Martha Braun, Belle of Belvidere: A Sad Life

In the early morning hours of Sunday May 2, 1982 Martha Braun launched herself off the O’Donnell Bridge onto the jagged rocks below. She was 54-years-old.

It was a sad ending to a life that started with a great deal of promise, but was tarnished by a short, controversial marriage.

MarthaMartha Braun, born in 1928, was the only daughter of Carl and Elizabeth Braun. The Brauns owned and operated the famed Commodore Ballroom and were at one time part owners of Canobie Lake Park; they also operated the ballroom at Lakeview Park in Dracut.

On September 25, 1947 Sun columnist Barbara Brown wrote of the “exciting career of talented Martha Braun” a 19-year-old beauty who had “garnered acclaim galore since being spotted at a Yale football game by a photographer from one of the glossy magazines.”

A graduate of Rogers Hall, the society girl attended finishing school at the Semple School, followed by the Academie Moderne and the Grace Downs Hollywood Modeling School in NYC.

Boasting “perfect” measurements of a 35” bust, 25” waist  and 36” hips, young Martha quickly became sought-after for modeling jobs in New York and was named “Miss Valentine 1948,” beating out 17 other girls.

“She’s made several recordings, has sung at some of the plusher nightspots in Gotham and is being coached by two notables in the entertainment world, whose efforts have built some of the brighter lights in that field,” wrote Brown. “This is why girls leave home, this kind of life with its overtones of champagne and caviar. But, it isn’t the way it reads. Martha takes her career seriously and this being so she gets a goodly amount of shut-eye nightly. No night-club beat for her, no cocktail chatter, either. It’s a rough ground to the top and a girl has got to conserve her talents.”

By 1949 word came back to Lowell that the hometown gal, who had won several small television and radio parts, had scored a screen test with 20th Century Fox; the Sun ran a photo of her auditioning for actor/producer Burgess Meredith (you may know better know him as the Penguin from the 1960’s Batman series, or as Rocky Balboa’s trainer Mickey in the Rocky films)

“No Merman or Grable yet, but give the girl a chance,” stated an article in the Sun. “Come a few years or less and the name of Braun may be as familiar to the nation as her dad’s is to Lowell. At least that’s the opinions of the experts in New York and how many times do they miss?”

Then . . . 21-year-old Martha Braun met 34-year-old Billy Daniels, a well-known crooner in 52nd Street jazz spots in New York City.

It was love.


Martha Braun and Billy Daniels at Los Angeles Airport in 1950.

The problem? It was 1949 and he was black, or as all of the news accounts pointed out she was a “wealthy white socialite” and he was a “negro jazz singer.”

When her mother caught wind of the romance in late 1949 she went to New York to try to “cool” it.

billy_danielsElizabeth Braun spent a few days with her daughter and her beau, even going to see him perform at a couple of hot spots.

“Martha was terribly in love with the man but, I told her she should gravely consider her future,” Mrs. Braun later told the Sun.

Mrs. Braun convinced Martha to return with her to Lowell. She urged her to take a trip around the world to consider whether what she had with Daniels really was love and what she wanted to do.

After a month in Lowell, Martha left a note for her parents at the family home at 140 Clark Rd., stating she did not want to be apart from Billy, and eloped to Weehawken, New Jersey. She called her mother at 2 a.m. the following morning to ask for forgiveness.

BraunWeddingIn a front page story in the January 11, 1950 edition of the Sun, Mrs. Braun defended her daughter’s decision to marry Daniels, noting:

“Daniels has a complexion lighter than most South Americans. Martha said he was part Indian, part French and Spanish and might have a trace of some other nationality in him.”

She described her new son-in-law as “suave” in appearance and “cosmopolitan” in makeup.

“While this wasn’t what we had planned for our daughter it is her life,” Mrs. Braun said.  “If love is stronger than family influence we can’t stand in her way”

By August 1953, the marriage was over. Martha Braun announced when Billy returned from Europe they would divorce.

“It’s incompatibility; he’s not for me,” she said.


From the February 11, 1954 edition of Jet Magazine

The divorce was finalized the following February, at which time, Martha garnered attention by penning a piece for Confidential magazine titled “My Life with Billy Daniels,” which emphatically stated the color of his skin had no bearing on the failure of their marriage.

“The feeling we had for each other was trampled to death by other women – white women,” she wrote. “They chased him individually and in squads, coyly and with the brazen candor of nymphomaniacs.”

Following the divorce, Martha returned to Lowell; her show business career dead.

In 1960, she married James McGrath, but that marriage too was short-lived.

She dealt with bouts of severe depression. In 1970, 41-year-old Martha was arrested on Route 110 in Chelmsford and charged with driving under the influence and drunkenness, for which she paid $110 in fines.

In 1976, she and her then-boyfriend were accused of assaulting a woman on Fletcher Street; those charges were later dropped.

Over the years, Martha worked at Raytheon, the Sun and as a clerk /typist in the city’s CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program.

On May 2, 1982, Martha left a note in the kitchen of her home at 140 Clark Rd. for her roommate, Carol Beauregard; in it she expressed her depression, but did not mention suicide. However, she left her mother’s diamonds rings on top of the note.

Just before noon, her body was discovered washed up on the shore behind the Franco American School by Mark Lemieux, a kid throwing rocks into the river.

