Boston – In The Old North End

From the old North End, the oldest part of the city, most of the vestiges of early American life have disappeared. There are two extremely interesting old buildings, and there is Copp’s Hill, but in regard to the rest of the locality it is not a jest, but a very practical fact, to say that the sights of the North End are mostly sites.

Here and there, tucked away, are a doorway, a pillar, an ancient gable, but even such reminders are few.

However, the part of the city maintains strikingly the old Boston characteristic of narrow streets, leading in odd lines, and the two ancient buildings that remain are unusually ancient and of unusual interest.

The North End has become Italian. It is true that Boston, on the whole, retains the general atmosphere of an American city, but the entire North End is foreign, and Salem Street might as well be called the Via Tribunali.

It was many years ago that the descendants of the original Americans disappeared from the North End, but for a long time afterwards a great many of the old-time houses remained, and the entire district was so taken over by Hebrews that, until recent years, the typical resident was that college-song celebrity, sung into American fame, whose “name was Solomon Levy, with his store on Salem Street.” Gradually the Italians have come into complete possession, and unattractive tenements have been erected for them, to take the place of the houses of the past.

The old church on Salem Street, the Chiesa del Cristo, is of fascinating interest. The name is not remindful of things American, and so it may be explained that, although the Italian name has really been placed out in front of the church to attract the neighborhood dwellers, the good old American name is also there; for it is the Church of Christ, the famous Old North Church, a bravely notable church, the oldest of all the churches of Boston. But it somewhat startles an American to find Christ Church translated into Chiesa del Cristo, with “Servizio Divino,” “Scuola Domenicati,” and “Tutti sono invitata,” added.

But you enter the church and at once yo a are back in the far-distant American past, for the church has stood here on the slope of Copp Is Hill since; 1723, and its interior, so fair and white, so pilastered and paneled in beauty, is full of the very atmosphere of early days. So white, indeed, is the interior, that the only touches of color are in the rose silk. about the altar and the organ gallery, and the color of rose in the lining of the pews, this diffused presence of rose giving just the needed softening touch. But I ought not to forget another touch of color: an American flag, at one end of the church—a pleasant thing to see in this old American and now Italian ncighborhood.

The square box pews, the high and isolated pulpit, reached by its bending stair, the double row of white columns, the great brass candelabra of such excellent simplicity in design—all is restful, complete, well cared for, in every respect satisfactory.

The exceedingly sweet chimes are of eight bells, placed here in 1744, and upon one of them the proud statement is lettered: “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America.” And when they ring out the old-time hymns familiar to the English-speaking races, here in the now foreign-speaking region, as they do on Sunday afternoons, one may fancy that it is with a sort of sweet pathos, as if hoping that some American will hear.

There are many details of interest. The old clock in front of the organ has ticked there for almost a century and a half. Here is a pew set apart, so the old inscription has it, for the use of the “Gentlemen of the Bay of Honduras”—and one learns that this pew was long ago thus honorably set apart in recognition of the building of the spire of the church by the Honduras merchants of 1740. The present spire, above the tower, is not the original one, which blew down over a hundred years ago, but the spire that we now see, delicate and strong and graceful as it is, was put up by the architect to whom Boston owes much, Bulfinch, who carefully reproduced it from the original drawings. In front of the organ are four charming little figures of cherubim, carved figures of women perched prettily, with trumpets at their lips, standing there as they have stood since the long-past pre-Revolutionary days when they were captured by an English privateer from a French ship..

It is a place to wander about in and notice one interesting thing after another. Here, for example, is a tablet in memory of Reverend Mather Byles, Jr., who was rector here from 1768 to 1775, one of the many Church of England clergymen who fled in the early days of the Revolution to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, which were still loyal British possessions. And there is a tablet to the memory of Major John Pitcairn, he who at Concord, according to the spirited tradition, stirred his rum with his finger and said that thus he would stir the blood of the Americans before night, but whose bravery could not save the English forces from their running defeat from Concord back to Boston. He was mortally wounded a few weeks later on Bunker Hill. Likely enough General Gage, witnessing the battle from the very tower of this old church, saw him carried by his son from the hillside down to the boats, where the young man kissed him a last farewell and returned to duty —one of the extremely dramatic touches in American history, and one which so impressed General Burgoyne that he spoke of what a wonderful scene it would- make in a play.

