Car-makers, Crime and Composers

January 25, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Web site has the scoop on JP history

MIT originally considered building its campus at the Jamaicaway and Perkins Street instead of in Cambridge.

A Jamaica Plain man was shot to death on Amory Street when National Guard troops opened fire on protestors during the famous Boston police strike of 1919.

Helen Keller attended school in Hyde Square.

Those are just a few of the great retro news scoops on “Remember Jamaica Plain?” (RememberJamaicaPlain.blogspot.com), a web site that combs Boston Globe archives and other sources for little-known tales of JP history.

Created in October and already boasting more than 200 entries, the site is the pet project of Mark Bulger, a 53-year-old Dedham resident. Born and raised in JP, he moved away 35 years ago, but remains intrigued by the community’s forgotten lore.

“When I was growing up in the Sixties, no one I knew thought about Jamaica Plain history,” Bulger said in a Gazette interview. “There was the Loring-Greenough House and the Monument, which we climbed up like a playground. The Loring-Greenough House was for other people. It was for the Moss Hill crowd.”

“The fact that automobiles were built by three companies [in JP], and airplanes were built in two places, surprised me,” he said, referring to just a couple of the facts he unearthed in his recent research.

Bulger’s parents also grew up in JP and attended Central Congregational Church, a frequent subject of his research. (In another great scoop, he discovered that the famed composer Daniel Pinkham was once music director and organist there, a detail that seems to have escaped biographers.) His late father was a Boston police officer.

Bulger grew up in houses on Seaverns Avenue, Marlou Terrace and Spalding and Brewer streets. He went to public school, including the old Agassiz School, and joined the St. Thomas Aquinas marching band, which used to have a giant local reputation.

He went to college relatively late in life and ended up in Georgia, studying genetics in grad school. He recently returned to Dedham to care for his 83-year-old mother, and started the site in his spare time.

After discovering the Jamaica Plain Historical Society (JPHS) web site (JPHS.org), Bulger said, he got drawn back into local history. He was particularly interested in the Stony Brook, the stream that flows in a now-buried channel beneath JP. That became the subject of his first local history site, “Stony Brook: Gone But Not Forgotten” (Mysite.verizon.net/vzewi9pg/stonybrook).

He said that when he grew up, the Stony Brook “was just a name—a puzzle we didn’t worry about because it wasn’t there.” After reading about its history, he said, “That really intrigued me, that there was this waterway running through.”

Buried history—literally or otherwise—became a theme of his research as he uncovered even more unusual JP stories in Boston Public Library (BPL) online archives. Last year, he wrote an article for the JPHS web site about a remarkable 1908 JP crime that included a shoot-out in Forest Hills Cemetery. “Remember Jamaica Plain?” followed soon after.

Bulger culls articles, maps and other information from BPL Globe archives, among other sources, then posts his discoveries under his blog handle, “Not Whitey Bulger.”

His posts combine a good nose for news with often-insightful comments and local flavor—what the site calls “a special interest in everyday life.”

It’s hard not to get drawn into an entry that he introduces with: “In July 1904, the boys of Jamaica Plain saw fit to hang the Boston police commissioner in effigy—twice.”

It turns out the kids were upset about crackdowns on Fourth of July celebrations that make today’s illegal backyard fireworks shows look tame. In turn, that relates to other entries about the enormous Independence Day celebrations held at Jamaica Pond until quite recently.

As Bulger writes elsewhere on the site, “History is a story of context. Each particular subject invites the elaboration of many related topics, and each in turn raise[s] new topics to be explored.”

The florid language of late-1800s/early-1900s newspaper writing is a pleasure of its own kind. More significant is the site’s sense of journalism as a rough draft of history—or sometimes, the only history at all.

“I’m interested in what life was like,” Bulger said. “My parents were poor people—very, very poor people. They got bags of groceries or hand-me-down clothing from doctors who went to [their] church. You don’t see that in the historical society web site, usually. That’s not their job.”

