Time Travel Tuesday: Spooky Stories From Cambridge History

Welcome back to Time Travel Tuesday, a series focusing on Cambridge history illustrated with objects in our collections. In this episode, we’ll be discussing a few of the more peculiar legends of Cambridge. Are these terrible tales pure fiction or are they based in historical fact? Read on to find out!

Settled in 1630, Cambridge has had nearly 400 years to accumulate ghosts, some of whom continue to haunt the residents of Cambridge to this very day. And some gruesome chapters in Cambridge history, while they did not result in any reported ghost sightings, are enough to give even the most dauntless among us the heebie-jeebies.

Gallows Lot

In the early days of what would become the City of Cambridge, the smaller population included its fair share of criminals, and the criteria for capital punishment was not quite so stringent as it is today. It is unsurprising then that Cambridge had its own plot of land dedicated to executions. In the early 18th century, Cambridge Common was much more expansive. It was described by Lucius R. Paige in 1877:

Until 1720, the ‘Common’ extended to Linnaean Street, and including also a few acres, lying in a nearly square form, at the northwesterly corner of Linnaen Street and North Avenue [now Massachusetts Avenue]. This extreme point of the Common was set apart as a ‘Place of Execution,’ or ‘Gallows Lot,’ as it was more familiarly called.


Detail of Sanborn Atlas map of Ward 5, Cambridge, 1873. Shows the location of Gallows Lot on the property of J. C. Wellington. Though  not yet in existed, Stone Court has been penciled in at the upper right of the property, beneath Dan’ W. Shaw’s property.

While the majority of executions carried out on this lot were by hanging, at least one execution by burning at the stake occurred there, that of an enslaved woman named Phillis, convicted of murdering her master, Captain Codman, with an enslaved man named Mark. The Boston Evening Post reported on the event on September 22, 1755:

…the fellow was hanged, and the woman burned at a stake about ten yards distant from the gallows. They both confessed themselves guilty of the crime for which they suffered, acknowledging the justice of their sentence and died very penitent.

Phillis was one of only a few people executed in that manner in Massachusetts history.

Christ Church

Several documented ghosts have taken up residence in Cambridge. Christ Church, founded in 1759, is home to the spirit of a British soldier who was buried under the church after he was thrown from a wagon and died.


Reproduction of drawing, possibly a plate in a book, though the page is loose in our survey files. Unfortunately, no further bibliographic information is present.

The congregation of the Church was split between Patriots and Loyalists and dispersed during the Revolution. Said the Rector of the Church at the time, Rev. Winwood Sarjeant, “[p]erhaps no church in the country was more completely broken up. Of all the persons who took part in its concerns, including the sixty-eight original subscribers for the building… and twenty original purchasers of pews, not a name appears on the records after the Revolution but those of John Pigeon, Esq., and Judge Joseph Lee,” a Patriot and a Loyalist, respectively. The church building, badly damaged during the war,

…was left for many years in a melancholy and desecrated condition, the doors shattered and all the windows broken out, exposed to rain and storms and every sort of depredation, its beauty gone, its statuary defiled, the wind howling through its deserted aisles and about its stained and decaying walls….

No services were held again until 1790.


Christ Church from Old Burying Ground. Dated November 20, 1892. Original in the Henry Rand Collection, Southwest Harbor Public Library, Southwest Harbor, Maine.

First Baptist Church


Carte de Visite depicting the original First Baptist Church building. Not dated. CHC Postcards and Stereographs Collection.

In the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, a young woman named Ann Hopkins waited for her lover to return from the French Indian War. He did not make it home. His rival brought the news of his untimely death to Ann, but she caught a glimpse of the ribbon she had given her lover as a token before he left for war. The truth of her lover’s death was brought shockingly into relief: the rival had murdered her lover and disguised the killing as a casualty of the war in the hope that Ann would instead choose him. Distraught and heartbroken, Ann scorned the company of men and grew old alone on the outskirts of town. When strange and supernatural events began to plague the town, Ann was accused of witchcraft, arrested, and burned at the stake. It is said that her final words as she succumbed to the flames was a curse. “The curse of fire shall be on this spot forever!”


