Bussey Woods Murders

With the proliferation of weapons in crowded American neighborhoods in our time, murders-even of innocent children-seem part of news reports all too often. Has our area ever seen anything so gruesome in the past? Since this column is a mirror of things past, violent crimes must be included in its impartial light.

Even without combing police reports, one double murder in Jamaica Plain during its seemingly bucolic days stands out chillingly. In the words of the 1865-66 West Roxbury Town Report, “The murders in the town in the month of June, which so shocked the community, have given us an unenviable notoriety.” The killings took place in what is now the Arboretum.

For those who despair about current news reports, the words of a local resident speaking in 1878 of the murders set a continuity, “Of the many dark deeds of blood which have disgraced this age few have been fraught with more harrowing details than the one enacted right here.”

  A view of Bussey Brook in the Arnold Arboretum, taken in 1949 by Professor Karl Sax, who was the Arboretum’s Director at the time. Photograph from the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum. Used with permission from the website of the Institute for Cultural Landscape Studies of the Arnold Arboretum.   ©T he President and Fellows of Harvard College.

A view of Bussey Brook in the Arnold Arboretum, taken in 1949 by Professor Karl Sax, who was the Arboretum’s Director at the time. Photograph from the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum. Used with permission from the website of the Institute for Cultural Landscape Studies of the Arnold Arboretum. ©T he President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Isabella and John Joyce were the children of a Lynn dressmaker recently widowed. On Monday, June 12, 1865, they left their aunt’s home in the South End with a picnic basket and carfare for a day in the famed Jamaica Plain countryside.

They called on their grandmother at Newland and West Concord Streets and, at 11 a.m., left her house (still standing in the South End) never to be seen again alive. Their announced destination was May’s Woods along the present Arborway. Night came, and the unescorted picnickers (an action not then considered dangerous) did not return. A vigorous search was immediately made but was fruitless due to all the June greenery. It was not until the next Sunday that the children were found accidentally by some hikers in the Bussey Woods.

The Bussey Woods were part of an old 400-acre farm on both sides of Bussey Street, given by Benjamin Bussey to Harvard College for the horticultural institute. After several gyrations, 120 acres of the farm and woods would become the Arnold Arboretum with the Bussey Institute (now the State Lab) on one side. Somehow the children had arrived at the far end of the South Street side of the present Arboretum and had sought higher ground for a good view and their picnic. But this was before the grounds were planted and groomed by the Arboretum after 1882.

Isabella, age 15, was found in the hollow of a rock atop a hill. She had been stabbed 28 times, and (by contemporary account) “the murderer attempted a deed upon the body of the little girl” despite her efforts to fend him of. Her brother, age 8, was found later a quarter mile away by Bussey Brook in a condition that sickened Civil War veterans who viewed the body. It was surmised that just before noon he had left his sister, fallen, and finally been attacked by his sister’s murderer.

The children were brought back to Lynn for burial. Much sorrow and many efforts to find the criminal were generated by the shocking event-just two months after the assassination of President Lincoln. Rewards were offered by all authorities. Seven suspects were interrogated but released. The many visitors to the girl’s murder site raised a memorial cairn. In the process, any further clues were obliterated, with forensics still in its infancy. For the protection of all, a police beat was established in the Bussey Woods.

In March 1866 the Boston Weekly Voice reported a possible break in the case. A man of violent disposition had been arrested in August 1865 for burglary. While being held for trial in Fitchburg, he plotted to murder his guard and to escape with others. Known as Scratch Gravel, he stated that any man who had done “the Roxbury job” would not hesitate to kill again. His bravado about the children’s murder revolted another prisoner, who foiled the escape by telling authorities about Gravel’s entire conversation.

Upon his removal to State Prison for the burglary conviction, officials there attempted to get Gravel to speak directly-but in vain. He was transferred to a light work detail in hopes that he might talk with a trusted prisoner-again in vain. Finally a detective of supposed Southern sympathy was placed in Gravel’s cell in February 1866. Gravel liked his cellmate, and soon they were hatching a plan for escape. Gravel referred to “the Roxbury children” but never confessed to their murders.

  An aerial view of Bussey Woods in early days of the Arnold Arboretum.Used with permission from the American Environmental Photographs Collection, [AEP Image Number, e.g., AEP-MIN73], Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

An aerial view of Bussey Woods in early days of the Arnold Arboretum.Used with permission from the American Environmental Photographs Collection, [AEP Image Number, e.g., AEP-MIN73], Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

The oddly named prisoner turned out to be an adopted lad, born in Boston, who went to sea at age 15. He had entered the Confederate Army after being pardoned from the South Carolina State Prison. Then he joined the Union Naval Forces, deserting one ship after another. A man like him was seen at Taft’s hotel in Roslindale less than a mile from Bussey Woods. The knife taken from him at Fitchburg could have wounded the Joyce children.