“I think she was trying to save herself after she jumped. It looked like she tried to swim to safety” Dr. John Karbowniczak county medical examiner stated after examining the scene. “But there’s no mystery to this one; it’s a suicide and she jumped from the bridge.”

Beauregard told the Sun Martha had been suffering from terminal cancer, had undergone two mastectomies and was left penniless.

IMG_2799A story in the Sun by Kevin Landrigan two days after her death, surmised Martha Braun’s decent began on her wedding day in 1950.

“For Billy Daniels – the superstar black blues singer – it was a day in which he took the second in a string of lovely white women as his temporary bride,” Landrigan wrote.  “But for Martha Braun, that wedding day in New York brought a budding career to a grinding halt, turned close hometown friends and family against her and aided in her eventual financial ruin.”

The Braun family monument at Lowell Cemetery

The Braun family monument at Lowell Cemetery

By the time of their deaths in the early 1970’s, her parents had forgiven Martha for the controversial nuptials, but many others in Lowell’s social circles never did. She and her brother Carl only reconciled a few years before her death.

Beautiful, talented Martha Braun, once the toast of the town, was shunned when she returned to Lowell following the divorce and never regained her popularity or the acceptance of her hometown friends.

Omaha Packing Company Fire — 1943

Late last December among the mail dropped off at the Central Fire Station, Fire Chief Edward “Skip” Pitta found an unusual holiday greeting addressed to him.

cardThe sender had underlined “Christmas Memories” on the front, a simple message wishing holiday cheer was printed on the inside. It was simply signed “Theresa Quigley,” but at the top of the inside of the card was written “Omaha Fire Victim, 1942.”

card02Pitta was intrigued. He had never received any correspondence from Ms. Quigley before this card — 70 years after the animal fat-fueled blaze that gutted the Omaha Packing Company on January 6, 1943 nearly took her life.

Attempts by this blogger to contact Ms. Quigley were unsuccessful. However, the card compelled me to conduct some research into the fire in question. Here is the story:

omaha01It was early afternoon. The employees of the Omaha Packing Company on Market Street were . . .  packing meat.

What they did not know was the fat dripping from hams smoking in the fourth floor smokehouse had ignited sawdust on the floor. It didn’t take long for them to figure it out.

Thick smoke quickly filled the factory. The smoke was so thick, workers were unable to reach the stairways, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because had they reached the bottom of the narrow stairs they would have found cardboard boxes stacked eight feet high, blocking their exit.

Several workers leapt from windows. Six women crowded in one window and clamored over each other to get on the ladder of the aerial truck. One woman, Dorothy Quigley, 19, of Billerica fell through the rungs, but was able to hold on until a net was placed below her.

On the left, Dorothy Quigley hangs on the rungs of the aerial ladder.

On the left, Dorothy Quigley hangs on the rungs of the aerial ladder.

Firefighters John Moran and John Gillis were on their day off, but came to the scene and rescued people without their proper equipment; they left soaked to the bone.

“The last woman taken from the window had collapsed inside but was conscious as fireman proceeded down the ladder with her,” The Sun reported. “Her scream echoed horribly through the street. Her clothing was ablaze and the flames licked hungrily across her shoulders, legs and head. The flames surged so rapidly that firemen were forced to stop part of the way down the ladder and beat them out.”

A man dove head fist out of a third floor window, with his clothes on fire. He sustained a broken leg, serious burns and internal injuries.

Sixteen-year-old Theresa Quigley (she of the Christmas card), had her clothing burned from her chest and shoulders.  Her hair was burned to the scalp in spots; her shoulders were ribboned with blisters.

The injured included:

Mrs. Stasia Szewczyk, 48, 90 Lakeview Ave. serious burns to arms, face and body

Walter Paulaukas, 579 Lawrence St., fracture of right leg

Mrs. Alfred Joly, 32, 116 Salem Street, shock, burns to both eyes

Louis Spehl, 62, 260 Appleton St., elbow burns

Henry Baumann, 39, 78 Washington St., smoke inhalation

Viola Kozla, 45, 152 Lakeview Ave. burns on right arm

Frank Yttaro, 52, 116 Salem St., burns on both hands and face

Anthony Czekianski, 64, 113 Jewett St., burns on chest, back, shoulders, shock

Alvina Gorczyca, 19, 39 Union Street, smoke inhalation

Lea Millard, 33, 17 Ward St., severe burns on right arms, chest and legs

Theresa Quigley, 16, 12 Laurel Ave., Billerica, shock and body burns

Dorothy Quigley, 19, 12 Laurel Ave., Billerica, shock and body burns

Barbara Olszanski, 47, 132 Lakeview Ave., shock and facial burns.

The Omaha Packing Company brought in Dr. Charles Lund, who had treated many injured by the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, to oversee the treatment of the most seriously burned.

Dorothy Quigley was released from St. John’s Hospital on January 19.

A demolition permit was issued for the top two floors of the building on April 16; it cost $2,200 to demolish the structure.

On April 30, Theresa Quigley and Barbara Olszewski were allowed to get up from their hospital beds for the first time. For three of the four months they were in the hospital, their bodies were entirely wrapped in bandages.


Theresa and Dorothy Quigley (left and right center) flanked by their parents the day Theresa was released from the hospital.

On June 13, Theresa Quigley was released from the hospital.

Ever wonder why the building at  51 Market St. is shorter than its neighbors? The top two floors were demolished following the 1943 fire.

Ever wonder why the building at 51 Market St. is shorter than its neighbors? The top two floors were demolished following the 1943 fire.

