If you’ve been in Lexington during the spring or summer, you’ve probably heard the unmistakable sound of the bell from the Old Belfry. Every Patriot’s Day it helps to announce the arrival of the British Regulars during the Battle of Lexington Reenactment. Perhaps you’ve been in town during the Historical Society’s week-long summer camp and have heard it as participants of the camp take turns ringing the bell. But what’s the story of the Old Belfry? The unique and somewhat forgotten history of one of the more lesser known properties the Historical Society cares for starts years before its clanging bells alerted the townspeople of Lexington to the approach of the British Regulars.
Charles Hudson doesn’t discuss the belfry in much detail in his book History of the Town of Lexington, but he does discuss the origins of the structure. He mentions a specific town meeting held on June 15, 1761 when Isaac Stone presented the town with a bell “weighted four hundred and sixty-three pounds” and the Town’s conclusion that a structure to house the bell should be placed “on ye top of ye Hill upon ye North side of Liet. Jonas Munroes house” (Hudson, 60). However, this site would not be the structure’s permanent home.
After the death of Jonas, his son John asked the town that his property tax be reduced in return for allowing the belfry to be on his land. The town resisted the proposal, leading to the first relocation of the belfry, when rather stealthily on one night in 1767, a group of unknown people secretly moved the belfry to the Town Common. This secret move instigated a small bit of drama in town and even made its way on to Town Meeting’s agenda in hopes of resolving the issue. Eventually the decision was reached to move the belfry to a different part of the Common. This third location of the belfry is where the structure would be when the Battle of Lexington occurred on April 19th, 1775 and its bell would ring out in unison with many other alarms during those early morning hours (this location is now marked by a boulder, placed on the Common in 1910). The location marked by the boulder is where the structure would remain until 1797 at which point it was sold to the Parker family and moved to their homestead on Spring Street and used as a wheelwright shop.
It wasn’t until 1891 that the Old Belfry would come under the auspices of the Historical Society. At a meeting in February of 1891, Mr. James S. Munroe, after purchasing the Old Belfry from the Parker family, offered it to the Historical Society “if they would move it to town and place it in a prominent place” (LHS Proceedings Vol. II, ii). The Historical Society agreed and a committee was selected and tasked to “restore it to a suitable location near its original position” (Hudson, p. 490). Later that month, the Society voted to place the Old Belfry on the lot for the new Hancock School on Clarke Street, marking the belfry’s fifth location in town. On Saturday April 18, 1891 the Society held a dedication service to the restoration of the Old Belfry.
However, as happens with wooden buildings, the belfry began to fall into a state of disrepair and decay. The original belfry would cease to exist when on June 20, 1909 a strong gale wind would damage the structure beyond repair. The Historical Society formed a committee of three people who would “have full charge of rebuilding the Old Belfry . . . on such site as the Committee may select.” (LHS Proceedings Vol. IV, 182). The reproduction was installed in March 1910 and was “constructed as nearly as possible on its old lines and on the same site.” (Proceedings Vol. IV, 184). After only three years the belfry was relocated one last time, from the back end of Belfry Hill to its present site on the front part of the hill.
If you find yourself at the corner of Clarke Street and Massachusetts Avenue, follow the trail that leads to the Old Belfry, but mind your step as the trail is rocky and steep in some sections. More info on the belfry.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
One of the most exciting things about having such a wide variety of materials in the archives is that there is always something different to look at. I recently rehoused our collection of daguerreotypes, in order to better preserve them, and found some spectacular examples of Lexington history!
But first, what is a daguerreotype?
Daguerreotypes (pronounced da·guerre·o·type) are the earliest form of commercial photography. The process was invented in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, hence the name. Unlike modern photography, which seems so quick and painless, the process to create a daguerreotype is long and complicated. First, a silver plated piece of copper is polished in a very particular way to create a completely smooth mirrored surface. Then the plate is exposed to iodine gas to “prime” the plate and make it light sensitive. Then the plate is exposed to light, imprinting the image onto the plate. Finally, the image is “fixed” meaning that the residual light-sensitive chemicals were removed through being washed with another chemical so that the image would remain on the plate. The plate is then mounted in a decorative wooden case with gold trim and a velvet lining. It’s quite a process, if you ask me!