Grim old vaults extend beneath the entire church, but admittance is now forbidden to visitors. I went through, years ago, with a garrulous old sexton, now long since dead, who loved the old inscriptions and loved to talk of the happenings in the dark backward and abysm of time, and I remember how he pointed out, with curious pride, the vaults of the poor of the parish in the place of honor beneath the very altar, and he deciphered for me ancient, rusted inscriptions telling of lords and ladies who had lain beneath the church—inscriptions that were, to the imagination, veritable volumes of romance!—and he showed me an open charnel vault, down in those black depths, where whitening bones lay in lidless coffins.

Many of the New England rectors, fleeing from the Revolution, carried the ecclesiastical silver of their churches with them, but Rector Byles did not follow that unfortunate example, and thus the Old North Church still owns its old silver, although it has de-posited it, for safe keeping and so that it may be seen under safe conditions, with the Museum of Fine Arts. And it is a proud possession, for the splendid tall flagons, the paten, the bowls, the plates, make in all the most notable collection of old ecclesiastical silver in New England, and have come down with memories of wealthy donors, of merchants, of Colonial rulers, even of royalty.

The church still proudly holds its old vellum-covered books, one of the most picturesque collections in America; and there is a very early bust of Washing-ton, believed to be the first monument to Washington to be set up anywhere in America; in recent years the famous name of Houdon has been attached to this, but . it is not quite like Houdon’s work, and it was probably made by some forgotten artist who was momentarily inspired by such a mighty subject as Washington.

There is a two-centuries-old, mahogany, bandy-legged armchair in the chancel, so fine in shape, so truly glorious a specimen of chairmaking, as fitly to be compared with the best old armchairs of America. —William Penn’s, the high-backed Chippendale of the first officer of Congress, the Jacobean armchair of Concord, the Elder’s chair of Plymouth. One places this chair of Christ Church near the head of the list. The altar table is also contemporaneous with the church itself and is of solid, heavy oak. In a room behind the chancel there is also some extremly pleasing old furniture, for there are a desk of oak and a gate-legged table, and an ancient chair of Queen Anne design, fine and notable.

You go forth again into Salem Street, and you have been so deeply impregnated with the spirit of the past that you can glance up, with a pleasure tbat is unalloyed by the swarming foreign life, at the fine pro-portions of this old edifice, which has stood here so beautifully and so long. Then again comes the sense that this has become a Naples, but without the picturesqueness of Naples : without the color, the pleasant intimacies, the costumes, the flowers, the goats, of that massed and ancient city: and you feel angered that Italian boys crowd about you so vociferously, offering themselves as guides to the ancient American graves on Copp’s Hill.

Up on the front of the church is a tablet telling that from this tower were hung the signal lanterns of Paul Revere; and as one reads this the mind is filled with a rush of romantic memories. For that ride of Paul Revere Is was so wonderful a thing ! And it is not fiction, romantic though it sounds, but a veritable fact. Revere did not, so it happened, see the lanterns him-self, but friends were on the lookout and told him that the lights showed, and off he went galloping on his splendid errand. Even the most sluggish blood must thrill at such a story.

And the tale itself would be none the less inspiring even if, as some have believed, it was from the tower of another North Church that the lights were flashed, instead of from this, for it is the splendid story it-self that matters; the story of how Paul Revere was silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, past the Somerset, British man-of-war, and the other ships of the British fleet, the story of the flashing out of the lights, and of Revere’s bravely galloping off through the Middlesex hamlets and farms and telling of the British march: “A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, and a word that shall echo forevermore” —It is a fine thing for our country to possess a tale so splendidly romantic and so nobly true.