Buried Treasure — A Tour of Lowell Cemetery

IMG_2834She was married and bored. He was interesting. She was enchanted. He was smitten.

poeandannieIt was July 1848 and famed poet Edgar Allan Poe was staying in Westford at the home of wealthy paper mill owner Charles Richmond and his wife Nancy. The couple, former Lowellians and big fans of Poe’s work, invited him to stay at their home rather than a hotel when they heard he would be lecturing in Lowell.

In the time before Facebook, the Kardashians and the 3D IMAX version of The Fast and the Furious 6 lectures by writers, intellectuals and political figures were the main source of entertainment and night-on-the-town socialization.

The eccentric writer was a night owl, sitting up all night long in front of the fireplace. Nancy joined him. Friendship blossomed into romance.

Poe wrote a series of passionate love letters; she visited him, unaccompanied by her husband.

The following April, Poe’s poem “For Annie” was published in Flag of Our Union, a weekly Boston-based publication. Nancy Richmond bragged to her friends she was in fact Poe’s “Annie.”

The final stanza of the poem reads:

But my heart it is brighter

      Than all of the many

Stars in the sky,

      For it sparkles with Annie—

It glows with the light

      Of the love of my Annie—

With the thought of the light

      Of the eyes of my Annie.

When Charles Richmond died in 1873, Nancy went to the probate court and had her name legally changed to Annie.

IMG_2768“It’s not a stretch to say Edgar Allan Poe’s girlfriend is buried at Lowell Cemetery,” local historian Richard Howe Jr. told a crowd of more than 50 who gathered at the sprawling 173-year-old garden-style cemetery off of Lawrence Street Friday afternoon for the first guided tour of the spring.

The 90-minute tour was packed with fascinating stories of the souls who rest there. I will not give them all away, since you should take the tour yourself, but I will tease you with a few crumbs . .

IMG_2734There is John Swett, who Howe said “seemed like a nice guy,” and his four wives – Rebecca, Mary, Fanny and Elizabeth.

Swett lived at the corner of Liberty and Pine Streets in the Highlands and ran a livery stable on Green Street near the train depot where he provided horse-drawn carriages for visitors who arrived by train.

Rebecca died at the age of 26, six years after they wed. The next Mrs. Swett was Rebecca’s sister Mary, who died seven years later. At the age of 45, he married 22-year-old Fanny, who died a couple of years later. Elizabeth, wife number four, was older than John  . . . and outlived him.

At the cemetery the four women’s graves are marked by tall headstones. John’s sits flat on the ground.

“I think there is some symbolism that his stone is prostrate . . . with four wives . . . “ Howe said.

In addition to being a cemetery, the beautifully handcrafted monuments also make it a public art museum. One of the most striking pieces is at the grave of Louisa Maria Wells.

IMG_2807As a teen, she came to Lowell from Vermont to work at the Lawrence Manufacturing Company.  She never married or had children.

When she died in 1886 at the age of 69, her will stated all of her money should be put toward a suitable monument in honor of herself and her mother.

Louisa’s cousins, who wanted the money for themselves, contested the will.

“In a court case right out of a Charles Dickens novel,” Howe said, the case dragged on for 20 years, during which time the funds earned a considerably amount of interest.

The judge upheld the will and Louisa’s wishes. Famed sculptor Daniel Chester French, who had carved the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, was asked to create the piece.

He suggested his associate, Evelyn Longman, who had trouble getting work that was not awarded through blind design contests due to her gender.

“No one wanted to hire a woman for something as important as carving a statue,” quipped Howe.

The imposing piece depicts a comforting Angel of Death leaning over a kneeling mill worker, clad in a smock and holding a bobbin with the yarn cut, symbolizing the end of life’s yarn.

Howe has been conducting tours of the Lowell Cemetery for four years. IMG_2751The spring tours cover the Lawrence Street half of the burial ground, while in the fall the tour starts from the Knapp Avenue entrance.

For more information, including upcoming tour dates visit

The J.C. Ayer lion. A 25-ton piece made of Italian marble.

The J.C. Ayer lion. A 25-ton piece made of Italian marble.


The Sargent family mausoleum.

The Sargent family mausoleum.


A granite tree stump grave marker. The stump symbolizes a life "cut down".

A granite tree stump grave marker. The stump symbolizes a life “cut down”.

The chapel.

The chapel.

The grave of U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas.

The grave of U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas.

This Place Was a Zoo

bears 001City Purchasing Agent Eddie Foye thought it was a joke . . . those wacky park commissioners were pulling his leg.

It was October 29, 1915. A requisition came across his desk to purchase five deer for Belvidere’s Fort Hill Park. It was no joke.

Foye remembered having seen deer at Canobie Lake Park; he got in touch with officials there, who said he could purchase the animals from their facility, assuring him their stock came from “good family and have no mean or bad tricks.”

The following April, and 86-inch long, 12 foot high wire fence was built on a ¾ acre parcel on the westerly slope of Fort Hill. The city water line was extended to the enclosure.

Parks Superintendent John W. Kernan faced a predicament – how to get the deer from Salem, NH to Lowell. After coming up with a few bad ideas, like walking them here, the deer were loaded onto a flat electric car on the trolley line. While getting onto the car, one of the deer caught his leg in a fence, broke it and was shot. Another deer took his place.

