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'Chronicles of Old Boston' offers unusual perspectives on city's history

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  June 20, 2012 12:24 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Charles Bahne signed copies of “Chronicles of Old Boston” after his recent talk at the Old South Meeting House.

With so many books already written about the history of Boston, Charles Bahne wanted his to stand out.

So when Museyon Guides approached Bahne to pen “Chronicles of Old Boston,” the latest entry in the publisher’s “Chronicles” series, he chose to highlight some of the city’s lesser-known historic figures and events, and some of its rarely acknowledged claims to fame.

“In many cases I was trying to give a different or unusual angle, not what we normally think about,” said Bahne, a local tour guide and former park ranger who also wrote “The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail,” during a recent talk about the book at the Old South Meeting House.

So when Bahne picked a Founding Father to profile, he selected John Hancock rather than the overexposed John Adams or Samuel Adams. When he wrote about the Boston Tea Party, he told the story from the perspective not of patriots but of Colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

And when he wrote about the founding of Harvard College, Bahne gave special attention to Nathaniel Eaton, its first professor, who was said to have regularly whipped his students, fed them only gruel, and took a large portion of John Harvard’s bequest to the college when he fled after being fired.

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“The theme of scandal seemed to fit all time periods,” Bahne said, and the author clearly has a fondness for the rakes and scoundrels who helped shape this city.

He devotes a chapter to Thomas Dexter, an unscrupulous developer of the early 19th century whose great achievement was building the Boston Exchange Coffee House, the tallest structure in Boston and among the most expensive, paid for in part with $600,000 in worthless notes issued by banks Dexter owned.

The building was little used and burned down within a decade of its construction; at seven floors, it was two stories taller than the city’s fire hoses could reach. By then, Dexter was long gone, fleeing first to Canada and eventually winding up in the southern US, where he founded the city of Montgomery, Ala.

In his talk about the book, Bahne connected the little-known story of Thomas Dexter with another underappreciated aspect of Boston’s history: the education of Martin Luther King Jr. at Boston University and his courtship of Coretta Scott, then a mezzo-soprano studying to be a concert singer at the New England Conservatory of Music.

The future Civil Rights leaders were introduced by a mutual friend, whom King had known from growing up together in Atlanta and whom Scott knew from her studies at the conservatory. They met at a cafeteria on Massachusetts Avenue for the first date, and within an hour, King told Scott she had every quality he was looking for in a wife.

Scott was surprised, naturally, and at first she was reluctant to put marriage before her career. But in time she fell for the charismatic young minister, and within 16 months they were married.

Less than a year later, while still completing his doctorate at BU, King was invited to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. — Dexter Avenue being named for Thomas Dexter, the profligate developer who had fled Boston 145 years earlier.

Alongside the book’s unconventional view of the city’s history are a similarly idiosyncratic set of walking tours. Several chapters include small maps showing the locations of sites mentioned in the narrative, but the mother lode is in the back of the book, where 90 pages are devoted to eight highly detailed walking tours.

These lengthy tours include popular neighborhoods such as the Back Bay and the North End, but also such areas of historical interest as the city’s oldest streets and what remains of Scollay Square and the old West End, neighborhoods obliterated in the mid-20th century by urban renewal.

Bahne said his personal favorite walking tours are the short tour that accompanies the King chapter, which includes six sites near Massachusetts Avenue where King and Scott lived, studied, or socialized, and the tour of the Charles River Esplanade, which he compares in the book to “Boston’s family room — beloved by locals, yet undiscovered by visitors unless they’re here for the big party on the Fourth of July.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Charles Bahne spoke at the Old South Meeting House on June 13.

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