The Beacon Hill Tour begins at the Massachusetts State House with the statues of two seventeenth century women religious dissenters. The tour continues up, down, and across Beacon Hill, often paralleling the Black Heritage Trail. Starting with intense activity in the period before and after the Civil War and continuing into the nineteenth century, women writers and artists living here supported social movements ranging from anti-slavery to suffrage. The tour pays particular attention to the story of Beacon Hill’s African American women and of Boston’s first women doctors and professional nurses. Beacon Hill is a designated Historic District with narrow, steep, sometimes cobblestone streets, and brick homes featuring beautiful doorways and window boxes. It was first developed by the Mount Vernon Proprietors in 1795. Charles Street along its western edge includes antique and specialty shops, restaurants, and grocery stores.
Begins: Massachusetts State House
Statues of Women Dissenters: Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson
Massachusetts State House, fronting the East and West Wings
Two of Boston’s earliest dissenters were Mary Dyer (d. 1660) and Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643). Mary Dyer, a Quaker, witnessed on the Boston Common two times before she was hanged for heresy. Anne Hutchinson was banished from Boston after she accused the Puritan oligarchy of preaching that “good works” would bring God’s grace. As a pledge of their friendship and shared belief in the role of religious dissenters, Mary Dyer walked beside Hutchinson after she was excommunicated from the Puritan church.
Hepzibah Clarke Swan and Julia Ward Howe
13-17 Chestnut Street
Designed by Charles Bulfinch ca. 1806, this house represents the lives of two notable Boston women: Hepzibah Clarke Swan (1757-1825) and Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). Swan was one of the five original members of the Mount Vernon proprietors whose goal was to transform Beacon Hill into a fashionable neighborhood. She had the three row houses at numbers 13, 15, 17 built for her daughters and another for herself at number 16. Her collection of French furnishings is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as are several of the family portraits she commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint.
Julia Ward Howe, who is best known as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic written at the beginning of the Civil War, lived at 13 Chestnut during that period, one of her several residences in Boston. Howe was a noted reformer and early participant in the women’s club movement after the war. She was joined by a group of women, including Caroline Severance (1820-1914), in founding the New England Women’s Club in 1868, one of the first women’s clubs in the country. Howe was a leader in the woman suffrage movement and helped found the Woman’s Journal. Howe read papers at the meetings of the Radical Club, a club for women and men who were “daring thinkers” which often met at this site. In 1879, three years after her husband’s death, Howe moved to 241 Beacon Street.
Rose Nichols and Nichols House Museum
55 Mount Vernon Street
Rose Standish Nichols (1872-1964) was among the first well-known women landscape architects and a lifelong pacifist who lived on Mount Vernon Street her entire life. She traveled extensively throughout the world and developed an interest in international politics. She left her house to the public and as a place for offices of organizations promoting international friendship.
Home of Harriot Curtis (1881-1974) and Margaret Curtis (1883-1965)
28-30 Mount Vernon Street
Harriot Curtis (1881-1974) and her sister Margaret Curtis (1883-1965) were athletes and social activists. In 1909, the sisters opened the East Boston Dispensary, an outpatient clinic for the mostly Italian American patients. Margaret went to Europe a year before the United States entered World War I and worked there with the Red Cross to help refugees. Harriot became a dean at Hampton Institute in Virginia. In 1932, Harriot and Margaret, both national golf champions, founded the Curtis Cup, the best known team trophy for amateur women golfers.
Portia School of Law
45-47 Mount Vernon Street
Portia School of Law began in 1908 when two women who wanted to take the Massachusetts bar examination asked Attorney Arthur W. MacLean to tutor them. His wife, Bertha MacLean, named the nascent school after “Portia” who disguises herself as a lawyer in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The informal school expanded and became the only school providing legal education for women exclusively. In 1920 the first L.L.B. degrees were awarded to thirty-nine women.
In 1923, Blanche Woodson Braxton (1894-1939), a graduate of Portia Law in 1921, became the first African American woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. She later became the first African American woman admitted to practice in the U.S. District Court in the state. Portia Law changed its name to New England School of Law in 1969. The first woman president of the Board of Trustees of New England School of Law was Anna E. Hirsch (1902-97), a 1928 graduate of Portia Law. Hirsch was elected register of probate for Norfolk County in 1954 and 1960.
