When I was twenty-one I lived for a while at
Hancock Street on Boston’s
Beacon Hill. The house was a four story unostentatious
brownstone built in 1805 by Ebenezer Farley. It was purchased by the father of
famous abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in 1830. Sumner advocated the
complete elimination of slavery at a time when most politicians hedged or
compromised on the subject. Educated at Harvard, he joined the Abolition Free
Soil Party in 1848, from which he was elected to the Senate in 1851. His reputation
as an orator was legion. He once gave a five hour speech on the floor of the
Senate on the immorality of extending slavery into the new United
States , and in so doing he
lashed out at Senator Andrew Butler of territory
of Kansas South Carolina.
The speech enraged Rep. Preston Brooks, also from South
Carolina, who then assaulted Sumner with a heavy
cane. The brutal attack, which took place on May 22, 1856, caused Sumner to return to Boston
where he spent several months recuperating at 20
Sumner went on to champion civil rights for free slaves during the Reconstruction era. He was a close friend of Frederick Douglas, and knew Abraham Lincoln intimately but with whom he often disagreed. Sumner was a fiery radical;
This famous house at
20 Hancock Street was
not yet a National Historic Landmark. That would happen in 1973, very shortly
after I moved out.
Sumner grew up in the house and lived there until 1867 when not away on business in
Washington. Five Sumner family members died in the house,
beginning with Charles’ father, with whom he did not get along, three of his
sisters and finally his mother, who earned her living as a seamstress. As a young man in his early twenties, Charles
was confined to his bedroom because of a long, serious illness that almost took
his life. The house was sold after his mother’s death in 1867.
As Sumner biographer Elias Nason writes: “… [The house] was well located in one of the higher and better parts of
not far from the State House. No effort had been made to change it to
correspond to a larger life. It continued the same comfortable and substantial
home that had sheltered him in his boyhood. There peace and happiness, the
usual accompaniments of good sense and good habits, prevailed.” Nason writes
that after Senator Sumner mother’s death, “from no particular illness…Charles
was summoned at last by telegraph and reached her bed several days before her
death and remained with her to the end, the only one of her once large family
present to pay this debt.”
When I agreed to rent the room at 20 Hancock I had no idea who Charles Sumner was. My first impression of the house was that it had remained perfectly intact from the 19th Century. The dark parlor was filled with old furniture and rugs. There was an old mahogany desk off to the side, which I later discovered was where the famous senator wrote his speeches. From the front door you could see a series of doorways leading into a number of rooms, one of which was the kitchen. A sense of mystery penetrated these rooms. The landlady’s general demeanor added to the feeling that this was no ordinary abode. Friendly but distant, the landlady’s overall manner was that of someone who belonged to a religious cult. She appeared old to me at the time although when you are twenty-one, everyone over 30 appears old. At the time I had the sense then that she did not leave the house much. She and her daughter, a young adolescent dark haired girl, occupied the first floor.
When I first went to see about the room, I noticed the daughter peering at me behind a door. She would then walk quickly walk from room to room. I remember leaving the house then feeling that both mother and daughter were hiding something, but what?
The room I agreed to rent was on the second floor front, which meant that I had a view of the Boston State House further up Hancock. (Senator Sumner would walk to the State House everyday from 20 Hancock). Since the room was furnished, I noted with curiosity the washstand in one corner with built-in tiles to prevent splashing. There was also a four poster bed, an antique wardrobe closet that looked as though it was from the Sumner family, and an out of commission fireplace topped with a vase holding artificial flowers. The room was a page out of the past. I knew of no other roomers in the house, at least I don’t remember any other tenants coming or going. The bathroom in the hallway with its antique sink and tub, and long chains to open the window and flush the toilet had a large window with a view of the oldest part of
Boston. I remember shaving in the morning and looking
out the window at an old water tower and thinking, “I am no longer in the 20th
During my time at 20 Hancock the landlady’s daughter would still peer at me without ever saying hello. Sometimes when I’d come home from work I’d see her retreat quickly into a room. There was no TV in my room but I did have a radio. At night I never heard a peep from the first floor. Mother and daughter were abnormally quiet. My room, however, seemed to grow on me. I would lie in bed at night and stare at the ceiling and begin thinking about my own family’s history. Thoughts of death would sometimes intrude. I was agnostic then and not especially interested in the topic but in this room I couldn’t shake these new thoughts away. A new and different world seemed to be opening up. I then began to see and hear things, some of them unsettling and frightening.
By a stroke of good fortune, I had escaped the crazy drug intoxication of the early 1970s. I knew people on acid trips who had jumped out of windows because they thought they could fly. My Harvard professor friends were on a campaign to get me to try LSD, but I always said no. I was stone cold sober when the nearly haunted room opened up its hidden world: There, on the mantelpiece, I “saw” (or hallucinated) one of the artificial flowers in the vase bend over as if it were sick as the other flowers bent in the hurt flower’s direction and picked it up to health with the force of a collective “love” vibration.
The room seemed to hold me captive, and other revelations were in store.
1. I heard President Nixon’s voice on the radio and knew there was going to be an oncoming national scandal (Watergate).
2. Shadows on the ceiling played out how the earth’s polar ice caps would melt. I saw tropical plants where there had once been ice. Remember, this was 1972.
3. In an even freakier revelation, I saw images of the past lives of my great aunt. I did not believe in reincarnation, much less God, and yet all this seemed abundantly clear—and true.
4. The most startling images that presented themselves on the ‘Sumner ceiling,’ had to do with something serious that would happen to gay men in the future, something involving intimate, physical contact. These images were of gay men in shroud like coverings. When AIDS hit in the early 1980s, I understood this prediction.
Since I’m reluctant to alienate my readers or make anyone question my sanity, I will end the list of ‘Sumner ceiling’ predictions right here. And yet, in this room, where possibly Senator Sumner’s father or mother died, or perhaps one or all of his three sisters, I was also prompted to destroy my first book by submerging it in water in the antique basin, so that the script bled and the manuscript broke apart. The book was an autobiography of my life up till then, a merciless reenactment of every childhood memory in the unforgiving manner and style of a young adult male. Men and women in their early twenties rarely have a forgiving spirit.
Through the years, whenever I visit
Boston I make it a
point to walk to 20 Hancock Street
in Beacon Hill. I have not been inside the house since
my dramatic experiences there but were I to return I wonder if I’d see any of
the old 19th century furniture. Most likely it has all been cleared
away, the old Sumner vibes whitewashed in rehabbed upscale respectability.
But what happened there in 1972…I will never forget.