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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First Baptist Church
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.
[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.
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.