Sunday, August 28, 2011

Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 2-2

If you stumble upon this post, I'd recommend reading Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 1-2 first.

It dawned on me that I would have ended up there. Cerebral shunts weren’t even invented until the late 1800′s and probably not even remotely safe for most patients until the 1900′s...Eventually I would be considered invalid, and with no source of income I would be sent to the Poor Farm. Maybe I would do some light quarry work or net some fish, but more likely I would spend my days moaning in pain on a dirty floor while the orphans try to avoid me or steal my food. -- From Baron Barometer's Brain Blog 

Cambridge Poor Farm

Located on the most northern corner of the city of Cambridge, the Cambridge Poor Farm was established in 1851. At the almshouse, "the elderly and 'the deserving poor' lived among the sick and the insane" until its closure in 1927.

Continuing from the previous post, I've been investigating this less known piece of Cambridge history together with the 1851 Cambridge Chronicle article. What intrigues me the most is that how the historic event, philosophy, and public sentiment of the time reflected the walls of those institutions. Now, I'll continue the virtual tour. Let's go to 3rd floor.

Click picture to enlarge -- from Cambridge Chronicle

The upper floors

As I have explained in the previous post, 3rd floor had the same layout as 2nd floor: consisting with the workroom and dormitories divided by sex. But there were a few notable differences between the floors. On 3rd floor, the extreme ends of the east and west wings functioned as  hospital wards. Especially, the hospital ward at the men's (east) wing, two rooms were given to "inmates" who were "dangerously sick" or "in a dying stage".

Segregation or benevolent division? 

One more notable distinction between 2nd and 3rd floor is that the upper floor was dedicated to the "American poor". Conversely, it meant that the floor below was allocated to the "non-American poor". Wait, wait. What does an "American" mean in the sense of 1851?

In 1847 alone, 25,000 Irish immigrated to the City of Boston to escape the Great Famine of 1845. By 1850, 1/3 of the Boston population was Irish. Our North Cambridge also hold Irish neighborhoods such as "Dublin" and "New Ireland" around the time. Those communities accommodated workers for a nearby brickyard. There had been a much smaller almshouse nearby the neighborhoods, which was eventually alternated by the almshouse I'm investigating today.

 Second Town Poor House est. 1786
Click picture to read

I used to naively think: "what's the matter, the 'American' and the 'Irish' speak the same language!"  But when I observed how the tombstones at the Metfern Cemetery in Waltham --where some state hospital patients between 1947 and 1979 were buried-- were distinguished by Catholic and Protestant, the austere concrete blocks gave me an impression that the separation was, or some may say is, the norm of the local culture. Is it a benevolently intentioned custom to "avoid unnecessary confusion" for both sides? Or is it a fear and prejudice against the new wave of immigrants? I guess the picture is muddy; generally speaking, such a seemingly good-intentioned custom that draws a line between certain groups could lead to an established segregation practice.

@ Metfern Cemetery: "C" stands as "Catholic"

From the tone of the Cambridge Chronicle article, the separation practice at this almshouse seemed to start from the "good-hearted" intention; the article proudly stats the division as "So far our knowledge extends, this is the first provision of the kind ever carried out in practice."

The Cambridge Poor Farm had a chapel on 4th floor, and I wonder how did they divide Protestants and Catholics in terms of the chapel use.

Benevolent miscalculation?

You might notice it already, but there is a one big change between the now and then picture:

Look and compare the east (right) wing for male. The male dormitory underwent an expansion in 1915. It looks like the men's dormitory stretched twice as long! But what was the implication of the expansion? Did Rev. Dwight and Bryant thought the male: female inmate ratio would be equal, but the city later realized more accommodation was  required for male inmates? Even without mentioning George Orwell's observation, there are more male homeless than the female counterpart.

Aerial view of the Cambridge Poor Farm, from Google Map

Only 12 years after the expansion, the city relocated the almshouse to the new City Home for Aged and Infirm on Concord Avenue. The site of the Cambridge Poor Farm was sold to the Catholic Church, and  the building was converted to a parish school. Sometimes around 1999, the International School of Boston renovated the building to the current use.

My observation on the Cambridge Poor Farm ends here. I thank the Cambridge Room archivist who showed a genuine intellectual interest in my "creepy and strange" investigation and found the 160 year old article from a stack of microfilms. You should visit there! The powerful opening was cited from the Baron Barometer's Brain Blog. His stark observation on what would happen to him if he was a 19th century man sure grabbed my mind, and I'm glad such a badass guy is in 21st century Somerville!  