In the city’s annual report, Kernan noted the addition of the deer increased attendance at the park threefold; although, one of the deer died shortly after arriving. It was suspected the cause was accidental poisoning. Visitors liked to feed the deer and it was suspected one may have fed this deer leaves of trees in the park that had recently been sprayed with arsenate of lead.

And so it began . . . the Fort Hill Park Zoo that, while providing a fun destination in the city, was also fraught with its share of debacles in the three decades it existed.

Over the years the zoo was home to many deer (including twins Pete and Repeat and twins Amos and Andy) and  bears including two cubs shipped to Lowell in a soap box (Nip and Tuck) by a Maine trapper and three cubs purchased for $100 from a Wisconsin trapper and named Tinker, Evers and Chance after the famous Chicago Cubs trio.

Marty the Zebra

Marty the Zebra

There was a zebra, originally called Jailbird, but later known as Marty, gifted to Mayor John J. Bruin by the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus for his support of the circus. There was the burro, gifted to the city in 1922 by Dr. Mason M. Bryant of Harvard Street, who had acquired the animal when serving on the Texas border with the First Mass Ambulance Corps; the goat, named Polley after George Polley, famous at the time as the ‘Human Fly’ for his ability to scale tall buildings that was fond of escaping; and the two baby skunks taken in by a Chelmsford woman after their mother was killed by a car on Acton Road.

For the first five years, only deer populated the Belvidere hot spot. On September 28, 1917, poor Superintendent Kernan spent his entire morning chasing two bucks around the enclosure in an effort to capture them and swap them out for two other bucks with the Franklin Park Zoo, to prevent inbreeding.

“But, at noon his efforts had been fruitless,” the Sun reported.

photoThe first non-deer to arrive at the young zoo was an adult female bear, secured from the Vermont wilderness. Her April 1921 arrival brought much excitement to the city.

“And with the addition of the bear, the municipal zoo will begin to take on a real metropolitan appearance,” the Sun wrote.

bigbearThe newspaper published a lengthy poem to welcome the city’s newest attraction, which ended with this clever stanza:

The dry condition of prohibition

Will certainly find its ruin

For at Fort Hill Park from dawn until dark

There will always be something bruin.

The bear’s presence drew visitors from near and far. On April 27, 1921, 646 people visited the zoo from 2 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.

The very next day, the need for the city to appoint a zookeeper, rather than trust the care and security of the animals, which now also included a 7-year-old, 72-pound Shetland pony, to Parks Department staff who had other duties, became very apparent.

It was mid-day when a group of boys began hurling rocks at the pony, while another group of boys and girls shouted at the animal as it ran around its pen.

“The pony was seemingly in such a condition of terror that it did not think to take shelter in the hut which has been provided for it,” wrote The Sun, adding the pony, prior to coming to Fort Hill was on the entertainment circuit performing tricks like saying his prayers, walking on his hind legs like a soldier, and kissing the cheek of any boy or girl who asked nicely, in various places including “New England’s great summer amusement resort, Revere Beach.”

zooDelving into the pony’s psyche, the newspaper surmised the he was “unable to comprehend the brutal treatment which has been accorded him by unfeeling ragamuffins.”

The bear, Miss Bruin, was not impacted by the stones because she was in her cage, the bars of which were too close together to be penetrated by stones. She did have an altercation earlier the same week, however, with a dog someone let into the enclosure.

The next month, police were stationed at the zoo; a month after that four Parks Dept. employees were appointed as special police.

Ostriches Need Not Apply

Lest I leave you with the impression that the Parks Department would take in any random animal that was offered, there were a few that were refused.

In November 1917, the Franklin Park Zoo offered Lowell two ostriches. The gift was refused due to the cost of feeding the birds, which were said to be grain eaters with an appetite that would put an elephant to shame.

In May 1921, a firm in Hattiesburg, Mississippi offered to sell the zoo baby alligators at a cost of $25 a pair. No deal.

In August 1928, a Lowell businessman offered the city 12 monkeys. The offer was declined because the city did not have a place to shelter them in the winter.

In 1935 the Sun noted:  “Beef-eating animals have been offered to the city in the past, but those in charge are quite content to accept only those of the herbivorous variety, the docile types that are not liable to seek a human arm for luncheon.”

In 1926, Kernan made the mistake of telling the keeper of the Philadelphia Zoo to send any “extra” animals his way. Well, on November 8 of that year, three crates arrived at City Hall, containing a timber wolf, a coyote and a badger.

Kernan said at the time he would send them back, but apparently he never followed through because a year later the timber wolf and coyote came to a violent end.

The two animals had contracted a contagious skin disease, which city officials feared would be spread to the bear. Lowell Humane Society Agent Harrison Baker was called in; he was told to bring his gun.

The coyote and wolf in a shed, Baker entered the enclosure, quickly shutting the door behind him to prevent the animals from charging at the light.

“Pistol loaded and ready, the agent crept within range of the wolf, which he decided was best to put out of the way first,” the Sun reported. “One shot dispatched the timber wolf but the noise of the shot together with the instinct of danger snapped the coyote into action and he swayed and crawled with teeth bared, setting himself for a spring.”

Baker shot the coyote in the right eye, prompting “an agony of snarls,” then shot him again, ending his misery.

“I’m tickled to death to be out of that fix,” Baker told the newspaper upon emerging from the shed.

 The Captured Wild

The Parks Dept. did take in some wild animals from the area, including a few deer caught running through the city. The most dramatic capture came on February 4, 1934.