Home of Bashka Paeff
6 Pinckney Street
Known as the “subway sculptress” because in her spare time during work as a toll collector at the Park Street subway station she created clay models for her studies at the Museum of Fine Arts, Bashka Paeff (1893-1973) was a Russian Jewish immigrant who lived with her family at 6 Pinckney Street. Her most controversial work, The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, stands in John Paul Jones Park in Kittery, Maine. Although she made changes to soften the work at the request of the governor, she originally wanted to depict the horrors of war, saying “…we should set up memorials that make us loathe war instead of admire it”. Other notable works include the Boy and Bird fountain in the Public Garden, a memorial honoring WWI Massachusetts chaplains in the Massachusetts State House, and The Battle of Lexington for the town of Lexington. She received the Daniel Chester French award from the National Academy of Design as well as numerous other awards.
Elizabeth Peabody’s Kindergarten
15 Pinckney Street
One of the locations of a kindergarten of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-94), considered the founder of the kindergarten movement in the United States, was at 15 Pinckney Street which, although no longer standing, was the mirror image of 17 Pinckney Street. Influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Fröebel, Peabody became an advocate for kindergartens nationwide, publishing the Kindergarten Messenger and organizing the American Froebel Union. She was a link between the visionaries of the Transcendental movement and educational reformers.
Home of Louisa May Alcott
20 Pinckney Street
Although author Louisa May Alcott (1832-88) is best known for her book, Little Women, describing her family life in Concord, Massachusetts, she had several Boston homes. The daughter of famed Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, she lived here with her family in rented rooms from 1852-55. As an adult, she often stayed with other reformist women in the “sky parlor” of the Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, owned by Dr. Dio Lewis, principal of Boston’s Normal Institute for Physical Education, and near her publisher, Roberts Brothers. In the last decade of her life, Alcott purchased a home for her family at 10 Louisburg Square, but was too ill to enjoy it for herself. She died at the age of 55, probably of poison from the mercury used to treat the typhoid fever she contracted as a Civil War nurse.
Home for Aged Colored Women
27 Myrtle Street
Established on Beacon Hill in 1860 at the beginning of the Civil War by both African American and white abolitionists, the home provided old-age housing for women who were formerly enslaved as well as Black women from Boston’s free Black community who had lived and worked in Boston. The home was here from 1864-1900, later moving to 22 Hancock Street, and was supported by the community into the 1920s.
Office of Salome Merritt
59 Hancock Street
Salome Merritt (1843-1900) was a physician, suffragist and lecturer who also played an important role in the civic life of Boston. She graduated from the New York Free Medical College for Women in 1874 and then taught at that school for two years before returning to Boston and establishing a medical practice at this location. She worked to nominate and elect women to Boston’s School Board and was instrumental in the formation of a Committee of Counsel and Co-operation in Boston which promoted reforms in labor practices for women and advocated for policies to improve public health. Later Merritt was among the women who encouraged the mayor to appoint a Board of Visitors to ensure accountability in city departments. She was president for many years of the Ladies’ Physiological Institute which had been formed in 1848 and sponsored regular lectures on how women could keep themselves and their families healthy.
Museum of African American History and Abiel Smith School
46 Joy Street
The Museum of African American History, which was founded in 1964 by Sue Bailey Thurman (1903-96), acquired the neighboring African Meeting House in 1972. Among its former directors was Ruth Batson (1921-2003), a leading civil rights activist in Boston. She was chairperson of the education committee of the Boston NAACP that led the fight in the early 1960s against segregation in the Boston Public Schools and a founder and later director of the METCO voluntary desegregation program.
The Abiel Smith School served African American children from 1835 to 1855 until the state legislature passed an act allowing them to attend the school closest to their homes. The change was prompted by the actions of Benjamin Roberts, an African American, who sued the city in 1848 stating that his daughter Sarah Roberts was unlawfully refused entrance to five schools between her home and the Smith School. Although Roberts lost his case despite the help of prominent abolitionists, his actions had the long-term effect of opening all Boston Public Schools to African American children.
Eliza Ann Gardner (1831-1922) led the way among Black churchwoman as they sought political power and advocated for equal rights in their churches focusing on changing church law and building community. Living in Boston most of her life, Gardner attended the Smith School, and worked as a dressmaker and ran a boarding house. She was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, founded the Zion Missionary Society of New England, and was instrumental in the church allowing women to be ordained as ministers. She was an active abolitionist and suffragist and was a founding member with Josephine St Pierre Ruffin of the Woman’s Era Club.
African Meeting House
8 Smith Court
The church, the oldest standing African American church building in America, was built in 1805-6 in the heart of Boston’s African American community on the north slope of Beacon Hill. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery society here in 1832, and the church became a center for abolitionist activity.
Among women abolitionists active in this church before the Civil War was Maria Stewart (1803-79) who challenged other free African American women: “O, ye daughters of Africa, Awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties.” Stewart is credited as the first American-born woman to speak in public before an audience that included both men and women. There is a marker at her home at 81 Joy Street.
