The crime scenes of the city's haunted and hunted
As the gloaming descends upon the North End, the red-and-green neon sign of Pizzeria Regina glows in the dusky shroud. Except for humming streetlights, all is quiet on the empty sidewalks. A milky veil of steam from the nearby laundromat offers a secretive cloak as I lean in to hear the whispers of gangsters, murders, and wiretaps that waft in the air with the scent of garlic and fresh dough.
While it feels as if I’ve wandered into a crime novel, I’m on The Dark Side of Boston Walking Tour, organized by Boston by Foot, sleuthing for evidence of the Hub’s lurid history of crime and punishment. Tales of scoundrels, crooks, and notorious felons lurking behind the city’s quaint facade always pique our curiosity, particularly when they seep into our exclusive institutions, leaving golden domes tarnished and ivory towers blemished.
“Boston has a glorious Revolutionary War history and great firsts, but the city’s darker side that you may not hear about from costumed Colonial guides is also worth celebrating,’’ says Gretchen Grozier, my Boston by Foot volunteer guide. The stories of Bostonians behaving badly are so popular that beginning this year The Dark Side of Boston tour through the North End will be offered weekly.
After taking me by Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, where thousands eagerly converged in 1704 to watch Captain John Quelch and his fellow pirates be hanged from the gallows on the harbor mudflats, Grozier stops outside a nondescript Prince Street parking garage. There she shares the story of how an office inside was the scene of one of history’s most notorious heists: the 1950 Brink’s robbery. The thieves walked away with almost $3 million. The FBI spent nearly $30 million investigating the crime and ultimately recovered about $50,000.
Down Prince Street, we pass the row house that served as headquarters for the late mob underboss Gennaro “Jerry’’ Angiulo. Of course, in Colonial times authorities were more concerned about witches than La Cosa Nostra, and the Dark Side of Boston tour includes the story of Goody Glover, an Irish immigrant who was hanged from Boston Common’s Great Elm in 1688 for the alleged crime of witchcraft.
Glover was one of four women executed for witchcraft in Boston. “We’re not very prolific compared with Salem, but we had our day,’’ Grozier says. Today Glover’s name graces an Irish pub along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. It makes me wonder how many years will need to pass until someone opens a place called Whitey Bulger’s.
The madness of the witch hunts led to the establishment of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which sits in Government Center’s beautifully restored John Adams Courthouse. This exquisite hall of justice is the theater for a constant string of legal dramas, and the public is welcome to attend court sessions.
The day I visit there are no sessions on the docket, but I check out the exhibit rooms flanking the ornate Great Hall with its soaring, barrel-vaulted ceiling. One exhibit focuses on the namesake of the courthouse, and another covers the 1920s arrest, trial, and execution of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on charges of armed robbery and murder. Interpretive panels document the legal saga that attracted worldwide attention and flatly state that, while their guilt or innocence is still a subject of controversy, “Sacco and Vanzetti did not receive a fair trial.’’
To learn more, I venture inside another great civic space, the Boston Public Library, and after flashing my library card and photo ID, I’m inside the Rare Books Department and face to face with Sacco and Vanzetti — literally. Kimberly Reynolds, the library’s curator of manuscripts, retrieves the ashen plaster death masks of the two men from the library’s sanctum of treasures and places them on the table before me. Even with their eyelids shut, I can feel their piercing stares.
Reynolds then shows me a wooden canister clad in a cloth and a single black ribbon. As if she was dispensing a recipe, she says, “Now these are one-third of Sacco and one-third of Vanzetti.’’ Strangely, sitting alone in front of the men’s commingled ashes was even eerier than seeing their death masks. Sacco and Vanzetti seem to follow me as I leave the Rare Books Department and pass a plaster cast of a memorial to the men carved by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
Back in the North End, Matt Black of Old Boston Tours shows me the Hanover Street location of the funeral home where thousands of mourners paid their respects to Sacco and Vanzetti. I’m on the new Sin and Redemption Tour, which ventures inside churches and sacred spaces, but I’m more interested in demons than angels.
Black points out sites of mob hits and takes me on a trip back through time down North Street, which used to be a rough-and-tumble red light district with bars, gambling dens, and brothels hugging the harbor. “There was always someone doing something wrong down here,’’ Black says. “This was the Wild West.’’
Some Revolutionary-era icons also have a shady side. Black tells me the belfry of the Old North Church signaled not just Paul Revere but bootleggers as well, telling them on which shore to drop their goods. He also takes me past the former location of a wharf where John Hancock smuggled Portuguese wine past British authorities.
You may not expect to find a connection in Boston to the country’s most famous bootlegger, Al Capone, but the Stockyard restaurant sports a massive mahogany bar that was once owned by the legendary Chicago kingpin. Owner Neil Manning says his father purchased the bar at an auction in Atlanta, and it was shipped up to Boston in crates and reassembled. You’ll find the middle of the bar behind the reception desk and the sides in the Tavern Room. There’s no need to fear the G-men these days when you belly up to Capone’s bar since the potables are all legal.
After some liquid refreshment, I’m ready to explore Boston’s crime of the century, . . . the 19th century, that is. When George Parkman, one of Boston’s wealthiest men, suddenly disappeared in 1849, it sparked a massive manhunt that led to the gruesome discovery of his dismembered bones in the privy underneath the laboratory of Harvard Medical College professor John Webster. In an episode of internecine violence among Boston Brahmins, Webster had lethally clubbed Parkman in a dispute about a debt owed by the professor, and after a sensational trial, Webster was convicted and executed.
I hit the streets with my iPhone and a video tour about the Parkman homicide that I had downloaded. While the production value of “Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill’’ is so cinematic you could watch it at home, I follow the instructions of my tour guide and her slightly creepy Wednesday Addams monotone from the murder location, now in the shadows of the Massachusetts General Hospital high-rises, through the streets of Beacon Hill to Parkman’s Walnut Street residence. There are interactive stops at local businesses where you can retrieve items that provide context to the story, such as a pop-up book at Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill or a 19th-century board game at the Liberty Hotel. (To get in the spirit of the day, have a cocktail surrounded by celebrity mug shots at the hotel’s bar, Alibi.)
While the technology is new, curiosity about Boston’s underbelly isn’t. When Charles Dickens arrived in Boston nearly two decades after Parkman’s untimely demise, the one landmark he most wanted to see was Webster’s laboratory, the scene of the crime.
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.