Friday, July 20, 2007

Old State House

Boston's Old State House is one of the sites on the Freedom Trail, but it's one I had never checked out before. (Maybe because it has an admission fee? Not sure, but it's another instance of how you sometimes overlook interesting places in your own backyard. Then again, since members of The Bostonian Society get free admission, I didn't have to pay for my visit yesterday. So I'm sure the cheapskate reason is to blame.)

The Old State House is the oldest surviving public building in the city, having been built in 1713. It was the seat of royal government for Massachusetts, and then, after the Revolution, it became the seat of the commonwealth's government until it left for the "new" State House in 1798. It was outside this building that the Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770.

The Old State House is now a museum. The first floor presents exhibits on colonial Boston and the path to revolution, and the second floor contains the chambers where the legislature and court met. There are rotating exhibits in the basement and in the chambers.

Here are some of the artifacts I found particularly interesting:
  • A small vile of tea from the Boston Tea Party that was shaken from the boots of Thomas Melvill, one of the participants. In an interesting historical tidbit, Melvill was the grandfather of author Herman Melville.

  • A reproduction of the coroner's report for Crispus Attucks, one of the victims of the Boston Massacre. (His real name was Michael Johnson. Who knew?)

  • The Liberty Tree Flag, which was flown from the Liberty Tree elm to announce meetings of the Sons of Liberty. The British chopped the tree down in 1775. The flag is the oldest known red and white flag in the colonies and could be a precursor to today's Stars and Stripes.
There's also a coat worn by John Hancock, who in addition to being the noted signatory of the Declaration of Independence was the first governor of Massachusetts, and a musket from the Battle of Lexington.

One surprising artifact was on display in a temporary exhibit. It was the cane used by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina to savagely beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856. (And you think political discourse in Congress is bad now?) It's one of those moments from history that has always fascinated me and to see the actual cane from the event was quite unexpected.

If you visit, don't worry about the periodic rumbling underneath your feet. That's the subway, which goes underneath the basement. There's actually a vibration meter in the museum that registers with every passing train.

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