A lively history of Boston’s emergence as a world-class city, by a beloved Boston historian.
Between 1850 and 1900, Boston underwent a stunning metamorphosis from an insulated New England town into one of the world’s great metropolises-one that achieved worldwide prominence in politics, medicine, education, science, social activism, literature, commerce, and transportation.
In A City So Grand, Stephen Puleo chronicles this remarkable period in Boston’s history. He takes readers through the ferocity of the abolitionist movement of the 1850s, the thirty-five-year engineering and city-planning feat of the Back Bay project, Boston’s explosion in size through immigration and annexation, the devastating Great Fire of 1872, and the glorious opening of America’s first subway station in 1897. This lively journey paints a portrait of a half century of progress, leadership, and influence.
“It’s been quite a while since I’ve read anything-fiction or nonfiction-so enthralling.”-Dennis Lehane
“Stephen Puleo’s new book is more evidence of the urban role in civilization, as it reminds us of the remarkable accomplishments of late nineteenth-century Boston.”-Edward Glaeser, The New Republic book blog
“Stephen Puleo, a historian of Boston who has written about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and the Italian community in the North End, takes a wider view in his new book, A City So Grand. The cast of characters includes Frederick Douglass and Alexander Graham Bell. The Big Dig equivalents are the opening of the city’s underground subway system and the Great Boston Railroad Jubilee marking the beginning of train service to Montreal and Chicago.”-Jan Gardner, The Boston Globe
“‘No period in Boston’s history was more dynamic’ than the second half of the 19th century, writes Puleo in this smoothly narrated account of that time and place. . . . Despite tensions and disasters, Boston emerged as one of the world’s leading cities. . . . A thorough history.”-Publishers Weekly
I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom. --Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1856
Tuesday, April 8, 1851. The conspirators would wait one more day, and then strike under cover of darkness.
They knew full well the risks--arrests, fines, perhaps prison--but the justness of their cause outweighed any personal consequences, and the timing of events made delay impossible. Though hastily conceived, their plan withstood scrutiny; sound in concept, its brazenness was equaled only by its simplicity.
The men stood clustered in a tight circle, their voices low, their demeanor somber, unaffected by the disbanding crowd, which still buzzed with excitement. The boisterous meeting had ended, but those who attended would long remember the thunderous speeches delivered inside the Tremont Temple this day, ten hours of addresses that represented more than rhetoric to the small band of abolitionists who now gathered in one corner of Boston’s downtown meetinghouse. To them, the day’s oratory cried out for justice and demanded action.
Led by the fiery Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, these men saw their mission in the clearest of terms: free the imprisoned runaway slave Thomas Sims and convey him to a stop along the Underground Railroad for eventual safe passage to Canada.
If they failed, Sims would be hauled back to Georgia to face punishment from his former owner and resume a pitiful existence in slavery’s shackles, a life he had fled when he stowed away on a brig that left Savannah in late February.
The twenty-three-year-old Sims had already overcome daunting odds on his journey to freedom, making his current confinement all the more tragic. For two weeks during the vessel’s wintry northern voyage he had escaped detection, avoiding the crew and providing for himself. Then, on March 6, with Boston’s lights in sight, the brig’s mate discovered the stowaway. “Sims was cursed at, struck, and brought before the captain,” according to one newspaper account, and then locked in a cabin while the ship lay anchored outside Boston Harbor. But the crew had failed to take his pocketknife. That night, Sims jimmied the lock, lowered one of the ship’s lifeboats into the water, and rowed toward freedom. He landed in South Boston and “took lodging in a colored seaman’s boardinghouse, and while in the city, made no effort to conceal himself.”
But then Sims made a grave mistake. Destitute and hoping to arrange for funds to bring his free wife and children to Boston, he wired to Savannah for money--and the telegram included his return address. Somehow, Sims’s whereabouts reached one James Potter, who claimed that Sims was his property. One week later, Potter’s agent, John Bacon, arrived in Boston seeking Thomas Sims as a fugitive slave. Bacon secured a warrant for Sims’s arrest on the morning of April 3, and Boston police cornered the runaway slave on the street that evening. Fighting for his freedom, Sims stabbed officer Asa Butman in the thigh with his pocketknife, snapping the knife in two. Police then overpowered Sims, tossed him into a carriage, and drove him to the courthouse; witnesses heard him cry, “I’m in the hands of kidnappers!”
Now, five days later, a plan had emerged to disentangle him from those clutches.
Only a handful of men would know details of the plot, and fewer still would take part in the actual breakout. This had less to do with the need for secrecy than with the reticence of the larger abolitionist community to act boldly, a stance that had prevailed during the gathering to discuss the fugitive slave’s case. In a hall that one account described as “packed almost to suffocation” with an excited and angry audience, Higginson had delivered a spellbinding speech calling for
decisive action, even force, to save Sims, during which the assembly “trembled” and the community “was brought to the eve of revolution.” But the speaker who followed Higginson, influential attorney Charles Mayo Ellis, protested the clergyman’s combative tone, issued a plea for calm, and, Higginson despaired, “threw cold water upon all action.” Instead, the group adopted resolves condemning the Fugitive Slave Law--which forced Northern states to return runaways to bondage--and the proceedings against Sims. “The law and order men prevailed,” one abolitionist reported. Higginson concluded: “It was evident that if anything was done, it must be done by a very few.” He wasted no time. Immediately following Ellis’s address, Higginson gathered a small group of men who were inclined to do more than pass resolutions, men who “seemed to me to show more fighting quality than the rest.”
Part One: A City So Bold
Chapter 1: Abolitionists and the Fugitive Slave Law
Chapter 2: The Great Railroad Jubilee
Chapter 3: The Irrepressible Irish
Chapter 4: Filling the Back Bay
Chapter 5: The Gallows Glorious
Part Two: A City Transformed
Chapter 6: No Turning Back
Chapter 7: War
Chapter 8: Peace, Expansion, Perserverance
Chapter 9: An End and a Beginning
Part Three: A City So Grand
Chapter 10: The Centennial, the Sensational, and Beyond
Chapter 11: Breaking New Ground