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October-ganza Day 18: Ghoulish Boston, part 1

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October 18, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

An instance is given of an empty tomb being taken possession of by some wandering vagrants, from which they terrified the neighborhood by the sound of midnight revelry. Human jackals have practised here their hateful calling, robbing the graves of their peaceful inhabitants.

– Samuel Adams Drake, Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1872)

0813e-114685_1The Ghouls of Boston (and elsewhere) are one of Lovecraft’s most iconic creations, but Boston had a ghoulish bent long before Grandpa Theobald put pent to paper. Here are a selection of ghoulish tidbits of Boston history that work the same creepy necrophagous ground as the ghouls.

Tunnels in the North End
Lovecraft did not invent the notion that there were secret tunnels under Boston’s North End, though the historical version was a little roomier and probably not made to the purpose of corpse theft. Most accounts of these tunnels describe them as used for smuggling, most famously one supposed to have been built by Capt. Thomas Gruchy (1719-1780?). After arriving in Boston in 1745, Gruchy became a respectable citizen, office holder in Boston, and benefactor of the Old North Church. Gruchy was a privateer and merchant (and possibly a pirate and smuggler, as the line between those careers primarily depended upon who you were pirating and whose taxes you avoided) whose who is said to have used it to bring up boats under his house in the north end. Even 19th century historians doubted this story as implausible, but were reluctant to dismiss it in order not to dispel a rare bit of romance in Boston’s past. Gruchy disappeared some point later, his estate and holding sold off to pay his creditors. Vampire-obsessed gamers take note – Gruchy’s flagship was called the Queen of Hungary.

Lost, Moved, and Unusual Burial Sites in Boston
Boston is an old town and there are plenty of antique cemeteries within it bounds. We’ve mentioned several in the past, so today we will focus on sites you might not have heard about.

  • Boston Neck Cemetery – While most people hear stories about executions held on Boston Common (there were a few probably), most of Boston’s took place on a gallows just outside of the town proper on the narrow isthmus, called the Boston Neck, where colonial Boston was connected to mainland Massachusetts.  Centuries of landfill have wiped away much of the wetland and shallow bay that girded old Boston and this once strategic point was lost.  Also lost is the burying ground that was created for the final disposition of those criminals and religious non-conformists killed there.  Somewhere around the junction of Washington and Dedham Streets  is a rude surprise for some future excavators.
  • Boston Quaker Cemetery – Contrary to its modern reputation for toleration and openness, Massachusetts once had very severe penalties for dissenters against the religious orthodoxy of the Puritan majority.  Quakers, long prohibited from Boston on pain of death, eventually gained a grudging acceptance under the law in the early 18th century, but even then they were prohibited from burying their dead at the established graveyards in Boston.  In 1709 Boston’s Quakers established a separate burying ground near their new meeting house on Congress Street.  For over a century members of this denomination were buried at this site just north of Post Office Square.  Within a century Boston’s Quaker community had declined and most departed Boston; the burying ground was exhumed in 1826 and the 111 bodies within were removed to the Quaker Cemetery in Lynn (and were again moved in 1924, this time to Salem).
  • Deer Island – During King Philips’ War, Natives who had converted to Christianity and were settled in the so-called “Praying Indian” towns (such as Natick), were considered untrustworthy and were forcibly relocated to Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where they suffered greatly due to lack of food and shelter. Many never left. In later years the Island was the site of Boston’s almshouse and after that a jail, both of which added to the number of bodies buried here. Long Island may have also been used for this purpose.
  • Rainsford Island – Mentioned previously in light of the alleged ‘Viking’ burial found there, this island served as the site of Boston’s quarantine hospital and had a substantial burying grounds for the main victims of assorted plagues that perished here.
  • Bird Island and Nixes’ Mate- As previously mentioned, pirates were gibbeted here and possibly buried.

A disturbing quote:

They drew nigh a large, shelving aperture in the earth, on one side of
the vault, and looking in saw a man, nearly naked; seated upon a heap of
excrement and filthy straw. A fragment of a penny candle was burning
dimly near him, which showed him to be literally daubed from head to
foot with the vilest filth. Before him lay the carcase of some animal
which had died from disease–it was swollen and green with putrefaction;
and oh, horrible! we sicken as we record the loathsome fact–the starved
wretch was ravenously devouring the carrion! Yes, with his finger nails,
long as vultures’ claws, he tore out the reeking entrails, and ate them
with the ferocity of the grave-robbing hyena! One of the spectators
spoke to him, but he only growled savagely, and continued his revolting
meal.

‘Oh, God!’ said the stranger, shuddering–‘this is horrible!’

‘Pooh!’ rejoined the boy–‘_that’s_ nothing at all to what you will see
if you have the courage and inclination to follow me wherever I shall
lead you, in these vaults.’

– George Thompson, City Crimes, or Life in New York and Boston (1849)

(As far as I know, Lovecraft never read this book.)

To be continued…

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