Memory  /  First Person

On the Trail—to Freedom?

Touring the palimpsests of cities.

Cities are palimpsests, their contemporary surfaces concealing, though not entirely effacing, their more remote past; they require skillful and creative interpreters. One of my favorite bits from my own Freedom Trail tour is a story I tell at the top of Spring Lane, across the street from an old brick building where there’s now a Chipotle Mexican Grill. That building, built in 1712, stands on the site of Anne Hutchinson’s home and once housed Ticknor and Fields, the great literary publishing house of the American Renaissance, which printed the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others. Ticknor and Fields also operated a bookstore downstairs, the Old Corner Book Shop, that was a favorite haunt of many of these same nineteenth-century writers.

When standing next to this building, I don’t immediately reveal any of this background. Instead, I set things up by telling a story of eighteenth-century mob violence that took place in the streets and alleyways nearby. The story I tell, an adapted version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” describes a young man from the provinces who arrives in Boston to connect with a rich relation, the titular Molineux. Wandering the streets, the young man asks strangers for his kinsman’s whereabouts, is ignored or shooed away whenever he mentions the major’s name, nearly gets seduced by a prostitute, and eventually comes upon a mob tarring and feathering the poor man he has been seeking in front of the Old South Meeting House, just up the block from where I relate the story.

I tell it all with a fair amount of suspense and detail—dwelling on the sadistic, leering laughter of the crowd and connecting it to other instances of eighteenth-century mob activity such as annual anti-Catholic Pope Day parades or the Stamp Act Riots of 1765. I reveal only at the end that the story is a work of fiction—albeit one with a strong basis in history, Hawthorne having drawn inspiration from the real-life tarring and feathering of a British customs agent, John Malcolm, in 1774. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” was published in 1832, I tell my guests, in the building where you can now order a burrito.

I like this story because it peels back layer after layer of the city’s history. It simultaneously acknowledges the contemporary ubiquity of fast-food commerce; the nineteenth-century literary mythmaking, represented by Hawthorne, that established Boston as the seat of American history and culture; and, finally, the eighteenth-century tradition of carnivalesque violence—the “people out of doors”—that Hawthorne’s story evokes, which makes for an uncomfortable, ambiguous, and yet undeniably thought-provoking legacy of the American Revolution. Not bad for six-minute yarn in front of a Chipotle.