This is the second part of some random locations along Boston’s Freedom Trail that you may miss if you weren’t aware of them. Thankfully, this post, as well as the one last week, will give you some insight into these places just off the beaten path.
Benjamin Franklin Birthplace
[Walk past the Old South Meeting House. Turn left on Milk Street. Stand across from 17 Milk Street. Above the second floor is a bust of Benjamin Franklin.]
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in a small house at this location. He lived here for 6 years with his father Josiah, mother Abiah, and his 16 siblings. Benjamin was the 15th and youngest son.
The current building that stands on 17 Milk Street is not the original where Franklin was born. Fire destroyed the building in 1811.
Starting in 1718 at the age of 12 Benjamin began as an apprentice in his brother James’s print shop. In 1721 James started The New-England Courant. It was a pricey paper, but people enjoyed it because of its humorous essays and literary content. Right from the start The Courant showed it wasn’t opposed to causing a stir, as it began during a smallpox epidemic that hit Boston in 1721. Inoculation was a radical idea. At the time, one of the leading pastors in Boston, Cotton Mather, came out in support of it. The Courant printed articles against him and this hare-brained idea.
Benjamin wanted to write for the paper, but his brother wouldn’t allow it. So, over the course of many months in 1722 Benjamin wrote 14 letters to his brother’s newspaper, under the pen name Silence Dogood. These letters often poked fun at the rigid Puritan values of the town. Given that Boston was fairly small at the time (approximately 12,000 residents) these letters became the talk of the town. In fact, this character of Silence Dogood, who Franklin wrote was a widow, received marriage proposals. Yet neither the public nor even James Franklin knew the identity of Dogood. The reason is that Benjamin would slide the letters under the door at the print shop over the course of many months in 1722.
When Benjamin told his brother it was he who wrote the letters, they had a falling out. It didn’t help that James treated Benjamin as a regular apprentice, not cutting him any slack. And at times James, who was nine years older than Benjamin, would beat his younger brother.
In 1723, at the age of 17, Ben Franklin broke his apprenticeship and left Boston.
[Walk down Washington Street, past the Old Corner Bookstore. On the right is Spring Lane. Walk to the plaque that reads “Here was the Great Spring which for more than two centuries gave water to the people of Boston.”]
When the Puritans sailed into Boston Harbor in 1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop, they set foot first in what is now Charlestown. This area had only brackish water, though, which made it unsuitable for building a town. A spring located near the tide line caused illness amongst hundreds of settlers upon their arrival.
Fortunately, Winthrop encountered Rev. William Blaxton (or Blackstone). He was an English immigrant who arrived in Weymouth in 1623 and migrated to Boston. He lived alone on the western slope of Beacon Hill. Rev. Blaxton told Winthrop the Shawmut Peninsula had excellent water and offered to share it with them. In fact, one meaning of the Indian name “Shawmut” is “place of clear waters.” This water was so important that the Puritans under Winthrop crossed the Mystic River and relocated on the Shawmut Peninsula.
[Starting from the Washington Street side of the Old State House, look back down Washington Street in the direction by which you came.]
In the heyday of print newspapers, as many as seventeen publications lined Washington Street, from here to the Old South Meeting House. Many are unfamiliar and forgotten. Others, such as the Boston Globe, continue to publish today (though the Globe headquarters are now on State Street). Other major papers included the Post; the Journal; the Herald; the Traveler; the Daily Advertiser, and many more.
The area around Newspaper Row was famous at the time for being a mix of folks. It included politicians, lawyers, newspapermen, cops, bootleggers, and of course, the public.
These few blocks were also utilized for promotions, publicity stunts, and advocacy. People stopped to read headlines or listen to updates, and proponents of various causes would try to get their attention. In 1909, for example, supporters of giving women the right to vote sold copies of their pro-suffrage newspaper. They also engaged people in conversation about suffrage. Another example occurred in 1914, when the Boston Post raised enough money to buy three new elephants for the Franklin Park Zoo. The newspaper then held a parade and school children got the chance to meet the elephants.
With the growing popularity of radio and TV in the 1950s, many of the newspapers went under or moved out of the expensive downtown area.
[As you walk down Union Street, you’ll see six tall glass pillars on your left.]
Is it weird to say that the Holocaust Memorial is one of my favorite things in Boston? It’s one of my must-see sites because it’s so well done. It’s emotional and educational at the same time. It’s designed very well, with six glass pillars representing the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. Yet, the site also recognizes the other groups persecuted by the Nazis. It gives facts along the ground between each pillar. There are also quotes from individuals who lived through that time. The subway line runs underneath the pillars. Steam escapes from the grates below each pillar, representing the gas chambers in which many persecuted people died. If it sounds macabre, it’s not; it’s sentimental without being hokey. It’s worth spending 10-15 minutes to contemplate one of the greatest tragedies in human history. And what we all have a responsibility to make sure never happens again.
[As you take a right on Marshall Street right after the Holocaust Memorial, about half a block down the street on the right is a street called Salt Lane.]
I’m asked if there is a street or part of Boston that remains from the time of the American Revolution. While there are buildings from that time, Salt Lane and its connecting streets will give you the best idea of the layout of Colonial Boston. Narrow streets with cobblestone (it’s not original though) that form no pattern show the layout of Colonial times. In fact, the waterfront was at one time butted right up against Salt Lane.
Thomas Hutchinson House
[When leaving North Square, take a right on Garden Court Street instead of heading down Prince Street.]
All that remains of former British Colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion is a plaque. But the story of what happened to his mansion in 1765 is pretty amazing.
Across the street from where Hutchinson once lived is the building where Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was born. She was the mother of future President John F. Kennedy, and matriarch of the Kennedy family.
[The skinny house is across from the main entrance to Copp’s Hill Cemetery.]
A skinny house (also known as a spite house) is a building made to irritate neighbors or to frustrate another party with land stakes. It may also block light or access to neighboring buildings. The origin of this skinny house is unclear. The legend says two brothers inherited land from their deceased father. One brother was away serving in the military during the Civil War and the other built a large home. He left the soldier brother only a shred of property that was certainly too tiny to build on. When the soldier brother returned, he found his inheritance depleted. He built the narrow house to spite his brother by blocking the sunlight and ruining his view. This is where the nickname “spite house” comes from.
This house is ten feet wide. At its narrowest point it is six feet; you can touch both walls. In total it’s 964 square feet of space. There is a total of five doors in the house. Floors separate rooms instead of doors. To get furniture into the house it may need dissembled and then reassembled once it’s inside. The house sold in 2017 for $900,000. When the family had a New Year’s Eve party for ten people, every time someone had to use the bathroom, everyone had to move to make a path.
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!