A 5-year-old buck was spotted running through mill yards on Lawrence Street. It then ran through the downtown and into the Acre, sprinting in an open back door of a home on Fletcher Street, through Marie Normandin’s kitchen and out another door. From there, he made his way up to Pawtucket Street, entering a house through the back door, running into the living room and jumping through the front window, shattering the glass and breaking the frame.

He escaped up to Wannalancit Street, where he was found hiding in Clarence Edward’s barn, captured and taken to the Fort Hill Park Zoo.

Two weeks later another 5-year-old Buck was rescued from the Western Canal by 17-year-old Raymond Donovan of Middlesex Street, treated by Dr. Harold N. Eames for “frozen ears,” treated to “a few shots of good whiskey” and taken to the zoo.


A Slow, Steady Demise

It appeared the zoo was done for in April 1938 when two dogs got into the deer enclosure and bit a young doe to death.

Following that gruesome incident, the Humane Society advised the city to either fix the fence or get rid of the animals. Mayor Dewey Archambault told the LHS the zoo animals, which by that time only consisted of a few deer and a bear, would be turned over to the state to be placed on a state-controlled reservation.

Kernan, who often butted heads with Archambault (who the prior year eliminated the entire Parks Department for several months), said the fence was not in need of repair, the dogs had burrowed under it, they had not busted through the fence.  Kernan added the Mayor had not spoken to him about ridding the city of the zoo.

The zoo remained.

In May 1940, the Sun noted the zoo’s occupants included a mother bear and her three “mangy” cubs and a “dwarf-sized” deer. The roadways and walkways around the park were in great disrepair and visitors were few and far between.

By 1949 the sole occupants of the Fort Hill Zoo were “two bedraggled deer.” The fences were in disrepair and there was no caretaker in sight.

By June 1951 the zoo was empty.

“The only animals in the park now are the squirrels,” noted the Sun.

Remnants of the Fort Hill Zoo can still be seen today on the westerly slope of the hill:


Who Was Walter B. Smith?

This week’s City Council agenda includes the following motion by Councilor Marty Lorrey: Req. City Mgr. work with proper department and organization to rename area of former Warren Street parking lot for Walter B. Smith who had lot named after him before replacement by parking garage and hotel.

So, what’s the story?


When the 110-foot brick chimney began to topple, Frank Robillard and Daniel Fanick were able to jump out of the way. Their co-worker, Walter Brendan Smith, was not as fortunate.

Crushed beneath tons on bricks, he died instantly. According to Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph D. Sweeney, Smith suffered inter-cranial injuries, a fracture at the base of his skull, a compound fracture of his pelvis, as well as a fractured arm, jaw and thigh.

walterSmith was 23-years-old. He left behind a  2-year-old daughter (Sandra); his wife, who collapsed when told of her husband’s death, was pregnant with their son (Brendan) at the time.

On the morning of Saturday May 5, 1956, Smith, was working for Lowell Building Wrecking Company, demolishing the vacant Gilet Carbonizing Company mills on Warren Street.

The mill complex was built by Belgian immigrant James Gilet, who brought the Flemish and Belgian methods of textile weaving to Lowell. The company went out of business on June 1, 1954.

The city awarded the $29,000 demolition contract to Lowell Building Wrecking to make way for a 600-space parking lot.

On October 22, 1957, the City Council voted unanimously to name the new parking lot in honor of Smith. The motion was made by Councilor John Dukeshire. Councilor Raymond Lord had made a motion requesting the lot be named for Gilet, but upon hearing Smith’s family wanted the lot named for him, Lord withdrew his motion.

Of course, as simple as this vote was, it did not come without politics.

Councilor Samuel Sampson took the opportunity to accuse City Manager Frank Barrett of being responsible for Smith’s death because he awarded the demolition contract to an inexperienced contractor who offered the cheapest price.

According to the October 23, 1957 Sun: “Sampson charged that negligence was the cause of the accident and that the man’s death was a condemnation of the city government.”

The Walter B. Smith Parking Lot was lost when the then-Hilton Hotel and the Lower Locks garage were built in the early 1980’s.

Lorrey, who grew up with the Smith kids, said he ran into Sandra at the April 27 fundraiser for local Boston Marathon bombing victims at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. She mentioned the hotel stands where her dad’s parking lot once stood.

Lorrey decided it was not right for the city to forget the sacrifice made by Walter Brendan Smith . . . and so, a motion was born . . .

The City Council meets Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Howard Street Playground

imageThis is the Howard Street “playground” in 1920. This photo is found in the city’s annual report of that year. According to the report, in places where there were no actual playgrounds, the city would close the street for a few hours in the early evening when it was still light and let the kids play in the street. In 1920 this was done on Howard and Charles Streets.

Luther Lawrence Mayor March 6, 1838 – April 17, 1839

The first in an occasional series on the Mayors of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Luther and stuff 012

Replica of a portrait of Luther Lawrence donated to the city by Lawrence Academy.

It was a rainy Wednesday morning.

Mayor Luther Lawrence was excited to show his brother-in-law and Harvard classmate, Watertown attorney Tyler Bigelow the improvements made to the old woolen mill at the Middlesex Mills on the banks of the Concord River. It was one of five mills and dye houses owned by Lawrence and his brothers that manufactured underwear and stockings.

