George W. Fowle’s Recollections of 19th Century Jamaica Plain

Histories record facts, furnish dates, and tell the cause and effect of changes and progressions, political and otherwise, but to feel the underlying sentiment of past times, to acquire that close personal touch with persons and events, you must read what men of those times have written; or, better still, if you can, talk with men ripe in years, who can give you first hand, from their own knowledge and reminiscence, the human touches, the little details which are crowded out of histories.

If, instead of being satisfied with simply reading American history and thereby getting, at best, a sort of distant look at past events and people, you would be made to feel a closer relationship and a truer familiarity with those events and people, you must talk with a man like George W. Fowle of Jamaica Plain, who as a child was held in Lafayette’s arms; who knew William Lloyd Garrison and saw him mobbed in the streets of Boston; who later stood with Garrison at the corner of Washington and State Streets and saw the first regiment of colored soldiers go off to the war; who saw Wilkes Booth standing back of his house in Jamaica Plain three days before Lincoln was shot; whose father knew and helped John Howard Payne; whose brother knew and worked under Admiral Foote and heard him give General Grant encouragement and advice at the beginning of the war; whose mother died on the day that George Washington passed away; whose memory, in short, teems with interesting facts of history.

Mr. Fowle, although 87 last Thursday, is as active as a man of middle years.  Not a faculty is impaired.  His eye is keen, his hearing as acute and his mind as alert as ever, and in talking of happenings of many years ago his memory never fails him.

He has always taken a deep interest in the affairs of the country and its people and thus is able to easily call to mind a host of incidents large and small.  And it is a source of great pleasure to him to reflect upon events which have happened since his memory began.

Mr. Fowle comes of the sturdiest of New England stock, and he claims relationship with all the Fowles in the country.  “The only family of Fowles which came across,” he explains, “were four brothers who landed back in 1600 and something.

“One settled in Woburn, one in Connecticut and the others in Virginia, and from these boys sprang the families of Fowles here now.  One of those who went to Virginia married into the Custis family, one daughter of which was the wife of George Washington.

“I was born in New York and when I was but a baby our family moved to Westfield, which is at the extreme westerly end of the state, on Lake Erie.  My father’s mission in going there was to establish a customhouse for the U.S. Government to handle goods that were coming over from Canada.  While working there in the government service he organized a military company and as its head was quite a factor in the town.

“While we were there, that was in 1824, Lafayette made his second visit to this country, and, as you’ve read, was feted generally.  His mission here, of course, was to be present at the laying of the cornerstone of Bunker Hill Monument.  While here, Congress voted him $200,000 and a large piece of land in Ohio, and being naturally curious to have a look at his land he traveled by the old stage coaches to the west, or what was then considered the west, passing through Westfield on the way.  It became necessary for him to stop there a day or two and he was given a royal reception.

“I was but three then, but my mother used to discourse frequently on the affair afterward, so that it seems as though I have a recollection of it all my own.  My father as head of the militia company helped arrange for the reception, which included an elaborate ball in the evening.

Held by Lafayette
“Lafayette, who, by the way, was extremely fond of dancing, had the first dance with my mother.  The next night there was another reception, and many women and children were there, and then Lafayette showed his love of children.  I was one of those whom he picked up and held while he joked and laughed with the mothers.

“A few years later we returned to New York, and one of the things that happened while we lived there that left a most vivid impression upon my mind was the epidemic of cholera which spread from England through New York down into Central America.  It was terrible in New York that summer, and I can remember now the death teams going by loaded with bodies. I was about eight then.

“While in New York my father used to make trips abroad, Tunis being one of the ports he touched.  One day, about four days before he was to sail, a man came up and asked him the cost of a trip to Tunis.  My father told him, and the man’s reply was that it would take all the money he had and leave him nothing after he got there, so my father offered to let him live on the boat after they reached there.

“The next night my father and the man were walking along the street and stopped in front of a house to hear a woman playing a musical instrument and singing.  One of the songs was ‘Home Sweet Home’ and as the woman finished singing it the man turned to my father and said ‘I wonder what the woman would say if she knew the author of that piece was standing out here listening to it?’

“When my father had found words to express his astonishment at learning who his companion was, Payne explained that it was his song and how he came to write it.

Payne Tells How He Wrote “Home Sweet Home”
” ’ There were four of us boys,’ he said, ‘who were accustomed to meet in the eating saloon, and one night while there someone suggested that each try to write a song about home.  We all sat there and scribbled away, and what that woman has just sung was the result.’  Payne was afterward appointed Consul to Tunis and I have a couple of letters at home now that he wrote my father while he was there.

“I had in my possession for many years the only flag with the original 13 stars and 13 stripes in the country.  About two years ago I gave it to the State and it is now hanging in the State House.  Soon after Congress decided on that pattern of flag my grandfather had one made and hung it from the old homestead.

“Upon his death it was handed down to my father and later to me.  The old homestead where it first hung is 150 years old, and still standing on Amory Street near Hogs Bridge.  The flag is at least 125 years old.  The late Admiral Sampson, while at the Charlestown Navy Yard, heard of the flag and came out to see it. 

“When I spread it out before him he said: ‘We are trying to put the old Constitution in such a condition that she will last for many years, and when we get her improvements completed we must have a gala day on board and raise this flag on her, even if for a day.’  This pretty plan was never carried out, because the Admiral’s death came soon afterward.

“Some of my choicest recollections are of William Lloyd Garrison, that noble hearted Abolitionist, and I am indebted to a kindly fate that threw me in with him frequently.  I first saw him on the day that he was mobbed in the streets of Boston.

“I happened to be walking down State Street and saw a crowd ahead of me, and as I reached Washington Street saw a mob in front of the office of the Liberator, Garrison’s paper.  I got there just after he had been taken into the Old State House, which was then City Hall, for protection. 

