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I see dead people
The past lives on at the area’s countless historic sites

1. Cotton Mather, 2. Anne Bradstreet, 3. John Wilkes Booth, 4. Charles Dickens, 5. Philis Wheatley, 6. Eugene O'Neill, 7. Lewis Latimer, 8. William Lloyd Garrison, 9. Charles Sumner, 10. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 11. Ellen Swallow Richards, 12. Charles Bulfinch, 13. e. e. cummings, 14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 15. Anne Sexton, 16. John Quincy Adams, 17. Edgar Allan Poe, 18. Harriet Jacobs, 19. Ho Chi Minh, 20. John Adams, 21. Mary Dyer, 22. Winslow Homer, 23. Lysander Spooner, 24. Malcolm X, 25. John F. Kennedy, 26. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Even strangers to Boston become imbued with an awareness of its role in American history. And one doesn’t need to be in the city very long to stumble upon the red-brick-lined Freedom Trail that winds its way past the Old North Church’s steeple, where Paul Revere saw two lanterns lit, and Faneuil Hall, where Samuel Adams spouted his fiery rhetoric.

However, the Hub’s history encompasses far more than the Revolutionary War — or the Red Sox’ painful curse, for that matter. Boston and its environs have seen many types of revolutionaries and icons — from philosophers to politicians, writers to civil-rights leaders, artists to scientists. And, fortunately, the related sites are easy to find — if you know where to look.

Turning the pages of history

As the longest continuously operating hotel in America, the Omni Parker House has numerous connections to literary and other prominent figures. Jim McCabe, whose Original Boston Spirits Walking Tour stops at the hotel, notes that Charles Dickens visited, and that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other writers met there regularly to read their work aloud and consume large quantities of rum punch. (Ho Chi Minh, the leader of communist Vietnam, worked in the Parker House’s kitchen in 1915, and Malcolm X worked there as a busboy in the early 1940s.)

McCabe notes that Edgar Allan Poe was born on Stuart Street near the intersection of Boylston Street, although the building no longer exists. He also says that Poe’s tale "The Cask of Amontillado" may have its origin in a murder that occurred at Fort Independence on South Boston’s Castle Island. Poe, who was once stationed on the island, purportedly heard the story of a notorious bully who picked fights with recruits and killed them in duels. To get back at the bully, McCabe says, a group of recruits "got him drunk one night, threw him in an old dungeon, shackled him to the floor, and bricked up the entrance while he was still alive inside."

If you’re a poet and you know it, direct your feet to the Longfellow House, a gift received by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife on the occasion of their wedding, in 1843. Nearby, America’s first published poet, Anne Bradstreet, resided in what is now the center of Harvard Square.

Philis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, was brought to America and sold as a slave at the age of eight (Philis was the name of the ship; Wheatley, the name of the family who bought her). A plaque on Beach Street, in Chinatown, marks the location where the later-groundbreaking poet was sold; the Wheatley home was on Kings Street, now State Street.

Revisiting ‘Eureka!’ moments

Bob Krim, executive director of the Boston History Collaborative, says that many of the people who helped establish Boston’s reputation as a leader in science and innovation are little known or celebrated today.

As a prime example, he cites Boston’s Boylston Street, which might have been better named after Onesimus, one of Cotton Mather’s slaves and a key figure in the development of the smallpox vaccine. In 1721, Boston experienced a smallpox epidemic. Onesimus told Mather of the African practice of making a cut in the arm and dropping in a small amount of pus taken from a smallpox sore to protect against full-blown smallpox. Mather, an influential Boston minister, urged doctors to begin performing such inoculations against the disease and eventually convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try the technique. Krim notes that because the method was both counterintuitive and suggested by a slave, it caused great public conflict. However, the death rate from smallpox dropped from one in 12 people to one in 40 thanks to the inoculations, which eventually led doctors to develop vaccines against the disease.

Meanwhile, Lewis Latimer, the son of runaway slaves, once worked on Boston’s School Street (near Province Street) and contributed to two of the most important inventions of his time. He was hired by Alexander Graham Bell to prepare the drawings for his new invention, the telephone, and helped Bell submit the patent on February 14, 1876 — hours before their competitors. Latimer’s filament work also extended the life of Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent bulb from eight minutes to eight hours. This, notes Krim, essentially transformed Edison’s work from "an irrelevant invention to electric lighting."

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Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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