Middlesex Mills, courtesy of UMass Lowell

Middlesex Mills, courtesy of UMass Lowell

During the tour, Lawrence tripped, pitching himself 17 feet into a wheel pit, striking his head on a cast iron wheel. His skull was fractured and he died within 30 minutes. He was 16 days into his second year-long term as Mayor of the city he helped transform from a town to a city.

“The news spread rapidly throughout the city and carried sadness to every heart,” wrote Lawrence’s nephew Dr. Samuel Green, who later served as the City Physician and Mayor of Boston.

The City Council held a special meeting that night.

In the Illustrated History of Lowell, historian Charles Cowley notes: “Appropriate resolutions were passed by the city council bearing testimony to his high-minded and honorable character – his judicious administration of the city government – his lively interest in the various public institutions with which he had been connected . . . .Mr. Lawrence was a gentlemanly, kind-hearted man with the popular manners of his family, public spirited and well-fitted for county practice.”

Luther Lawrence was born in Groton on September 28, 1778, the oldest son of Samuel Lawrence, who had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War.

Luther and his bothers Abbott, Amos, William and Samuel all attended Groton Academy (renamed Lawrence Academy in 1845 in honor of the contributions of the Lawrence brothers); he graduated from Harvard College in 1801 and studied law under Timothy Bigelow, older brother of Lucy Bigelow, who he married on June 2, 1805.

Luther Lawrence ran a successful law practice in Groton and served as Groton‘s state representative at the Statehouse from 1812-1822; he served as Speaker of the House in 1821 and 1822.

LawrenceIn 1831, Lawrence moved to Lowell where his brothers had heavily invested in manufacturing. He setup a law practice with Elisha Glidden and quickly became involved in business and civic life of the city, serving as one of the original directors of the Railroad Bank.

Lawrence was chosen to chair the committee that studied whether the town of Lowell (est. 1826) should move to a city form of government. On Feb. 17, 1836 he presented the recommendations of that committee to Town Meeting, which was to do just that.

“The principal defects in the operation of the town government is the want of executive power and the loose and irresponsible manner in which money for municipal purposes is granted and expended,” Lawrence sad in his report.

By Feb. 27, he had drafted a city charter, which was adopted by Town Meeting on April 11 by a 961-328 vote; the population of the commonwealth’s newest city was 17,633.

On March 5, 1838 he became the second Mayor of Lowell (succeeding Elisha Bartlett) and was re-elected the following year.

“The sensation produced in the community is deep and very extensive,” Rev. Theodore Edson of Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church wrote in his diary regarding Lawrence’s unexpected death.

Lawrence had worshipped at Saint Anne’s until an October 1838 disagreement about religion with Edson led him to remove himself and his family from the congregation.

“The kind neighbor, the useful citizen, the trusty counselor, the judicious friend in whom the widow and the fatherless often confided, the devoted and efficient public officer, he filled all stations with strict integrity of purpose,” Rev. Henry A. Miles said of Lawrence in the sermon given at the South Congregational Church on the Sunday following Lawrence’s funeral. “Sincere in his manners, frank in his address, firm and faithful in his friendships, how many had he bound to his generous, manly heart. By his large circle of acquaintances, by us of this society with whom he worshipped, by numerous public institutions of which he was an active member and supporter, by this city – its able executive head – too deeply for our poor words to describe, will his loss be felt.”

He was buried in the Old Burying Ground in his hometown of Groton; his family decided against holding a public funeral. People lined the streets as the funeral procession made its way from the Groton Common to the burial ground.

Luther and stuff 015Fun facts:

  • Lawrence Street in Lowell is named for Luther Lawrence
  • Lawrence, Massachusetts was founded by and named for Luther’s brother Abbott Lawrence.
  • Luther Lawrence’s nephew Amos Adams Lawrence founded the University of Kansas, as well as the city of Lawrence, Kansas; he also helped found Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. His father-in-law, Samuel Appleton, brother of Nathan Appleton, one of the founders of Lowell, donated $10,000 to the school’s library so the city was named in his honor.

Lowell’s Young Cobblers and the Belgian Refugees

Remember sixth grade? The long division, the environmental science, the field trip to Canobie Lake . . . . the cobbling. What? You don’t remember the shoe repair component of sixth grade?

If you were a sixth-grade boy at the Varnum School in Lowell’s Centralville neighborhood in the early 1900’s you certainly would.

The year was 1908. Varnum School teacher Rose Dowd was troubled. She noticed many of the school’s students did not have proper footwear; their shoes were worn, torn, or broken; some stayed home because they did not have shoes.

She came up with a brilliant solution. Rather than giving the students shoes, she would teach them how to repair them — a variation of the old “teach a man to fish” principle.

The class of 25 boys made their own aprons. Ms. Dowd, who lived on Tenth Street, became the “cobbleress,” the boss of the shop.

Photo: Lowell Sun April 4, 1918

Photo: Lowell Sun April 4, 1918

The boys worked one hour a week in the cobbling shop, masterfully repairing the soles and heels of their shoes, the shoes of their families and neighbors.

Word began to spread and the work proved to have unintended positive consequences.

“The teachers say that the manual training makes better students, that the students study better after an hour or a half hour working at the bench with their hands,” the Nashua Telegraph reported on January 8, 1910. “Many a pupil who was considered rather dull became self-confident, better able to express himself, for he can compete with his more brilliant classmate when it is a work with the fingers and in many case the pupils best brain capacity gains expression because it is being reached by the fingers.”