“The crowd tore down the sign over Garrison’s office, and if I had only realized what important history was then being made I would have saved a piece of the sign which I picked from the ruins and carried around half the day for company.

“Well, I walked through the great yelling mob from the Liberator office to City Hall, and as I reached there Mayor Lyman opened a window and began to address the crowd.  I saw Garrison standing beside him.  The Mayor appealed to the crowd in the interest of fairness and peace.

“The crowd still hung around waiting for Garrison to come out, and they were nearly outwitted too.  I happened to walk around on Wilson’s Lane, which is now Devonshire Street, and saw Garrison being bundled into a carriage, having come out on the other side of the building.

“Just as the carriage was getting away the crowd realized what was happening and they attacked it, trying to cut the harness from the horse, etc.  The driver was nervy and determined, however, and he slashed right and left with his whip and drove through that dense crowd.

“Those were exciting times, I tell you.  They carried Garrison that day to the old Leverett Street jail.  That was in the fall of 1835.

Garrison at Work
“I was a bookbinder, and although the doctors had told me I must keep out of doors all the time, and had been doing so for some time, I decided to buy a shop next to Garrison’s office, and I staid there about a year.

“One night when I came into my office I found a book lying on my desk which one of my workmen had left there, marked for Mr. Garrison and to be delivered that night.  I was alone in my office, so I took the book up myself.  I rapped on Mr. Garrison’s door and was bidden to enter.  As I went into his printing office I saw him at his desk, alone in the shop, working like mad.

“We talked a few minutes and I remarked that he was staying late, to which he replied: ‘I’ve got to get my paper out in the morning.  I’m writing an editorial now and when I get it finished I’ll set it up over there and then print it myself.  I can’t afford to hire much help, and if I can’t get help I will do the whole thing myself.’

“It wasn’t so much what Garrison happened to say to me that night, but it was the way he said it; it was his whole bearing and the cast and expression of his countenance that told me that he was carving a niche in history.  He was in the midst of his terrible struggle and there were yet many dark days ahead of him.

“About 25 years later I was standing at the corner of State and Washington Streets watching the first colored regiment that the north sent to the war, march to their boat.  Robert Gould Shaw was at their head, and they marched, as they knew they were marching, to complete annihilation.  The work of such men as Garrison was nearly over.  They had fought against immense odds for years, night and day, and were watching a cruel war finish their labors.

“As I stood there watching that noble, self-sacrificing Shaw lead those Negroes away, I happened to turn my head and saw Garrison standing beside me.  His eyes filled with tears, as he, too, watched the colored troops pass by.

“I spoke to him and asked him if he remembered that day so many years ago when he had stood by the side of Mayor Lyman in the window just over our heads, and he nodded.  ‘Yes’ he said.  ‘I well remember that day, and many others that have gone since.  Our fight has been a long one and the fight those fellows are going into is to be a hard one, for not one of them will come back alive.

” ‘I’m sorry for those poor fellows, for I know just what will happen to them when they get down there,’ and worn and bent with the constant struggle of years, Garrison walked away.  I later visited him at his home in Roxbury and he introduced me to his two sons, who are still living, as one of the ‘boys who was in his mob.’

Booth in Boston
“One morning in April 1865, while walking across the land in back of my house I saw two men standing on a pile of rocks that stood on some raised land back of mine.  One of them raised his hand in salute and spoke to me, and I recognized my neighbor, Benjamin T. Stevenson.  I returned his greeting and went on about my business.  Three days later we were all astounded by the news that Lincoln had been assassinated.

“That day I met my neighbor Stevenson and as we talked over the grave situation he said to me: ‘Fowle, do you recall seeing me talking with a man back of your house three days ago?’  I told him that I did.  ‘Well,’ said Stevenson, slowly and soberly, ‘that man was Wilkes Booth.’ 

“I could scarcely restrain my astonishment, and Stevenson went on to explain that on the night before I had seen him with Booth they both had been present at a gathering in Brookline, which was attended by a number of people - a social gathering it was, I believe.  When the time came to leave, Booth told Stevenson that he was going to get back to Washington and was in a hurry to see about some mining interests of his.

“My neighbor said that there was no use in starting out at that time of night, and asked him to come to Jamaica Plain and spend the night with him.  Booth accepted the invitation, and in the morning they walked out a piece from the house to look about.

“During all the time that Booth was in my neighbor’s company he never mentioned Lincoln, the war, or any of the prevailing troubles, and Stevenson could not believe that Booth, his guest, and Booth, the murderer, were one and the same.”

Thus did the old gentleman regale the reporter, who paid a birthday visit to him, with tales of the past.  Nor were these all, for he told many more, not yet exhausting his fund of recollections.  And he enjoyed telling them as much as the reporter enjoyed hearing them all.

He has a house full of interesting mementoes of the past, and his brother John and his wife are the proud possessors of like reminders.  Another brother, Samuel A. Fowle, who lives in Arlington, was also in Washington at the time of the war, and can recount facts of time gone by.  Samuel made medals while in Washington, which the soldiers wore in battle. 

Mr. Fowle lives at 214 Chestnut Ave., Jamaica Plain, with his son’s family.  His wife died about three years ago.  When his father came east from New York they lived on Fort Hill.  He learned the printing and bookbinding trade and went to Woburn and opened an office.

Mr. Fowle is a well-known figure in Jamaica Plain, respected by everyone.  He is Deacon in the Boylston Congregational Church, and three years ago was tendered a reception by the Society in observance of his residence of half a century in the District.  He has been treasurer of the Horticultural Society and Vice President of the Davis Street Home.

Published in the Boston Daily Globe on July 12, 1908

Production assistance and transcription by Peter O’Brien.