The Freedom Trail is one of the things that almost all those visiting Boston do at some point. It’s a two-and-a-half-mile trail that goes between Boston Common in downtown to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown. Along the way it goes by 16 different historical sites (churches, houses, monuments, cemeteries, meeting halls). When guests come to Boston and tell me they are only there for one or two days, I tell them to walk The Freedom Trail. It covers all the basics of Boston history and gives a good overview of the downtown area. While there are a few hills on the route, I’ve seen people of all levels of fitness walk it. You can spend an entire day if you choose to go into the locations and take a tour of each. Alternately, if you just want to walk the route and not stop anywhere, you can do it in as little as 90 minutes.
I’ve highlighted a few things in this blog post that you may miss but are within a block or less of the trail. While some are minor, they add to the flavor of the city, especially once you know their back story. I had so many places to write about that this will be the first of two parts about unique, interesting spots along The Freedom Trail.
Mary Dyer Statue
[To the right of the front gate of the Massachusetts State House is the General Hooker entrance. To the right of that is the statue of Mary Dyer.]
Dyer came to Massachusetts from England with her husband in 1634. She fell in with Anne Hutchinson who critiqued the Puritan religious leaders of Boston. Anne believed a lot of things that were in opposition to the leaders of the time. This includes holding Bible studies at her house and critiquing the pastors’ sermons.
In 1637 Hutchinson got kicked out of Boston for her beliefs. Mary and her family followed her to Rhode Island. At some point Mary moved to England and joined the Quaker faith. In England, the Quakers and Puritans were enemies. Quakers believed God could speak directly to people without clergy. They also didn’t believe in paying tithes.
At first in Boston there were no laws against Quakers, but they faced banishment from the colonies. Puritans then passed laws setting fines for those who entertained Quakers. Finally, they established the death penalty for any banished Quaker who returned to the colony.
Mary Dyer returned to Boston in 1658 from Rhode Island. She wished to spread the message of her Quaker beliefs. Instead, she went to jail for doing so. Her husband posted bond on the condition he take her out of Massachusetts. Yet Dyer returned in 1659, accompanied by William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson. All three Quakers went to jail. They went taken to the gallows at Boston Neck. Robinson hanged first, then Stevenson. Finally, it was Dyer’s turn. The noose went around her neck, but the Governor granted her a last-minute reprieve based on a request from her son, William.
She was again banished that year, 1659, but returned to Boston in 1660 and hanged for the “crime” of being a Quaker.
Out of this comes some religious freedom for Quakers, though. King Charles II of England hears of these hangings and orders the Puritans to stop. Puritans still punished Quakers but with far less harshness. In the years following, religious persecution lessened for Quakers and those who weren’t Puritans. This established a strong example in North American British Colonies of freedom of religion.
Omni Parker House
[After leaving the Granary Burying Ground, follow The Freedom Trail to your left. Across the street is the Omni Parker House. Enter through the Tremont Street doors.]
Harvey Parker, a local businessman, built the Omni Parker House in 1855. He saved up his pennies and created this hotel and named it the Parker House. At that time, it was five floors. Today it is fourteen. Over the years there were many additions. It was also demolished and reconstructed. The Parker House served as a stark contrast to the boarding rooms of the day. They were dirty, loud, and smelly, but the Parker House was beautiful. Today it is the oldest continually operating hotel in the US.
From the start, the Parker House was popular. Four gentlemen soon became regular attendees on Saturday afternoons. They appropriately called themselves the Saturday Club. They were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These men would discuss politics, literature, and religion. Their publisher, Ticknor & Fields, was down the block. The members of the club could thus get their earnings for the book sales and then stop here for a meal and drinks.
Many US Presidents have stayed here, too: Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. And of course, John F. Kennedy stayed here. JFK has many other connections here. The Omni Parker House is the site of his first public speech at the age of six. He called grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a former mayor, “the best grandfather a child ever had.” JFK announced his first run for Congress in the ballroom on the second floor in 1946. He also held his stag party here.
There have been a few well-known individuals who have worked here, too. From 1911 to 1913 one of the bakers was future Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In the 1940s one of the busboys was Malcolm Little. He would later be known under a different name: Malcolm X. From 1979 to 1981 the sous chef was Emeril Lagasse.
Some famous food began here, too: Parker House Rolls and the Boston Cream Pie.
Finally, there was a very famous criminal who stayed here eight days before he committed his well-known crime. He came to Boston to see his brother perform in a play next door at Tremont Temple. But while here he spent time at the shooting gallery doing some fancy trick shooting including over his shoulder and between his legs. Then he left here and went to Washington DC. A few days later he went to the theater again, but this time it was to shoot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. The staff was mortified to find out that John Wilkes Booth was in their midst a little more than a week before.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground
There are a few graves that are unique here and worth pointing out. Often visitors can miss the significance in the grave artwork. The first one to take note of is directly in front of you upon entering the burying ground.
The gravestone of Joseph Tapping (1678) is noteworthy for its elaborate carvings. Father Time, holding an hourglass, is behind Death, who holds a dart in his left hand and with his right puts out the candle standing on a globe. Death is trying to snuff out the life of the individual (represented by the candle). But Father Time is trying to hold him back, as though to say, “It’s not yet their time.” Included are the phrases Memento Mori, which means “Remember Death” and Fugit Hora meaning “Time Flies”.
Turn to your right. Rebecca Gerrish’s grave is a few yards down on the left and one row back. Her headstone has similar carvings like Tapping’s. Once again, Father Time is trying to stop Death from taking a life.
The monument to the Chevalier de St. Sauvier is at the end of the path. It’s the obelisk on the other side of the fence.
The Chevalier was the Chamberlain (house manager) to the brother of King Louis XVI of France. During the American Revolution, America received support from the French both in supplies and manpower. With Boston having gotten rid of the British early in the war, we had an open port. That was valuable since it provided a place for French ships to unload their goods and provide a place for sailors to rest. The Chevalier left his service for the King’s brother and joined the French Navy.
He received wounds during a scuffle between French sailors and some Americans in September 1778 and died 8 days later. To try and smooth things over with the French, whose help we very much needed, the Massachusetts General Court (our legislature at the time) agreed to pay for a monument. But it was never built. In 1905 the legislature once again brought up the issue but didn’t build it. Not until 1916 was the matter finally concluded and the monument seen here went up in 1917.
Old City Hall
The statue of the donkey in the courtyard has more of an interesting history than what gets noted in the plaque located here. While the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic party, it wasn’t put here precisely for that reason. The statue was the gift of Roger Webb, founder of the organization (Architectural Heritage Foundation) that purchased Old City Hall in 1969. He had it installed in 1998. He purchased the donkey in Italy for just under $10,000 in the early 1980s. He desired to have it serve the purpose of providing a respite for kids on the Freedom Trail. He masked it as being about the Democratic Party to make it more palatable to city officials. But he just liked the statue and he owned the land, so he had it installed. Read Webb’s full account of the tale here.
And of course, you’ll get to see some cool, off the beaten path places in Boston’s North End when you come on the Historic Boston Crime Tour! Book a tour today!