At the time, the Nashaway Woman’s Club was exploring a plan to add manual training to the Nashua Public Schools’ curriculum. It was felt it would benefit the students to learn a trade given that fewer than 20 percent of Nashua students entered high school.

The looked to Lowell for guidance; as did Lawrence eight years later. And in the summer of 1909 Dowd taught a summer cobbling class in Wincester at the bequest of the Wincester School Department.

“In the public schools of Lowell the very best demonstration of manual training is given,” reported the Telegraph.

In addition to cobbling, the Varnum School also offered sewing for the girls and cane seating.

In October 1910, the Lowell Sun reported three graduates of the cobbling class has gone into the cobbling business for themselves and had found a good amount of success.

Rose Dowd’s young cobblers met their greatest challenge in early 1918 – they were put into service to complete an important war contract.

The one-hour a week work rule was shattered, with the boys populating the shop during recess, after school and whenever they could get in there. Their mission: fix up worn-down and broken shoes for the Red Cross to ship overseas for the Belgian refugees of the Great War.

“Now that war conditions have brought a greater demand for the finished product there has been overtime galore and not a kick from the youthful cobblers,” the Sun reported on April 4, 1918. “They more than welcomed the introduction of the new daylight savings law in that it gave them an opportunity to do a little more Red Cross work and thus perhaps furnish some poor Belgian refugee with covering for his or her feet.”

All of the leather used was old belting donated by W.A. Mitchell of the Massachusetts Mills.

In two weeks of work the tiny shoe repairmen had sent 142 pairs of good-as-new finely crafted shoes to the Belgians.

And they were not slowing down. The Sun reported two weeks into the work “every hammer was going at full blast.”

While one may have seen many things in Europe in 1918, a Belgian refugee with rubber-soled shoes was not one of those things.

The Red Cross shipped no shoes with rubber soles because the Germans were running short of rubber and were quite desirous of obtaining more, any way they could.

Shoes with rubber soles and heels were given to the Salvation Army for domestic distribution.

It is unclear when the last shoe was re-heeled at the Varnum School, but Rose Dowd died on May 29, 1930, having taught at the school for 46 years.

Her obituary noted that if it had not been for her ingenuity, many children “would have suffered during the winter months for lack of proper footwear.”

varnThe Varnum School was closed in June 2008, 151 years after it was built, a victim of budget cuts.

Last week, the Lowell City Council approved the sale of the building for $285,000 to Underwood Property Management and Development, of Lowell.

Thomas and Richard Underwood plan to convert the school into 22 two-and-three bedroom rental apartments, marketed to veterans. The proposed plan earned the endorsement of the Centralville Neighborhood Action Group.

Hollywood Greats Signed Mayor’s Guest Book

Before Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner, there was Alfred Hitchcock and Dorothy Lamour.

It was Tuesday Oct, 9, 1951 when famed director Hitchcock, “Siren of the Sarong” Lamour an actress who starred alongside Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in their “Road” movies, and a contingent of their Hollywood colleagues arrived in the Mill City to great fanfare.

Lowell Sun society reporter Betty Reilly reported the movie stars’ caravan arrived at the city line on Gorham Street just before 11 a.m. They were met by city officials, local theater managers and a military escort.  Gawkers lined city streets to catch a glimpse as a parade of cars headed up Gorham to Central Street and up Merrimack Street to City Hall.

Lowell was a stop on the 68 city/town “MovieTime USA” tour, celebrating 50 years of motion pictures and designed to entice Americans to head back to movie theaters, as the industry feared the growing influence of television would keep people at home.

The vivacious Lamour, who The Sun referred to as “the girl who did for the sarong what Barnum did for the circus,” was a favorite in Lowell, having visited the city in 1942 selling war bonds.

“Once at City Hall, the group went into the Mayor’s office,” Reilly reported. “They entered at the side door of the building much to the satisfaction of the wise City Hall employees who had gathered there to catch a glimpse of all the goings-on.”

Lamour was the first to sign the guest register in Mayor George Eliades’ office. Her autograph was followed by those of: Casting director Billy Grady, a Lynn native who discovered Jimmy Stewart and Lamour; Debra Paget, a 17-year-old rising starlet; Margaret Sheridan, the lead actress in “The Thing”; Alfred Hitchcock, who at that time had directed “Rebecca” and “Spellbound” among other films, but had yet to film his biggest hits like “Psycho” and “The Birds”; Screenwriters Oscar Brodney and Wells Root; Thomas Breen, a handsome young actor who starred in “The River”; and Samuel Pinanski.

Who was Pinanski? He was the head of the Lowell Technological Institute’s (UMass Lowell) Board of Trustees in the 1940’s and the owner of the largest movie theater chain in New England. UMass Lowell’s nuclear reactor is named in his honor.

But back to the movie stars . . .

Reilly had a chance to sit down with Lamour, Paget and Sheridan while Hitchcock looked on. She asked him if he had plans for a new thriller. He said he was waiting for the right story to come along.

“I’m looking for my usual type of story,” Hitchcock said.  “You can’t ask a cobbler to change his last, you know.”

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Lamour told syndicated Hollywood columnist Earl Wilson she had very much enjoyed the extensive tour.

“It was wonderful and Lowell was the best of all,” Lamour said.

Before Hitchcock and his band of glamorous dames descended upon the city, a couple of funny guys popped in.