What else I'd say... If you spent some time in this building as a student or whatever, and a certain descriptions of the building ring a bell (i.e.: "No wonder why that room used to be a hospital ward for dying men."), please feel free to leave a message or send an e-mail to: creepychusetts[at] 

Locate Cambridge Poor Farm @ Google Map

Click Picture to Read
Click Picture to Read

Cambridge Historical Commission. Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge: Report Five Northwest Cambridge. Cambridge: MIT, 1977.
"The New Alms-house." Cambridge Chronicle 22 Mar.1851: 1
Klein, Christoper. Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands. Boston: Union Park Press, 2008.

Brain Blog: History Around Every Corner:
History of the International School of Boston:
Cambridge Poor Farm, Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 1-2

Wow, time flies. I started my blog "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts" on August 24, 2010. A year ago, I had little connection with Massachusetts. I knew nobody, I knew nothing about the place! I started the blog hoping to know people in my neighborhood and learn about this tremendously interesting state. The result? It has been great. The idea for my blog is still bottomless, and I hope I can continue my "quirky" adventure further. I thank all the readers and people I became to know through my investigation.

Today, I'd like to introduce what I found through my little research about an ex-almshouse in my neighborhood. Together with Gaebler Children's Center in Waltham, this is one of the most memorable places for me because I became to know some fabulous people though the investigation. -- Shuko K.

Then: from Cambridge Chronicle Mar. 22, 1851
Now: Aug., 2011

The city of Cambridge deserves infinite credit for its great liberality and intelligence in erecting such an edifice, and it can without presumption, take to itself the honor of having within its borders one of the best Almshouses in the country; a distinction more to be envied than its fine churches, public buildings or even its world-renowned Harvard University. --  from Cambridge Chronicle, March 22, 1851

The Cambridge Poor Farm is a less known sister of the Charles Street Jail (now the Liberty Hotel) in Boston. Planned by Gridley J. F. Bryant and Rev. Louis Dwight -- both progressive prison reformers of the time-- and completed in 1851, the almshouse housed "orphans, paupers, the elderly, and the insane" of the city of Cambridge. Approximately 30,000 dollars were spent in completing the almshouse. The building is currently utilized as an international school.

After several visits to the newly opened Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library, the archivist found a piece of rather obscure history from our local newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle. Together with other sources and my past post,  today I'll show you what I found thorough this mini research. Before I embark on the virtual tour, I want you to keep in mind that the Cambridge Poor Farm was established under the progressive philosophy and state-of-the-art architectural design. While investigating, I thought some of the practices employed at the poor farm were out-dated or even dubious from the contemporary eyes. On the other hand, I feel those practices are well ingrained to our consciousness; they become more coded and subtly nuanced. Even so, it is worth while seeing from a perspective that the almshouse was regarded as one of the greatest civil achievements of the 19th century Cambridge.

The article, which was printed for the March 22, 1851 edition, gives a detailed explanation of the original structure. The basic principal throughout the building was: the front wing for the administrators, the east (left) wing for female "inmates", and the east (right) wing for male "inmates". The central building, which was usually partitioned by sex, was devoted to a working or communal space. For example, the below is the original drawings of the basement floor:

Click picture to enlarge -- from Cambridge Chronicle


The basement floor (S: I believe this is the floor the current entrance is situated, so I count this floor as the first floor) chiefly functioned as the kitchen, dining, bathing, and laundry spaces.What struck me the most is the existence of punitive cells:
On this floor of the east and west wings are Punishment Cell for refractory inmates, which can be made quite dark, or graduated to different degree of light (Cambridge Chronicle 1).
While the word "cell" is conveniently not-present from the floor plan, quite possibly the spaces between No. 9 and 8 in the East Wing and No. 10 and 11 in the West Wing were allocated as the cells.

The use of light and darkness intrigues me the most. I assume the degree of darkness corresponds with the one of inmates undesirable behaviour; the darker (and quieter) the cell gets, the more refractory the contained inmate is. Rev. Dwight was a prison reformer who had a strong belief in the Auburn System of penitential management, and he must have believed that man only could be compliant by placing him to silence. Darkness played the visual indicator of the degree of silence.

Click picture to enlarge -- from Cambridge Chronicle

2nd and 3rd floor functioned as workshops and dormitories. Separated by a partition, the male and female inmates were completely segregated. For example, the woman's dormitory was on the west wing, and some of them worked on the west side of the central building during the day. If the almshouse adopted Rev. Dwight's Auburn System, the work room should have kept completely silent. But how about the inmates who were assigned to work on the field or at the nearby Alewife brook? How could the men cast and drag a fishing net without shouting? And I wonder how strict the gender division was supervised for the outside labor. 