“The historical society has the big names already,” Bulger said. “They’ve done exactly what they should do: fill in the biggest things first. While I have the energy and incentive, I’m filling around the edges.”

The site frequently maps small but intriguing connections between old stories and modern life. A century seems to fly by when you read that by 1908, police were already compelled to set up a speed trap on the Arborway at South Street. Then again, it’s remarkable to see a list of JP’s car owners in 1909—all 100 of them. (Lest cars get too much bashing, Bulger attempts to trace the last death-by-horse in JP; there were plenty.)

The condition of public transit vehicles was an issue even in 1885, when a doctor complained to the Globe about JP’s horse-drawn trolleys: “I understand the frequent answer to an inquiry for some old resident of Jamaica Plain is: ‘He has passed away; he got his death on the horse cars.’”

In 1873, JP was part of the town of West Roxbury, which voted by a slim margin to approve annexation to Boston. Bulger presents us with what Boston promised to deliver in exchange: “pure water, more street lamps and better light, public music and the advantages of the renowned public library.”

However, the Globe was less accurate in predicting that, as part of the deal, the former Bussey estate “would probably be taken by the City of Boston for a public park instead of going to that land-grabbing educational institution, Harvard College.” It actually went to both Boston and Harvard and is now Arnold Arboretum.

Local politics weren’t always so modern. In 1915, the Globe reported on a meeting of the Jamaica Plain Anti-Suffrage Association—a group of women opposed to the idea of women’s right to vote.

Bulger includes a lot of comedy of local life. There was the man arrested in 1910 for playing baseball on the Sabbath on today’s English High track area. Not to mention the 1873 controversy over a bathhouse built at Jamaica Pond to “control the evil” of men swimming naked.

But, while local history is often a nostalgic genre, Bulger also includes the truly unflattering and tragic.

“They never told us about the slavery,” Bulger notes, referring to his discovery of at least two slaveholders in the early JP area. They were asking for a curfew to prevent their “servants” from wandering at night.

He also traces more recent racism, including JP’s unwholesome tradition of minstrel shows, a racist form of entertainment that often included white performers acting out stereotypes of African-Americans. His research found a 1948 JP performance featuring Boy Scouts in blackface.

Then there was the Central Congregational Church drama in 1915 over the infamous pro-KKK movie “The Birth of a Nation.” The pastor preached in favor of the movie and its racist paranoia. Dramatically, he was later challenged publicly in church by an African-American newspaper editor who called the pastor out as an ignoramus.

Bulger notes it’s easy to hate the minister, but wondered about the congregation. “Did they hire him because of his beliefs or in spite of them?” he writes, adding he would suspend judgment.

If JP’s progressive image takes some beatings from history, so does the idea that local crime was a 1970s invention, Bulger said.

Perhaps his most bizarre entry is the 1889 bombing of a house at Centre and Holbrook streets. Someone hurled a buckshot-packed pipe bomb through a window, causing a catastrophic explosion that a resident escaped only by fleeing the room at the last moment.

Bulger said he’s amused to hear JP old-timers “talk about how wonderful it was…I’m finding terrible assaults years before they were born.”

While there was little street crime in the JP of his youth, Bulger said, “The truth is, I grew up with some real animals, some real sociopaths. Now I look back at them and think, ‘Child abuse.’ It wasn’t all sweetness in the Sixties. I’m nostalgic in a sense, but I’m not fooling myself.”

Good or bad, the local history Bulger is uncovering—and sharing almost daily on his site—is consistently fascinating.

For someone who grew up in a close-knit JP of mini-neighborhoods covering just a few streets, Bulger said, it has also become a chance to learn more about the community. Until venturing out as part of his research or on JPHS history walks, he said, he’d never been on St. John Street or Montebello Road or Moss Hill.

Bulger also hopes to tap another JP historic archive much closer to home.

“I’m still planning on doing an oral history with my mother,” he said. At 83 years old, he said, “She remembers everything”—even the addresses of school classmates.