On Saturday April 17, 1948, the celebrated comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello visited the Mayor’s office and signed the guest book
(City Hall was open on Saturdays until March 7, 1953).

The duo was in town to headline two days of shows at the Lowell Auditorium. They performed at 2:30, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Tickets were $1.20 (including tax) for the matinee shows, with a special price of 25 cents for school children for the Saturday matinee (with proceeds benefiting the Lowell Boys’ Club); $1.20 for balcony seats for the evening shows and $1.80 for orchestra and floor seats.

“They are billed as a brace of buffoons and their routines are strictly boff,” wrote Sun City Hall reporter Jim Droney. “They are top of the top in show business, but most importantly they are a couple of good sams (that’s short for Samaritans).”

Abbott and Costello had built a community recreation center and free health clinic in Los Angeles, which at that time was servicing 11,000 young people. It was named in honor of Costello’s son, Lou Jr., who had drowned in the family pool two days prior to his first birthday in November 1943.

Honest Abe and the Mill City

Abraham Lincoln by artist George Peter Alexander Healy, of Boston

At 9 p.m. on April 15, 1865, the angry, distraught mob gathered outside Otis Wright’s Central Street office (in the building now known as Wyman’s Exchange). They were there for blood.

Earlier that day, word raced around the city that Wright, Superintendent of the Lowell Horse Railroad, a horse-driven streetcar operation founded in 1864, had expressed gratification regarding the previous day’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.

Wright was alleged to have remarked, while in the presence of Daniel Greenleaf, “Who’s fool enough to kill the damned old fool?”

Mayor Josiah Peabody, City Marshall Bickford Lang, and a contingent of Lowell Police officers soon arrived on the scene to quell the rowdy crowd, who were beginning to push their way up the stairs to drag Wright out of the building.

Wyman’s Exchange

The Mayor’s appearance was greeted by cheers from the crowd. He begged them not to meet Wright with violence stating “at a time when all hearts are overflowing with grief our city should be spared any riotous demonstrations,” according to the Lowell Daily Citizen and News.

Peabody soon announced Wright would come down and address the crowd. He did, American flag in hand. Wright denied having made the remarks, but the crowd did not buy what he was selling.

Wright, a Blowellian from New Hampshire, was given 30 minutes to leave the city.

He was ushered back into the building, by his friend Mr. Huse, and slid out a back door to a waiting steed. He set forth back to New Hampshire.

The still-angry Lincoln-loving Lowellians turned their fury on Mr. Huse, prompting Mayor Peabody, John Nesmith, H.H. Wilder and City Marshal Bickford Lang to place a notice in the newspaper, explaining that Huse had not assisted Wright until he was “appealed to by Mr. Wright, also by his sister who was in the office, and not until her knew doing so his course met our approbation.

“We believe his acts in this matter entitle him to commendation, rather than censure, as it was more than probable that the speedy removal of Mr. Wright has left our city without the disgrace of a riot (perhaps bloodshed and the destruction of property) upon its record.”

Abraham Lincoln was not from Lowell, but the people here took a liking to him.

With the upcoming release of the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, I thought it would be a good time to look at the 16th president’s connections to the MillCity.

***On Saturday September 16, 1848, a young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln came to Lowell to stump for Whig presidential candidate General Zachary Taylor at a meeting called by the Chairman of the city’s Whig Central Committee, Linus Child.

U.S. Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Whig-Illinois)

City Hall (then in the building now occupied by Enterprise Bank on Merrimack Street) was packed that night.

According to the September 18, 1848 Lowell Courier, Lincoln “addressed the assembly in a most able speech, going over the whole subject in a masterly and convincing manner, and showing, beyond a peradventure, that it is the first duty of the Whigs to stand united and labor with devotion to secure he defeat of that part, which has already done so much mischief to the country. He was frequently interrupted by bursts of warm applause.”

The question of whether Lincoln spent the night in Lowell remains a mystery. However, the fact that the Whig meeting was at 7:30 p.m. and the last train out of the city was at 6:30 p.m. points to Abe having rested his head here overnight.

*** Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 caused the postponement of the dedication of the Ladd and Whitney monument, which was scheduled for April 19. It was held on June 17 (Bunker Hill Day), because Gov. John A. Andrew was unable to attend.

Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney, members of the Lowell-based Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Regiment, were killed in Baltimore on April 19, 1861; the first casualties of the Civil War.

The Ladd and Whitney monument

The monument in front of City Hall, where their bodies are buried, cost $4,508.23 when it was built, with the state kicking in $2,000. The city also paid an additional $558.72 for the grading, turfing and fencing of the grounds.

“The structure reflects credit on our state and city and is a just tribute of gratitude to the memory of these youthful martyrs who led the van of those immortal heroes who have died that their country might live,” Mayor Josiah Peabody’s Inaugural Address, 1866.

*** A little known connection between Lincoln and Lowell is Frederick Augustus Aiken.

Aiken, born in Lowell on September 20, 1832, served as the defense attorney for Mary Surratt, the only female arrested as a conspirator in john Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate Lincoln.

Surratt owned the four-story boarding house at 604 H St. NW in Washington, D.C. where Booth and his co-conspirators often met.

Mary Surratt

Surratt was found guilty and sentenced to death. The first woman executed by the United States government, Mary Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865.

Aiken, a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War, also had a background in journalism. Following the Surratt trial his law practice petered out and he returned to newspapers. In 1868, Aiken became the first city editor of the Washington Post, a position he held until his death 10 years later.