By Beth Treffeisen
On a rare warm, rainy night in January, members of the community packed into the South End Historical Society at 532 Massachusetts Avenue to hear Lauren Prescott, the executive director talk about her newly released book, “Boston’s South End.”
Visitors sat in awe as they listened to Prescott outline her research and show off what she found as she flipped through slides outlining the postcard history found in the book.
“The point of doing the book was to highlight the South End Historical collection because we don’t have a dedicated exhibit space,” said Prescott. “It will make it more accessible to readers, while also sharing what the society has to offer.”
The book started only one month into Prescott’s role as executive director at the South End Historical Society when she attended a local history conference in 2016. While there, she ran into someone from Acadia Publishing who worked with the previous executive director on another book.
After having a discussion, Prescott was asked if she would be willing to make another historical book on the South End that highlights the collection at the historical society.
“I thought, how hard could it be to make a book?” said Prescott.
After doing intensive research for six months and combing through the South End Historical Society’s collection she got to work compiling the book. One year later, the book is published and available for sale.
Organized in seven chapters, the book discusses the history of the South End from its emergence in the 19th century to the mid-20th century. It includes postcards of hotels, restaurants, churches, schools, hospitals, businesses and street views of the neighborhood.
“For a non-history buff the book is great to show people we’re not South Boston but we are our own neighborhood,” said Prescott. “But it is not just a book of postcards it also has a lot of history in it.”
The book does not go through the complete history of the South End and where possible photographs and stereoviews fill the gaps, but some still remain.
Prescott noted that the book, due to limited space and sometimes lack of postcards or photographs, does not tackle the complexity of the South End when urban renewal demolished the New York Streets neighborhood in 1955.
It also doesn’t cover the 1960s and 1970s, when gentrification started to move in, slowly pushing out the South End’s diverse working class community. But, Prescott said there are a lot of books out there for those looking for it.
“After all of the research I did, I couldn’t fit all the information I wanted to into the book,” said Prescott. “This book is like Wikipedia; it is the first place you go when you start researching.”
One interesting tidbit that Prescott discovered was during her research on places to worship in the South End.
It all began at the Warren Avenue Baptist Church, a Gothic-style building that was once located on Warren Ave., that was the site of a bloody murder in 1875.
On May 23, the church’s sexton Tom Piper lured five-year-old Mabel Young up to the belfry to look at pigeons and crushed her skull with a cricket bat. She was still alive when found but soon died the following night.
Piper escaped, but was later arrested and tried for the murder of Young. On May 7, 1876, Piper confessed to the murders of several others. Authorities later hanged Piper at the Suffolk County Jail in front of a crowd of 400 people.
Around 1942, the church changed hands and became the Our Lady of the Annunciation, a Syrian Roman Catholic parish. After 25 years the congregation moved out of Boston leaving the church vacant.
In 1967 a fire destroyed the building. After residents had to look at a barren burned down lot, they were successful in turning it into James Hayes Park, which is still there today.
“That’s probably the most interesting thing I discovered,” said Prescott. “I had to funnel down all the information and couldn’t get all of it into the book. But this story was very gruesome and probably the most morbid part.”
The South End Historical Society provides a number of resources including book talks, lectures and neighborhood walking tours. In addition they have a small archive.
When the South End Historical Society was created they took pictures of every single building in the neighborhood in 1972. This year, the Everett letters a collection of rare and personal view of lives of a middle-class family in Boston’s South End was put online for anyone to view.
Each year, the historical society hosts the South End House Tours. This year will be the 50th anniversary of the favorite tradition that allows neighbors to take an inside view of the historical homes in the neighborhood. It will take place on Saturday, Oct. 20.
You can find this book for sale on Amazon and buy the book at the South End Historical Society. If you buy the book in person, the entirety of the book sale will go towards the historical society.