Yet, the Boston police were not convinced by the prison warden’s reports that Gravel was their man. All his information could have come entirely from newspaper reports. If no stronger evidence came forth, Scratch Gravel (alias Charles Aaron Dodge) would be proved more of a braggart fool who embellished the basic information in the newspapers for his own reasons. Thus rested the matter of Jamaica Plain ‘s most heinous and unsolved murder until it took another bizarre turn.

The details of our area’s “terrible atrocity and barbarity,” fueled “a feeling of unprecedented horror” in the words of a book about the murders, published in Boston in 1878, some 13 years after the barbarity. “In a section as civilized, a community so guarded, a population so abundant, in the marginal outline of a great city” how could it have ever happen, asked the book.

The book’s author was Henry Johnson Brent (1811-80), who had founded and edited the New York City magazine, Knickerbocker, widely enjoyed from 1833 through the Civil War. In June 1865 he happened to be staying with friends within a few hundred yards of the murders. He wrote his book “Was It A Ghost” to focus attention again on the twin murders that had gone unsolved for more than a decade despite a vigilant police chief.

Brent himself had immediately become a suspect in the case because a boy told police that he had often seen a man of Brent’s description in the Bussey Woods with a knife and gun. Fortunately, Brent was also an artist, whose palette knife and gun practice was known in the neighborhood. He was also acquainted with the police force. For lack of any solid evidence, yet another suspect in the murders was free to go.

By the end of June 1865 the search for the murderer had worn itself out. A week or so later, in a bizarre personal twist, Brent saw a male apparition on the far side of his host’s property between Bussey and Motley Woods. This meeting, described in his book’s Chapter 10, will appear in the next column. Brent truly felt that the event was something beyond his ability to reconcile by the usual rules of explanation and that it deserved publication.

He had gone down to meet his host returning from Boston via Forest Hills, only to learn later that he had returned home via Centre Street at 10 p.m. Brent revisited the site of the apparition at 9 p.m., within half an hour of the event, but nothing more was seen nor found. Initially the apparition was definitely connected by Brent with his host, but during this second visit, which included a walk to the rock where Isabella Joyce had been murdered, Brent suddenly connected it with the murders.

He went with his story to a perplexed police chief, who urged him to publish it. The chief’s reaction was whether Brent recognized the male ghost. Was it a witness to the murders of the children’s recently deceased father?

Over time, Brent felt that he did know the face, as he was familiar with the police evidence. He never named a suspect but published his book.

He brought his book out so much later after the case had grown cold once he knew what clues the police had and after much thought. He hoped to stir up a renewed investigation and to goad the murderer, if still alive, into remorse and confession. The ghost story is the centerpiece of his book-rightly so, given the title. Yet “this book would never have been written if that misty figure had not confronted me on that night.”

Many Jamaica Plain residents must have had theories about the murders. Brent, believing the murderer still alive, did not state his complete details. The change from May’s Woods (as announced by the children) to the more secluded Bussey Woods prompted a suspicion that the children were accompanied by someone they knew. The streetcar fare was found near the girl; someone had paid their fare. There was little screaming, as men were mowing in the area and heard nothing.

In his latest chapter Brent notes the results of séances-so popular at the time-reported in the spiritualistic press. He notes a letter said to have been written by the murdered girl and another by her father. A communication from the boy also circulated. Though unacquainted with spiritualism, Brent felt in a sense of fair play that he had to include them with his ghostly account. He felt very bad that he had not been in the Bussey Woods at noontime of June 12, 1865, doing some target practice or painting.

Brent names his host only as Dan. Lot maps of the period show only two properties surrounded by the Motley-Bussey tracts: the Skinners and the Weatherbees by Centre and Walter Streets. Dan must have been a son in one of these families, which owned “a house that looked out on Centre Street with the rear giving view of a meadow watered by a tiny rivulet and on up to the Bussey Woods.”

Our author ends wondering about the ghost, “So strange an occurrence does not happen without an intention. What that intention was, I for one, if only one, shall patiently wait to see.” Two years later Henry J. Brent died in New York City with the murders yet unsolved. The writer in the Boston Sunday Times in November 1878 was incorrect in his reading of the book in his statement that Brent felt the children were murdered by something supernatural.