Control through architectural design

What I'm generally interested in the 19th century prisons and institutions is that how the authority created an effective observation system through the architectural design. I'll cite some of the mentions about the observation system gained through the design.

These (S: workshops) are in the octagonal section. A partition runs directly across the centre of the building, this dividing in half. One part is for women and one for men. This arrangement admits of complete supervision, on overseer being enabled with all ease to superintend both departments (Cambridge Chronicle 1).

Dwight and Bryant conceived the Alms House on a radial plan, having a central block for supervised activity and separate residential wings for men and women. This concept was based upon 18th century English prototypes and Dwight's long experience with the prison reform movement in the United States (Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge 131).

In my view, the most notable example of the prison design is the Jeremy Bentham's  Panopticon (i.e. Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois). But the radial plan represented by the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was also widely applied to the prison design worldwide. In any ways, the Cambridge Poor Farm was designed to aim for the efficient supervision through architectural design. You can see how simple and efficient the Rev. Dwight and Bryant's plan was by comparing a proposed plan by Ammi B. Young:

Click picture to enlarge--from Cambridge Historical Commission

Rev. Dwight and Bryant's plan must have been chosen by the city because of the expected ease of surveillance through design; if you were a keeper of the almshouse, which plan would you like to adopt?

Ok, I end today's post here. In next few days (I hope...), I'll post more about the upper floors and some of the notable functions of the building I'd like to show. Bye bye now.

Continue to: Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 2-2

Locate Cambridge Poor Farm @ Google Map

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Skinny House, Boston

The Skinny House sits on Copp's Hill in North End. The house is across a very old cemetery established in 1659. This skinny structure is said to be built around 1870. It measures 10ft (3m) width, hence the name "skinny", and the narrowest of the interior is mere 6ft (180cm).

A tombstone in Copp's Hill Burying Ground 

Since the house is on the Freedom Trail and in a bustling Little Italy neighborhood, the street is filled with tourists on a summer weekend. But not so many of them seem to notice this quirky house. Is it way too thin to be noticed?

Why is the house so skinny? Good question. Was the land so scarce in this densely populated neighborhood? Maybe.

I learn new words and terms everyday. This house is oddly skinny because it's a "spite house". The spite house is a kind of structure that is built for the purpose of showing your opposition towards surrounding residents and/or certain interest parties.

A land dispute is the common cause of the action, but not limited to. In the case of the Skinny House, the origin is in a mythical level. It could be a dispute between brothers or neighbors; no one knows for sure.

Locate Skinny House @ Google Map 

Here's the interior of the house:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Vaughn house, Dana

Dana is one of the lost towns of the Quabbin Reservoir. Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott were impounded in 1938 upon the completion of the reservoir. Today, the 39 mi² (100 km²) Quabbin Reservoir is still in use and the largest body of fresh water in Massachusetts.

After two-hour drive from Boston, I finally had a chance to witness the lost town of Dana. Incorporated in 1801, this little town had some 400 residents when it was planned to be submerged by the Quabbin Reservoir.

Did the entire town sink in the water? Not quite. The center of the town, Dana Common is still approachable by foot. But no one's living there anymore. Only the remain of cellar holes, crumbling walls, and a stone marker give you some clues about the lost town. 

The common is about two-mile from the trail parking lot. But oh boy, I won't recommend you to visit Dana during summer. TOO MANY FLIES!! When I saw a brown cloud of flies was chasing after B. on a bike, I remembered a story from a Quebecoise about a suicidal moose. Flies do drive a moose insane. Amazing.

Chased after by the swarm after swarm, retreat was the only way. So I introduce only a little piece of Dana: the remain of the Vaughn residence.

The Edger Vaughn's residence is in the heart of the common. Collected from the nearby stream, the distinctive stone retaining wall is  the only remain left to tell the story of the house.

The "Potato wall"; that was the first impression when I saw the retaining wall. To be specific, this is more like the "Russet Potato wall" rather than the "Golden Yukon wall". I have to tell you this is the single incidence of the decoration in the town; this could be a whim of Mr. Vaughn.

If Dana wasn't deserted, the Potato wall might have caught on among the Massachusetts vernacular architecture.

This is an uncompleted investigation. If you want to see more about the town, please refer to the following sources. There is a handful of strange stories related to the town, too.