The French government in exchange for a lifetime pension bought Daguerre’s invention for a lifetime pension, and the process was given freely to the world (except England where it was patented). Daguerreotypes were popular from 1840-1860. Besides daguerreotypes, you may also hear the terms ambrotype and tintype used to describe photographs from this period. These are similar methods to daguerreotypes but use different chemistry to create their images. Luckily, modern photography has moved beyond this extremely labor-intensive process, but history has left us to reap its benefits.
For more information on daguerreotypes:
Now, on to the cool photos (below)!
-Lina Rosenberg, Operations Manager and Archivist
My Lexington story begins at the Old Burying Ground behind First Parish Church.
Literally, in fact. One of my cousins grew up right next door in the Battle Green Apartments, and the old stones were our playground for childhood scavenger hunts. I had a vague notion of being somewhere important when I stumbled upon the elaborate tabletop-style grave of the reverend John Hancock. Seven-year-old me was not yet keen on history, but she knew she'd heard that name somewhere before.
I’ve always been fascinated by the artwork on the oldest stones, from the grotesque winged skulls to the attempted portraits of the deceased. But until recently, I didn’t know that there was an anomaly hidden in the back corner of the burying ground. While doing research for our weekly graveyard tour, I discovered the grave of Thomas Prentice, a Lexington lawyer who died in 1760. I never noticed it before - his gravestone is easy to pass by. It can be hard to see in direct sunlight; the carving isn’t as deeply incised as most of the stones around it. Adorning the top of the stone is not a skull or an angel, but a sort of bizarre mixture of the two, a skull shape with human eyes and a vaguely reassuring smile on its face. Near the bottom, in a font unique to this stone, the final line reads, “Engrav’d by Abel Webster, 1763”.
This invites quite a few questions. Why is this the only stone of its type in Lexington, and why is it signed so prominently? While studying graveyard art is fairly common, we don’t often think about who actually did the carving. Stone carvers who signed their work generally did it on the back of the stone, underground, or hidden in the design, not splayed in bold across the front. Clearly Abel felt very highly about himself. But it wasn't completed until three years after Prentice's death. Also, skulls don't usually have lips. What's going on here?
It turns out that the Webster family stone carving shop is something of a local legend. Abel and his brother Stephen were known for their mid-century stones that transition between 17th century skulls and 18th century “soul effigies” (the carvings that look a bit like angels). Trying to portray the eternal soul in a less gruesome way, they invented a completely unique art style. They didn't always agree on the execution, though. According to one story, they even fought over how optimistic about death they should be. Abel’s carvings generally feature happy-looking, smiling faces, while Stephen’s carvings are apathetic at best and depressed at worst. This makes identifying the carver fairly easy, even when they aren’t signed – just look for the smile or the frown!
The reason why Lexingtonians haven’t heard of this hilarious bit of local lore? The Websters were actually from Chester, New Hampshire! The majority of stones carved by them are found in Chester and the border town of Hollis, next to Nashua. It’s likely that Abel was working as an itinerant carver in a variety of towns to augment his work with the local population. Thomas Prentice’s family may have leapt at the chance to have a completely new type of stone marking his grave, making it stand out among those created by local carvers.
The type of carving Abel usually did is called a "light bulb head" in gravestone history circles, for obvious reasons. Some of them are actually quite adorable.
Stephen seems to have mostly used one shape and one theme on his carvings. I guess if you have a signature style, you should stick with it, even if it's pessimistic!
The Farber Gravestone Collection at the American Antiquarian Society is a great resource to see the work of different carvers. You can browse more of Abel and Stephen's work by searching their interactive database of New England gravestones. All of the pictures in this post can be found there.
Also, be sure to join us on a "Stories in Stone" tour to see the Thomas Prentice grave for yourself! Tours are only $5 and run every Friday at 11 AM, leaving from Buckman Tavern. More information can be found here.
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.