The other North Church, for which some claim has been made, stood in North Square, not far from here, and was torn down by the British for firewood in the course of the siege of Boston. Paul Revere himself, writing years after the close of the Revolution, says the signals were shown on the “North Church.” He does not say, “the North Church that was destroyed,” and therefore should. be taken to mean the church known by all as the North Church at the time he wrote the church still standing to-day. The present church fits the description that the lanterned church “rose above the graves on the hill,” and the situation is precisely such as would be chosen for signaling across the water; so there is no good reason to doubt its being; the very building, thus leaving to the noble story a noble existent setting.

Copp’s Hill Burying-Ground, near the Old North Church, the metaphorical “night encampment on the hill,” was literally a camp, for British soldiers, during the siege, and its oldest portion became a cemetery at least as long ago as 1660.

The hill is not so high as it originally was, having been greatly altered in appearance by the grading of adjacent streets and the building of embankments, and also by the erection of tenements that huddle against the cemetery; and tenement dwellers actually string their clothes-lines, with their variegated bur-dens, not only beside the graveyard bat actually across parts of it. And cats, mostly the big yellow ones, roam sedately about, yet somehow without the grim suggestiveness that Stevenson thought he discerned in the cemetery cats of Edinburgh.

Copp’s Hill is particularly the burying-ground of the Mather family, including Cotton and Increase, and the Mather tomb is still preserved; but as to the graves of most of the other early Americans buried here there is scarcely any certainty as to precise location or date, for many of the stones have been freely changed about, and many have had the dates chipped and even altered; many were even carried away and, when recovered, were set back at random. And none of this vandalism can be charged to foreigners. It was done before the influx of either Hebrews or foreigners, by Americans who saw humor in changing dates and shifting stones, and others who utilitarianly recog=nized in these stones material for doorsteps, window-sills and chimneys. Still, this burying-ground stands notably, even though conglomeratedly, for early Boston.

I found it a quiet place in spite of the tenement surroundings, and with a marked effect of crowded mortality, which is doubtless owing, in some degree, to the effect of crowded life in the streets and tenements adjacent. The place is a grassy knoll, studded with stones and with smallish trees, and the ground is a-flutter with little American flags fastened on low upright iron rods, it being not precisely apparent which graves these flags mark, although one naturally supposes that they are offerings of Decoration Day.

Down below, seen over rooftops and down narrow streets, is the harbor, and on the height beyond, over in Charlestown, towers the lofty monument of Bunker Hill. In the harbor, the other day, there lay at anchor, with felicity of position, several warships, just where the English warships were at anchor when Paul Revere was rowed by.

Always in this vicinity the mind goes back to Paul Revere. And it is pleasant to know that the little building on North Square which was his home for many years, not many blocks away from the Old North Church, has been preserved, although it is almost lost among the Italian shops and tenements of the district. It is a small building with an over-hanging second story, a high sloping roof, and the hugest of chimneys. And if it has been somewhat over restored outside and in, with more of diamond panes than Revere himself would have used, still, it is such a satisfaction to see it kept at all that one does not like to feel critical about it. It was a very old House when Revere bought it, before the Revolution, and, as a gauge of values in those days, it may be mentioned that he paid for it, in cash, 213 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pence, and that he also gave a mortgage for 160 pounds. It was from the very windows of this house, even though now over-diamonded, that he showed those transparencies of the Boston Massacre that brought all Boston here, aflame with excitement.

The boldness of Paul Revere, his bluntness, his daring, his physical energy, ought to have won him high place in public affairs. He was one of the most trusted “Sons of Liberty,” from as early as 1765; as confidential messenger he was entrusted with important communications from prominent leaders of Boston, such as Adams and Hancock, to members of the Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress; several months before Lexington, in December of 1774, he rode, for the Boston Committee o’ Safety, to the Committee of Safety at Portsmouth, notifying them that the English had prohibited importations of powder and munitions, and that a large garrison had been ordered to Fort William and Mary, whereupon, in consequence of this message, some four hundred men were hurried by the Portsmouth Committee to the fort, where they temporarily made prisoners of the captain and his handful of soldiers, and went off with some ninety-seven kegs of powder and a quantity of small arms, which, thus captured, were afterwards used to vast advantage on Bunker Hill.

