Revolutionary history, one story at time

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kerry Keene
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2008

In the heart of Boston, amid its tall buildings and hectic urban life, the 21st century coexists with the 18th when guides in Revolutionary-era garb lead tours along the Freedom Trail.

"People come from all over the world to walk the trail and hear the stories. I also have a blast with the school groups that come here on field trips," said guide Elissa Forsythe of Brookline.

Forsythe, an actress who has been part of the cast of "Shear Madness" at the Charles Playhouse for 10 years, most often portrays Rachel Revere, Paul's second wife who bore him eight children.

"I try to inject humor, along with trying to educate. Kids have asked me how old I am, and responding as Rachel Revere, I tell them 253 years old," she said. "Some of them have asked 'Are you a ghost?' Of course, I also get to brag quite a bit about my 'husband,' Paul."

Forsythe is one of about two dozen people employed by The Freedom Trail Foundation to represent historic figures from Boston's Revolutionary period. The foundation has been overseeing the 16 sites on the trail since 1958.

Two tours are generally available: An hour-and-a-half tour that covers 12 sites and concludes at Faneuil Hall and an extended tour that continues on to Charlestown and ends at the Bunker Hill Monument.

Sam Jones, creative director of the nonprofit foundation, said, "Our mission is to promote and preserve the sites of the trail and their history." He continued, "There had been many others portraying historical figures over the years, but it was in 1995 that it really blossomed into the program we have now."

Back then the foundation placed ads in local acting trade publications seeking people to portray the characters and conduct tours. When Forsythe accepted her position that year, she did so with some trepidation. "I thought people might throw fruit at me " she laughed.

Georgia Gates Derr of Sherborn, a former middle school teacher who plays Hannah Adams (cousin of John), said the program has allowed her to stay active in education. "When I left teaching, I had an enormous void," she said. "But conducting these tours provides all the joys of teaching without the headaches." She added, "I design my tour as a history teacher might, and I've found that the teachers who've been on it are exceptionally pleased."

Jones said between 20,000 and 30,000 students visit on field trips each year. A group of about 100 eighth-grade girls from Overbrook Academy in Warwick, R.I., took Forsythe's tour earlier this year. Beth LeBlanc, the academy's dean of discipline who chaperoned the group, said, "The guide created much more of an in-depth experience, and it was more than just factual information. They were interesting and colorful facts."

One of LeBlanc's students, Bictoria Rewes, 14, said, "She really made it seem like she was that person who lived through the Revolutionary War times."

Forsythe drew laughs from the group as they were entering the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street when she deadpanned, "This is where my husband, Paul, is buried, and of course, me too - but I don't like to talk about that."

Derr likes to point out that her character, Hannah Adams, was noteworthy in the late 1700s as America's first female professional writer, having authored three books on world religion and one on the history of New England.

Jones says he hires "creative types." "We have our guides select a historical figure so that they can tell a bit about the character as they begin their tour. It brings it all to the present, as if we have someone in our midst who lived through it and saw it all happen."

Jones explained his philosophy of selecting which figures are portrayed. "We will do some of the more famous characters when people request them for certain special events, but on the trail we prefer to educate visitors about some they don't know so well." Added Forsythe, "If you portray the famous ones, such as John Hancock or Paul Revere, people want you to talk mainly about them. But with a lesser-known figure, you're able to focus more on the sites."

One of these lesser-knowns, Ebenezer McIntosh, is played by Matt Wilding of Jamaica Plain. Armed with a history degree from Suffolk University, Wilding brings a high dose of passion to his tours, and said, "Mine are a bit more politically inflammatory than some."

Of McIntosh, Wilding explained, "He was a shoemaker, but I like the emphasis on the working-class people. He was a bit of a drunkard and a rabble-rouser, but he was also a key figure in the Sons of Liberty movement."

On an early April afternoon, Wilding, outfitted in his tri-cornered hat, linen jacket, pantaloons, and buckled shoes, held court under a tree on Boston Common, regaling a dozen or so tourists with stories from the founding of our country.

"Sometimes," he said, "you can sort of trick people into learning by making it fun and colorful."

Kerry Keene, a freelance writer in Raynham, can be reached at

If You Go

Freedom Trail tours


Tickets ($12) are sold at the Boston Common Visitor Information Center, 148 Tremont St., or the BosTix kiosk at Faneuil Hall.

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