Post by Joanna on Jul 19, 2015 18:19:12 GMT -5
Macabre Tours of Concord, Plymouth and Salem
Tales of murder, mayhem and the macabre lurk around certain corners of Massachusetts and many don’t even know it. Tour guides in Concord, Plymouth and Salem aim to change that by offering sightseeing experiences that not only educate and entertain out-of-towners, but also provide different perspectives on history-rich destinations in our own backyards. The audience they’re attempting to reach is a sizable one: Salem and Plymouth each get more than a million visitors a year and Concord draws around 500,000. And then, of course, there are the folk who already live there. Want to know where the first Plymouth police officer died in the line of duty and how an angry crowd went after his killer? Where a gruesome murder occurred in Concord? Where Henry David Thoreau spent the night in jail? How a Salem man accused of witchcraft was pressed to death by stones? These are among the tidbits of historical trivia one can glean from today’s tours.
Jeff Page, who runs “Bewitched After Dark” walking tours in Salem, says whenever local residents take his two-hour excursion, they say: “Oh my God, I didn’t know any of that stuff.” Witch City is, just as his tour company’s slogan proclaims, “where the history is more frightening than fiction.” Page grew up in Salem and he’s also a modern witch, so as he shepherds visitors through his hometown, telling them about local landmarks and lore, he reminds them the “misconceptions people have about modern witches are similar to the misconceptions people had in 1692. Witches,” he says, “have no supernatural powers. ... We’re just like everyone else.”
Little-known stories are also featured in the Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s new “Underbelly Tour,” which focuses on “the strange, but true side of Plymouth’s past.” Alida V. Orzechowski, who owns Gatepost Tours, is on a similar mission in Concord. Her goal, she says, is for people to “see Concord the way you wouldn’t normally.” Gatepost offers a variety of excursions with catchy titles like “Rum & Revolution,” “Tavern Life,” “Ghosts in the Gloaming” and “Gateposts, Grapes and Graveyards.” Gatepost guides take groups to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and broach topics that folk of the Puritanical persuasion might consider taboo, such as the sex lives of 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife (“they were madly in love,” says Orzechowski), and whether Louisa May Alcott suffered from depression. Orzechowski hopes that discussing intimate details of these literary giants makes them “more accessible and memorable.” “The authors were real. ... They had real human experiences. ... They’re not just names on a dusty book cover,” says Orzechowski.
One Concord landmark she enjoys pointing out is a stone that marks the spot where Thoreau spent a night in jail in July 1846. According to the plaque, at the site, his overnight stay behind bars was “for refusing to recognize the right of the state to collect taxes from him in support of slavery – an episode made famous in his essay ‘Civil Disobedience.’” Another lesser-known site is a historic home on Lexington Road where Marshall Cox bludgeoned his wife with a hammer and stabbed her to death with an ice pick in 1948. And here’s an interesting fact: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is the final resting place of Anne Rainsford French Bush, who is believed to be the first woman in the United States to receive a driver’s license – in 1900.
Similar secrets from the past are revealed in Plymouth’s “Underbelly Tour.” The 90-minute walking tour was the brainchild of Joyce Poremski (above), senior docent for the Plymouth Antiquarian Society. “I wanted to do something different,” Poremski says, sharing stories of “things people don’t know, that are so interesting.” She went out of her way to document and verify every story behind each little-known landmark. One such site is where William E. Sturtevant was put to death in May 1875, after he was convicted of killing his two uncles and their housekeeper at their Halifax home and taking their money. The Boston Globe at the time called Sturtevant’s case “one of the most singular stories of crime recorded in the annals of the state of Massachusetts.” Poremski guides groups to a spot on Burial Hill that provided a perfect view of the gallows where Sturtevant drew his last breath. His execution was a grand occasion in Plymouth, she says. “You couldn’t get a hotel room in town.”
Another stop on the “Underbelly Tour” is Emerald Street, where Josiah Baxter became the first Plymouth police officer to die in the line of duty in May 1875. Baxter was shot and killed while trying to collar Christopher Stoddard, a ne’er-do-well who had been charged with drunkenness and had a warrant out for his arrest. The Globe described Stoddard as a “desperate character,” and reported that an angry mob helped force him out of his shanty and into police custody. The house “was nearly torn in pieces by the excited crowd,” according to The New York Times.
Another interesting location that Poremski points out to people is on Court Street, where unidentified human remains were discovered in 1907. According to the August 3, 1907, edition of the Old Colony Memorial newspaper, laborers on a construction project made the grim discovery while digging. They found human bones buried 8-feet-deep, including two skulls: one of an adult, the other a child about 5-years-old. Who they were and what happened to them is a mystery. “It’s like they were just forgotten,” Poremski says.
Donna D. Curtin, executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, credits Poremski with researching the stories behind the landmarks on the tour and making sure the information is documented and accurate. “It’s part of local history. It’s part of the life of the community,” Curtin contends. “She’s very smitten with Plymouth’s history. These are real stories, with a twist.”
Concord: “Gatepost Tours.” Prices and locations vary. (978) 399-8229 www.gateposttours.com
Plymouth: “Underbelly Tours.” Where: Groups depart from the Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s headquarters, the Hedge House Museum at 126 Water St. When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through September, and by appointment. Cost: $15; $10 for students and seniors. (508) 648-1741 www.plymouthantiquariansociety.org
Salem: “Bewitched After Dark." Where: Tours depart from the Bewitched in Salem store at 180 Essex St. When: Daily except Wednesdays, March through December; private tours are available year round. Cost: $20; children under 7 free. (978) 498-4061. www.bewitchedafterdark.com
Source: Emily Sweeney, The Boston Globe, July 19, 2015.