland.com)