Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Can I Get A Boo?

There are many things I love about my fair city of Boston. At the risk of sounding like a Chamber of Commerce commercial, there's the architecture, championship caliber sports teams, the skyline (check out this photo I just found - I may have to purchase it), the culture, the weather, the accent, the surliness, the Big Dig, the old boys political corruption, the sense of entitlement among it's residents - whoops, going down the wrong track here, sorry - the excellent restaurants, the music scene, it's smallness and old world charm, and of course, the history.

I've always been somewhat enamored with the local history, but not to the extent that I study it for hours on end. Back in college, you know - when I actually
wrote, I was scribbling a short story period piece taking place in the late 1890's/early 1900's. It was full of death and blood and all sorts of disturbing topics, and really came out quite nicely considering I stole the idea from another author. Although I had no problem with the basic plot, I knew very little about the time frame in which the story was set. This required a lot of research and hunkering down at the Copley branch of the Boston Public Library (a fine construct of learning and information if ever there was one. Filled to the brim with books and journals of all sorts. Clean, well lit, and always smells of piss. Top notch.) I soon discovered that although I loved writing, I most certainly did NOT share the same enthusiasm for the research that occasionally had to accompany it. I simply did not have the patience to sift through endless tomes looking for obscure information, such as the relative distance between trees when originally planted on the Commonwealth Avenue Parkway (a small, but somewhat important part of the story.) After a bit, I got so bored with the whole process that I just made stuff up and hoped it would pass. It did - at least in this instance. Got a B+ as I recall, but part of it was actually deserved. You see, although I made stuff up, it was actually based on historical accounts and stories I had heard simply by growing up in the area. You know, things like Mrs. O'Leary's cow starting the big fire, and the great earthquake of 1898.

(Just kidding.)

Although I have a decent knowledge of the city's history, it's all stuff I've picked up in bits and pieces throughout my life. I've long known that I enjoyed the topic, but never really took advantage of the many ways in which to explore it - smelly library aside. So, when the opportunity to take a Ghosts & Graveyards tour appeared this past Monday, I quickly shelled out the $32 (yikes) admission and prepared myself for a deluge of tales about local serial killers and mischief makers. I love this kind of stuff. Hidden crypts, old gravestones at night, mysterious ghost stories - I mean yeah, I could just tune in to the Travel Channel and watch one of the eleventy million thousand "Ghosts of (insert tourist destination here)" shows, but this was far more authentic. Granted, Boston has absolutely no claim as a haunted city. None, whatsoever. Sure, there are plenty of ghostly tales and spooky goings on if you look hard enough, but compared to places like Edinburgh or New Orleans? Not even close. There are plenty of old graveyards however, like the Copps Hill and Old Granary burial grounds, and it is these that they pay special attention too, and which you get to tour in the dark. While driving to both places we were, rather typically, inundated with story after story of ghost sightings and infamous legends. Some highlights of the tour:

  • The original "boogeyman" was a Bostonian. He was a local lad named Jesse Pomeroy, who lived in the North End in the mid-1800's. Senor Pomeroy was unfortunate enough to have a cleft palate, and because of this, couldn't speak in a manner that anyone could make sense of. As a result, the local kids wound taunt him endlessly with chants of "Jesse, Jesse! Booga! Booga!" to make fun of the way he spoke. Somewhere along the line he went insane and killed a teenage girl, was sent to a prison for the criminally insane which he escaped from TWELVE times, each time going back to the North End. As a result, local mothers would tell their children, "Watch out for the Booga man. He may have escaped again."
  • Mary Sullivan (I think that was her name), one of the victims of the Boston strangler, was found dead in the apartment directly above the Paramount Diner on Charles Street - a diner I ate in at least once a week during college.
  • John Hancock has a headstone befitting the last four letters of his last name. It's huge, much like his signature, and is shaped like, well... you know.... One can only guess the founding father was trying to compensate for something.
  • The Old Granary burial ground is one of the most haunted spots in Boston, which admittedly, isn't saying much. Still, it's pretty spooky in the dark and this is where one of the tour guides, whom we had not seen previously, decided to jump up behind the group and scream loudly. I kicked him.
  • The original Angel of Death was also a Bostonian. A crazy woman (obviously) whose name I forget, she was a nurse in the geriatric ward at Mass General who had a habit of killing her elderly patients to "put them out of their misery" even if there was nothing noticeably wrong with them. She freely admitted to doing this, and maintained there was nothing at all wrong with it up until the day she was hung.
  • The tour guides made the group sing "America the Beautiful" outside the steps of the Park Street Church because that was the first place in the country it had ever been sung way back in 18 something-something. Passersby looked at us askance.
There were lots more stories told (Lizzie Borden, the black lady of George's Island, banshee wails, etc, etc...) that I wont get into here, but suffice to say I found the tour quite entertaining and worthwhile, even if it was a bit expensive. Sure, you could go to the library and probably find most of these tales in some local haunted history guidebook, but it's not quite the same. The fact that it was both autumn and Halloween season probably had something to do with the overall aesthetic, but that just made it a more enjoyable experience. Did I see any ghosts? Nope - and I was clearly on the lookout. But even so, I walk away knowing that if I ever get around to writing a book, I wont have to worry about some highbrow historian calling me on the fact that Paul Revere was not a colonial mortician with a penchant for homeopathic hallucinogens.

Maybe this whole research business isn't so bad after all.


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