This brutal event, like so many others, has passed into legend. In April 1936 Boston Herald artist Jack Frost ran a sketch of 644 South Street in Roslindale. In his explanatory paragraph in his “Fancy This” column he states that a boarder at the house murdered two children in the nearby woods, then barricaded himself in his room and killed himself in remorse. So goes the last twist in Jamaica Plain’s most heinous crime.

Sources: H.J. Brent, “Was it a ghost;” Appleton’s Encyclopedia of National Biography; “Boston Herald,” April 2, 1936; “Boston Sunday Times,” Nov. 24, 1878, Boston Weekly Voice, March 15, 1856; Boston Sun Times, November 24, 1878; West Roxbury Town Report 1865-66, pg. 14.

By Walter H. Marx. Reprinted with permission from the November 5 and November 19, 1993 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.

Arboretum Ghost Story

The following event took place on a moonlit night at 8:30 p.m. some three weeks after the brutal murders of the Joyce children on June 12, 1865, in the Bussey Woods (now part of the Arnold Arboretum). It is described by JP visitor, H.J. Brent, in a book he wrote in 1878 entitled “Was It a Ghost?” in chapter 10, here abridged for the reader.

Upon a still and clear night I went out of the cottage, and, taking two dogs with me, strolled down through the stable yard and past the garden, until I came to the brow of the hill that formed the apex of my friend’s grasslands. The brow of the hill was flat all about me and at the base ran off into a meadow, the opposite side of which was overlooked by the Bussey Woods.

From where I stood, several pines rose out of the even surface of the forest, marking (as with an uplifted hand spread out) the place where the girl’s murder had been done. On my left was Motley’s Woods, drawing up with its intense shadows close to the dividing wall. From the wall to where I stood all was clear and distinct, save where the shadows fell over the ground.

The wall and the wood on my left ran down to that corner at Bussey Creek, which was only a short distance (about 50 feet) from the spot where the boy had fallen. Some 250 yards away and close to the corner just mentioned was a clump of trees, and then straight before me without an intervening object, the dark wood gloomed over the rock of the girl’s death. My purpose was simply to take the cooling air from the winnowing trees.

It was the habit of my host, who did business in Boston, of leaving the train at Forest Hills Station at 9 o ‘clock as a general thing and keeping to South Street until he got to the bottom of the hill near to where the brook crosses the road. He would then enter the lowlands at the outskirts of Bussey Woods and thence follow the path and up the hillside covered by Motley’s Woods, keeping close to the wall until he reached the point of the wall near which I was standing, pass over it and be home.

Knowing that my host was irregular as to his hours of return home at night, I was not surprised when I saw a figure lean over the wall for an instant within about 20 feet of me, pause a moment, and then cross over to the side on which I was. Seeing that he stopped, I spoke aloud these words, “Hello, Dan, is that you?”

Though I could discover the figure and recognize its movements, there was too great a shade thrown over the wall to enable me to distinguish a face so familiar to me. To my appeal there was no reply, and then in an instant the impression came upon me that if it really was my friend, he was testing my nerves. Up to this moment I never had a thought apart from him.

While I stood perfectly motionless, waiting for some recognition of my appeal, the figure advanced slowly in a direct line from the wall, leaving the shadow, and stopped before me and not 20 feet away from me. I saw at once that it was somebody I had never seen before. When in the light without even a weed to obstruct my vision, as soon as he stopped, I called, “Speak or I will fire!”

It was at this period that I observed especially the behavior of the dogs. Up to this time they had been quiet, lying on the grass, but now they both got up, and I felt on each side of me the pressure of their bodies. They were evidently frightened, and I saw that they were looking with every symptom of terror at the figure that stood so near us without a motion.

The figure never once turned its head directly toward me but seemed to fix its look eastward over where the pine-trees broke the clear horizon on the murder-hill. This inert pose was preserved but for a moment, for as quick as the flash of gunpowder it wheeled as upon a pivot and, making one movement as of a man commencing to step out toward the wall, was gone!

To my vision it never crossed the space between where it had stood and the outline of the shade thrown by the trees upon the ground. One step after turning was all I saw, and then it vanished. What I saw I relate exactly as it happened. Can I describe this figure you will ask?

It looked like painted air. There was no elaborate appearance, indeed I could not make out the fashion of the garment. I was more occupied in the effort to recognize a human being in the figure that was before me. He looked dark grey from head to foot. Body he had, legs, arms, and a head, but the face I could not distinctly see, as he turned it from me.

By Walter H. Marx. Reprinted with permission from the December 3, 1993 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.