Locate Dana @ Google Map

<General Information>
Quabin Reservoir, Mass dcr:

1889 map of Dana, Mytopo Historical Map:
The road less traveled, skinut:
Towns buried under the Quabbin Reservoir, Menotomy Maps:

<Photos, stories, etc.>
Dana Massachusetts:
Quabbin Gate 40: Dana Town Common, Exploring Western Massachusetts:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dungeon Rock, Lynn

Dungeon Rock is probably one of the most famous New England oddities. Dungeon Rock in Lynn Woods is packed with colorful stories: the legend of pirate's treasure and the quest of a rather obsessive spiritualist family who attempted to find the truth.

Prior to this visit, I and B. visited Lynn Woods for investigating Burrill Stone Tower, a tower built by the WPA in 1936. My companion pleasantly liked the place like I do, so we decided to visit  another curiosity of the woods; the King of (Lynn) Rock.

The legend of Dungeon Rock dates back to 17th century. A pirate ship anchored in Lynn Harbor sometimes around the early to mid 16th century. Their boat sailed up the Saugus River to purchase goods from the Saugus Iron Works. Needless to say, it caught the attention of British Troop, and Captain Harris was eventually caught. However, a crew named Thomas Veal escaped from the capture and was said to hide the treasure in a cave deep in Lynn Woods.

Veal began to settle in the cave. But he suddenly disappeared after the great New England earthquake struck the region in June, 1658. The rumors was that he must have been trapped in the sealed cave alive with the treasure.

In 1852, a spiritualist man named Hiram Marble received the voice of Veal through a medium, giving him a clue of the treasure. He purchased the land around Dungeon Rock, and the family moved into "a two-story wood house located on the flat area just below the cave entrance." (Friends of Lynn Woods) Here we are, his quest for the pirate treasure began. He and his son began digging into the rock.

Lynn seems to possess a mysterious spiritual energy for the Hiram's alike. During the seance sessions carried out at Jesse Hutchinson's stone cottage in Lynn, the spiritualists were sure that they saw angels. These spiritually charged events eventually lead an Universalist minister attempting creating an "Electrical Infant" in 1853, only a year after Hiram set his foot on (or under?) Dungeon Rock. The Reverent believed the abundant nature's energy in Lynn would assist him to advance human life through his creation. (If you want to know more about this bizarre, fascinating story, please refer to my past post: High Rock Tower and Stone Cottage, Lynn.)

Those structures are made by the WPA, not by the Marble's.
Do you know what it is?

Hiram died after 16 years of digging and blowing up the rock. In order to pursue his father's dream, Hiram's son, Edwin kept going for another 12 years until his death in 1880. Did he find the treasure? Unfortunately, no.

Is this Edwin Marble's final resting place?

"At the top of a set of stairs beginning next to the old cellar hole, you will find a large pink piece of rock. This stone marks the grave of Edwin Marble and the end of the quest for treasure." (Friends of Lynn Woods)

This wasn't the first time for me to visit Dungeon Rock, and I had never realized there's a grave right across Dungeon Rock. The realization that Edwin Marble was buried in the spot made me feel uneasy. It's like the feeling when you realize a person has been watching you, peeping at you from a discrete place. He was a spiritualist, so he might have heard our conversation about the "obsessive 19th century family". Ouch!

Don't tell me the red dot in the middle of the photo isn't a speckle of dust!

I'm asking you, B. Who was making an Ouija board joke?

Dungeon Rock is indeed publicly open between 9:00 to 2:30, Tuesday through Saturday (as of Aug. 1, 2011). Don't ask me whether I went...We went there on Sunday; the door was locked! Anyway if I went down and showed you the picture of the cave, that would be a big spoiler for you, right!? Next time, I'll plan to visit during the opening time.

W...P...and what?

A set of inscriptions on the left side wall of the gate caught my attention. For a casual doodling, it looks like too much of a classy job. Who did it? When was it done? And why?

As the digging went on, the Marble's fund went short. In order to fund the project, they opened the dungeon to tourists for 25 cents. It became a 19th century version of an amusement park! Did a bored tourist inscribe his initial while waiting for the tour? Maybe.

Edwin Marble: "I'm watching you!!!!!!!"(Two fingers pointing at me.)

Locate Dungeon Rock @ Google Map

The Friends of Lynn Woods:;
The New England Earthquake of 1638:
Weird Massachusetts by Jeff Belanger
Weird New England by Joseph A. Citro