As an artist, Revere made prints, and copper-plate engravings, of pictures of ante-Revolutionary events, which were sent out broadcast and made wide and successful appeals to patriotism. He was forty years old when the Revolution began; a man well tested and trusted; a man who had given hostages to fortune, too, for by his first wife he had eight children, and he had married a second, who in time was to offer him a like total of eight!

He was a silversmith of rare skill, and made, in solid silver, delicate ladles, exquisite teaspoons, stately flagons, rotund mugs, and salts, and braziers, and sugar-tongs—all with skill and beauty and propriety; not crude things, but exquisite things; silver as exquisite as was made in England in that period of distinctly fine taste. And examples of his art are still preserved, and vastly prized, in all the shapes named.

Paul Revere was one of those men who can do any-thing and do it well. He even turned his attention to dentistry in the early days when dentistry was barely beginning to be a science, and there is still extant one of his advertisements of 1768, reading:

“Whereas, many Persons are so unfortunate as to lose their Fore-Teeth by Accident, and otherways, to their great Detriment, not only in Looks, but speaking both in Public and Private:—This is to inform all such, that they may have them re-placed witb artificial Ones, that looks as well as the Natural, and answers the End of Speaking to all Intents, by Paul Revere.”

When, quite a while after Bunker Hill, it was de-sired to remove the body of General Warren from its first resting-place, it was Paul Revere who identified it by an artificial tooth and the wire he had used to fasten it in.

Revere also engraved much of the Revolutionary money. Nor does the list of his varied activities end here, for he also made the carved wood frames for many of Copley’s paintings—and beautiful frames they are!

Paul Revere, bold and shrewd as he was, seems to have been the only man who distrusted that Bostonian who was the predecessor of Benedict Arnold, Doctor Benjamin Church. Church was in the confidence of the early patriots, and, after taking part in conferences, used to walk over to the British and betray all that was being planned. Church was lucky to escape with banishment when his treachery came to light.

In spite of boldness and shrewdness aid loyalty, Revere had no appreciative standing in Boston. He was always termed a mechanic, and was looked on rather patronizingly. When the Revolutionary War actually came, he expected opportunity for service, but practically no notice was taken of him. Although Washington knew him, it was slightly, as a local man who cleverly saw to the repair of some gun-wagons, and so Revere was not offered a post with the Continental army, but was left to do duty for the local Massachusetts authorities, which gave him an inactive life, for, after the early days, the War remained in the Central and Southern Colonies. We hear of him as head of a court-martial, dealing out minor sentences such as riding on the wooden horse as a punishment for playing cards on the Sabbath. We hear of him as governor of Castle William (Castle Island) in Boston Harbor, and see him mounting there the guns from the wrecked Somerset—what thoughts must have come to him as he remembered the night when he rowed past her dark sides! We read of him as a subordinate member of the poorly planned and more poorly executed Penobscot expedition.

He has Ieft on record that he felt, bitterly, that those who knew him best, those he thought his friends, took no notice of him. And, indeed, a word from Hancock or John Adams or Samuel Adams to either Washing-ton or Anthony Wayne, would have given them an admirable, capable soldier and would have given Revere the chance he wanted; but Hancock and the Adamses, wise and patriotic though they were, were not themselves men of action, and were too quiet in personal tastes to appreciate the merits of vivid personal courage. And so, toward the end of the war, Revere went back to private life and work again, a disappointed man.

After the war was over he asked to be Master of the Mint—and what honor and distinction he, with his skill and artistic feeling, would have given it! But his Boston friends in power found it politically in-convenient to urge his claims and his ability upon Congress, and thus the Mint missed a superb master and Revere continued a private citizen. He established a brass foundry and furnished the brass and copper work for the splendid Old Ironsides, and received for it, it is curious to know, the sum of $3,820.33. He rolled sheets of copper for the dome of the State House on Beacon Hill. And when Governor Samuel Adams, in 1795, laid the corner stone of the State House, his first assistant was “the Most Worshipful Paul Revere, Grand Master”; and, as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, he signed the address from the Masons to George Washington, the Mason, when he left the Presidency.

And so it is interesting to see preserved, here in this ancient quarter of Boston, the little ancient house that was for many years the home of that remarkable man.