Nancy Gardner Prince (1799-1859) moved to Boston as a young woman in search of work in 1816 and was baptized at the African Meeting House the following year. In 1824, she married Nero Prince and moved with her husband to Russia. Prince lived in Russia until 1833, when she returned home due to health concerns. Her husband died in Russia. After returning to Boston, Prince became an important member of the free Black community. She helped to establish a society for orphans that unfortunately failed after three months, and in 1840, sailed to Jamaica to carry out abolitionist work. In 1839, Prince was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and gave two lectures on Russian culture that were presented at the Abiel Smith School and Rev. J. C. Beman’s church on Cambridge Street. In 1847 Prince led the women of Smith Court in saving their neighbor Mrs. Dorsey from recapture by the slave catcher Woodfork. Woodfork did not return to Boston until after 1850 and the passage of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law. In 1853, Prince published A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince Written by Herself in order to continue supporting herself.
Home of Rebecca Lee Crumpler
67 Joy Street
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-95) is considered to be the first African American woman doctor. She received a “Doctress of Medicine” in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College in Boston’s South End, later merged into the Boston University School of Medicine. Born in Delaware, Crumpler was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt. She came to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852 where she worked as a nurse. After she received her degree, she practiced in post-Civil War Virginia where she worked with the Freedman’s Bureau and other groups to provide medical care for freed slaves. She next moved back to Boston where she set up her medical practice on Joy Street. She focused on women and children and emphasized nutrition and preventive medicine. She presented her experiences and knowledge in A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.
The Vilna Shul
14-18 Phillips Street
The Vilna Shul was built in 1919 to serve the Jewish community on Beacon Hill as a synagogue and community center. Although it closed in 1985, the building has been restored as a Jewish cultural center. Before they built the synagogue, the congregation of Lithuanian Jews worshipped in temporary spaces for nearly twenty-five years. They named the synagogue for the city of Vilnius, because they considered it to be the center of Jewish culture in Lithuania. Many of the original members of the congregation emigrated from Vilnius where there was a large and thriving Jewish community. Only a few decades later it was destroyed by the Holocaust. The names of the women who were among the founding members of the synagogue are listed on a plaque in the back of the sanctuary. Although the entire congregation sat on the same level, the women’s section was separate from the men’s section but equal in size (which was typical of synagogues of that time). The Vilna Shul is also a significant site because it represents the large Jewish community who made their first Boston homes in the old West End and on the north slope of Beacon Hill.
View of Massachusetts General Hospital, Linda Richards, Mary Eliza Mahoney
Corner of Grove and Phillips Streets
Linda Richards (1841-1930) pioneered professional nurses’ training at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1873 she had received the first diploma from the country’s first professional nursing school which was organized at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The hospital, founded in what is today’s theater district in 1862 and run by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902) and a board of women and men reformers, moved to Roxbury in 1872 and is now the Dimock Center.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926), the first African American woman to become a registered nurse, also graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Mahoney is honored by a medal awarded annually by the American Nurses Association. The Palmer-Davis Library at Massachusetts General is named for Sophia Palmer (1853-1920) and Mary E. P. Davis (1840-1924), both students of Linda Richards. Palmer and Davis co-founded the American Journal of Nursing and created the American Nurses Association by bringing together alumnae associations of nurses’ training schools.
Hayden House, Ellen Craft, Harriet Hayden
66 Phillips Street
This station on the Underground Railroad was a destination for many fugitive enslaved people, including Ellen Craft (1826-97) and her husband, William. In 1848 she disguised herself as her master, bandaged as if ill, and tended to by her husband as if he were enslaved. They escaped from Georgia by taking the train and steamer to Boston. After two years in Boston where they were active in the anti-slavery cause, they sailed to England, staying until after the Civil War because the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 endangered their lives. Harriet Hayden (ca. 1816-93) and her husband, Lewis Hayden, both born enslaved, owned this house for more than forty years. They worked with Underground Railroad “conductor” Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913), known as the “Moses of her People,” in moving enslaved people to safe havens. Harriet Hayden bequeathed a scholarship for “needy and worthy colored students” at Harvard Medical School.
Home of Susan Paul
36 West Cedar Street
In the 1830s, Susan Paul (1809-41) taught at the Smith School on Joy Street, a segregated school for African American children funded jointly by the city and private donations. Paul was also an officer in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. She was the daughter of Thomas Paul, the first minister of the African Meeting House, and supported her mother after his death. Some of her letters were printed in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. In 1834 she wrote to condemn the “spirit which persecutes us on account of our color—that cruel prejudice which deprives us of every privilege whereby we might elevate ourselves—and then condemns us because we are not more refined and intelligent.” In 1835 Paul wrote the first African American biography, Memoir of James Jackson, about her student who died at age 6.