Many years later, on that very plot of land, where Magazine Street meets Massachusetts Avenue, the First Baptist Church of Cambridge was founded. The church building was completed in December of 1817 and for nearly 50 years housed the congregation until in the early morning hours of January 22, 1866, the church burned to the ground. A new building was erected, completed in December of 1867, exactly 50 years since the first building was completed. This building burned in 1881. The Boston Globe reported on the ruins in March 27, 1881:

Strange sounds are heard at night by persons who pass the ruined building—low moans and cries of intense agony, that rise to weird shrieks and die away in long-drawn sighs.

These unearthly sounds increase in frequency as the work of clearing away the ruin progresses, and old residents remember that the same sounds were heard after the burning of the old church some sixteen years ago, beginning as soon as the work of rebuilding started, and increasing until the cornerstone was laid, when they ceased altogether.

Even stranger,

[a]s the stone was being lowered into place a spark of fire was struck out in some unaccountable way and communicated to the documents placed under the stone, but the block was quickly lowered to put the flames out. When the stone was raised the other day there was nothing under it but a little heap of ashes, and it is a curious coincidence that the same thing was noticed when the cornerstone of the old church was raised.


The second First Baptist Church building under construction in 1866. CHC Survey Files

Could this have been the work of the ghost of Ann Hopkins? The author of this article hears the story from an old man, who heard the story from his grandfather, who heard the story from the generations before him. However, despite the few instances of executions by burning that occurred in the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, no accused witches were burned at the stake. This of course casts doubt on the rest of the story and the author of the Globe article expresses his own skepticism. “Do you think the ghost of Ann Hopkins stretched these telegraph wires overhead that are making all this weird moaning?” he asks the old man who related the tale of Ann Hopkins to him.      “[A]nd the old man arose and gazed upon me reproachfully.”

Declaration of Faith and List of Members of the First Baptist Church, Cambridge. Cambridge: John Ford & Son, 1870. (CHC Research Library)
Lee, Wan. “A Haunted Church Site in Cambridge. An Old Man’s Story of the “Curse of Fire.” Strange Sounds by Night and Still Stranger Explanations,” Boston Globe (Boston, MA), March 27, 1881.
Paige, Lucius R., History of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1630-1877. With a Genealogical Register. Boston: H. O. Houghton and Company, 1877. (CHC Research Library)
Postcards and Stereographs Collection. Cambridge Historical Commission, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Survey Files. Cambridge Historical Commission, Cambridge, Massachusetts.




Celebrating Women’s History: Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project

On this day in October 1915, 15,000 enthusiastic supporters of women’s suffrage marched the streets of Boston. The parade began at the corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue and concluded with a rally at Mechanics Hall. This massive event was held to encourage voters to support an amendment striking the word “male” from the Massachusetts State Constitution, thus garnering the women of this state the right to vote. Although the push for women’s suffrage failed in 1915, the 19th Amendment was ratified by Massachusetts in 1919, and women’s right to vote was secured in 1920 when the amendment became federal law.



Clippings featuring suffragettes c. 1918 from the Cambridge Chronicle, published September 24, 1970

The Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project continues this tradition of acknowledging women’s contributions to our community and history.


Initiated in 1996, this ongoing project aims “to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Cambridge women and women’s organizations to the life of the city, commonwealth, and nation from the foundation of Cambridge (Newtowne) in 1630 to the present.”


Quote of Charlotte Saunders Cushman, renowned stage actress.

The committee is focused on compiling a database of biographical, organizational, and subject entries to honor the accomplishments of Cambridge women. Each entry is ordered alphabetically, and those interested in groups or organizations can browse via occupation (scientists, dentists, factory workers) or subject (women’s clubs, feminist organizations). The Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project accepts nominations via their website, and welcomes volunteers for research, editing, and web design.


One of many Women’s History Walks available in the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project files

The project’s physical files are housed at the Cambridge Historical Commission. Here, entries to be added can be studied, revised, and transcribed to ready these most deserving subjects for web presence. To date, the online database boasts nearly 150 entries with over 400 nominations queued for vetting. As stated on the project website, “This is our attempt to write women into history and honor their lives and recognize their many accomplishments.”


“Woman at Work” published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1983

The online Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project database is available at www.cambridgema.gov/cwhp.

The Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project would love your help! For those interested in volunteering or simply learning more, please contact:

Sarah Burks
Cambridge Historical Commission
831 Massachusetts Avenue, 2nd Fl.
Cambridge, MA 02139

Or fill out the form below:

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New Images and Finding Aids

The Commission is happy to announce the availability of newly digitized images and updates to finding aids for four of our collections! Scroll down for descriptions and samples of images from the following collections: Inner Belt Scrapbook, Godinho Family Photograph Collection, Cambridge Manual Training School/ Rindge Manual Training School/
Rindge Technical School Collection, and the Curtis Mellen Photograph Collection.

Inner Belt Scrapbook
Proposed in the mid-1950s, the Inner Belt was once a planned highway that would have been Interstate 695. If built, this highway would have run a route through parts of Cambridge, Boston, Somerville, and Brookline. Many citizens protested the plan as it would have divided neighborhoods and displaced thousands of residents. This collection contains scrapbook pages detailing the saga of the Inner Belt campaign from 1960-1969.

Flyer: State House Rally

Flyer: State House Rally, Jamaica-Plain-Roxbury Expressway Committee, 1969


Clippings: Inner Belt Activities; Morning Union Leader, Christian Science Monitor, The Cambridge Chronicle; March 1966

View the finding aid for this collection here.

Additional pages from the Inner Belt Scrapbook can be viewed here.

Godinho Family Photograph Collection

Scrapbook page: Members of the Godinho Family

Scrapbook page: Members of the Godinho Family, c. 1920


This collection contains photographic materials and personal items of the Godinhos, a Portuguese family who lived in Cambridge from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century. Although little is known about the individuals depicted, including many of their identities, the collection contains photos of the Azores, a region in Portugal, indicating that this may be where the family originated. When whaling and fishing declined towards the end of the nineteenth century, many Portuguese immigrants, who had been whalers and fishermen in New Bedford, Massachusetts, moved to industrial towns near Boston, including Cambridge. The Portuguese Catholic population became large enough that in 1902 St. Anthony’s Church was opened in East Cambridge.

Unknown Boy: Gribal Godinho Family - First Holy Communion Portra

Unknown Boy: Gribal Godinho Family – First Holy Communion Portrait, c. 1915-1920

Joseph Godinho (left) and Unknown Man

Joseph Godinho (left) and Unknown Man, c. 1920

Additional images from the Godinho Family Photograph Collection can be viewed here.

View the finding aid for this collection here.

Cambridge Manual Training School/ Rindge Manual Training School/
Rindge Technical School Collection

The Cambridge Manual Training School for Boys was founded by Frederick Hastings Rindge in September 1888. The Cambridge School Committee renamed the school Rindge Manual Training School in 1899 in honor of Mr. Rindge after he retired. Considering its broadened offerings in technical education, the school was later renamed Rindge Technical School. In 1977, the Rindge Technical School merged with the Cambridge High and Latin School to form the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS).

Having been assembled from multiple sources, items in this collection are related to the school and range from the 1880s to 1940s. Formats include photographs, documents, correspondence, and objects. Photographic subjects include events and classes at the Rindge School and Camp Rindge, as well as fire brigade practice operations.


Chemistry classroom, c. 1920s


Fire brigade operations, c. 1910

The bulk of this collection includes photographs of sports teams and individual players at Rindge Technical School. Many images depict the football team, but also include crew, hockey, track, swimming, and baseball.


D. Allen, Baseball Captain, 1922

View the finding aid for this collection here.

Curtis Mellen Photograph Collection
The Mellens were a very prominent family in Cambridge, and their soap business, Curtis Davis & Co., became the American branch of Lever Brothers, the largest soap manufacturer in the world at the time.

Interior View: Curtis Davis and Co., 180 Broadway

Interior View: Curtis Davis and Co., 180 Broadway

This collection includes family photographs as well as photographs of both the interior and exterior of Mellen family homes in Cambridge. Depicted are homes on Broadway, Chauncy, Forest, Linnean, and Hampshire streets. Many of the photographs have been attributed to Edwin D. Mellen and depict lavish interiors with intricate fixtures and furnishings.

Interior View: 33 Washington Avenue

Interior View: 33 Washington Avenue, c. 1880s

Interior View: Unknown address

Interior View: Unknown address, c. 1880s-1890s

Additional images from the Curtis Mellen Photograph Collection can be viewed here.

View the finding aid for this collection here.

To schedule an appointment for in-person research, please contact the Cambridge Historical Commission today at 617.349.4683 or e-mail our Archivist, Emily at egonzalez@cambridgema.gov.