St. Margaret’s Convent
19 Louisburg Square
Originally founded in Sussex, England in 1855 to care for the poor and ill in the surrounding countryside, this Episcopalian religious community came to Boston in 1873 to act as superintendents of a children’s hospital. The sisters moved to three townhouses on Louisburg Square in 1883 which they used as a convent, chapel, and small hospital. Here, they expanded their nursing and evangelical teachings to reach the sick and poor on Beacon Hill and its environs. They ran St. Monica’s Home, a nursing home for Black women and children, on Joy Street and later in Roxbury until 1988. In 2012, the St. Margaret’s Community moved the Motherhouse to Duxbury although the Sisters continue to have a presence in Boston. Several Sisters live in a small residence in the city and maintain urban ministries with St. Stephens church in the South End and the Be Safe program. Additionally, there are mission houses in New York City (Manhattan) and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Anne Whitney Studio
92 Mount Vernon Street
The window on the top of this building marked the studio for two decades of sculptor Anne Whitney (1821-1915), who was part of a group of American women sculptors gathering around actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1873, soon after Whitney returned to Boston, she received a commission for the statue of Sam Adams now standing outside Faneuil Hall. Her statue of Leif Eriksson is on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Her bust of Lucy Stone is in the Boston Public Library, her sculpture of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison is in the Massachusetts Historical Society and her sculpture of Charles Sumner is in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Whitney had a “Boston marriage” with her longtime partnerAdeline Manning. During the late Victorian era, such marriages between women, generally professional and upper class, were both common and accepted by society at large.
Home of Sylvia Plath
9 Willow Street
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was a poet and novelist. Her novel, A Bell Jar, and volumes of poetry were published during her lifetime and she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her collected poems. Plath and her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, lived at this address in 1958, during which time she took Robert Lowell’s class at Boston University and met Anne Sexton in that class. She also worked part-time transcribing patient records at Massachusetts General Hospital. Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, moved to Winthrop and then Wellesley with her family. She graduated from Smith College and studied in England where she met Hughes. They married in 1956 and had two children.
Home of Margaret Deland
76 Mount Vernon Street
Margaret Deland (1857-1945) was a popular novelist at the turn of the twentieth century and a social reformer. Her twenty-five works of fiction were set both in historical and modern times and dealt with making ethical decisions in different settings. Although she considered herself a “new woman” determined to preserve her freedom of action, she did not support woman suffrage. Her charity was personal; she took young unwed mothers into her home until they could become self-supporting, believing that their love for their babies would provide an incentive.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and The Woman’s Era Club
103 Charles Street
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924), African American editor and publisher of The Woman’s Era, the journal of the New Era Club, lived here for two decades. She founded the club for African American women in 1894. A year later, she organized a national conference to form the National Federation of Afro-American Women to show the existence of a “large and growing class” of cultured African American women. They met at the Charles Street A.M.E. Church (now Charles Street Meeting House) and merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Ruffin served as the first vice president. In 1900 Ruffin led a protest when, although it was accepted by the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the New Era Club was refused membership in the national federation for fear of offending Southern members.
Florida Ruffin Ridley (1861-1943), Ruffin’s daughter, became the second African American teacher in the Boston Public Schools. She was active with her mother in the New Era Club as well as in the League of Women for Community Service. She also became a member of several predominantly white clubs, including the Twentieth Century Club and the Women’s City Club of Boston. In addition to her work as a club woman and civil rights activist, Ridley was an essayist and journalist, focusing much of her writing on race relations in New England. In the 1920s, her interest in history led her to found the Society of the Descendants of Early New England Negroes. Through this work, she hoped to connect an understanding of history with contemporary work for social justice. African Americans and whites have always been involved, she wrote, “in the eternal war for justice and liberty which the state has waged.” Then, as in her own time, she believed both races deserved an equal place in society.
Annie Adams Fields’ Literary Salon
148 Charles Street
Although the home of Annie Adams Fields (1834-1915) and her husband, publisher James T. Fields, at the end of Charles Street, does not survive, it was the site of their important literary salon. After his death in 1881, Annie Fields continued to support the work of many women writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) who spent winters with her, poet Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96). Fields was also active in charitable works. She spent many hours at the Charity House on Chardon Street and co-founded the Cooperative Society of Visitors, a case review agency that made recommendations to the central administration of Boston’s relief organizations for aid disbursement. The Society was absorbed into the Associated Charities of Boston. Fields’ book How to Help the Poor (1884) served as an unofficial guide to the programs and policies of Associated Charities.