William Scollay

  • Born:

    Boston MA, 1750s(?)

  • Died:

    Boston MA, 1809

  • Father:

    John Scollay

  • Mother:

    Mercy Greenleaf

  • Married:

  • Children:

Several years ago, when my father told me Scollay Square in Boston was named after Herman Melville's Orcadian grandfather, I pictured somewhere tree-lined and genteel. We were both wrong. Herman Melville's grand-uncle, William Scollay, gave the square its name, it was probably William's grandfather who emigrated from Orkney and Scollay Square was a far more entertaining place than I imagined.

John and Mercy Scollay's son William attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard University. He became an apothecary and he was, like his father, a prominent citizen. He was elected Clerk of the Market in 1788, an important job that would only be given to someone who was well-respected, involving as it did the ensuring of fair trading in matters such as weights and measures. In 1792 he was elected to another important position in a city built almost entirely of wood, that of fire-ward. In the same year he became, like his father before him, a selectman of Boston. He only served three years as a selectman but remained a fire-ward until 1806.

Another prestigious appointment came in 1792, when he was elected a colonel in the Boston Militia regiment and when Paul Revere became Grand Master of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Freemasons he appointed Scollay as his deputy. They, with the Governor of Massachusetts, Samuel Adams, laid the cornerstone of the Boston State House in 1795.

It is clear that he was someone of consequence in Boston but he is best remembered as a property developer. He and his friend and neighbour, the famous architect Charles Bullfinch, were part of a small group who built Tontine Crescent. Although now demolished, this was the first block of brick buildings in Boston.

In 1795, Scollay bought a two-storey brick building on the intersection of Court Street and Tremont Street in Boston and called it Scollay's Building. Its location between Beacon Hill, the docks and down-town Boston meant it became a transfer-point for commuters and the conductors came to refer to the stop as Scollay's. This name came to refer to the whole square and it was made official in 1838.

The Square began as a dignified place, housing the businesses whose owners could afford to live on nearby Beacon Hill. In the giant ballroom of the Lorenzo Papanti Dance Academy, the waltz was first danced in America and Charles Dickens appeared in 1842. As the Irish moved into Boston and the trolley-car made the population more mobile, Scollay Square became a shopping centre.

In David Kruh's excellent book, Always Something Doing - A History of Boston's Infamous Scollay Square he describes the turn of the century as the Square's era of giant tea kettles, mobile statues, abolitionists, cavalry charges, and three of the country's greatest contributors to modern electronics." His website, www.bambinomusical.com is full of pictures of the square in its heyday.

In a workshop in the square Thomas Edison produced his first patented invention and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson first heard the sound of a human voice through a telephone. In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison began to publish an abolitionist newspaper in Scollay Square. He was twice dragged out of his office and tarred and feathered but he carried on. It was in his offices that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin and Julia Ward Howe began The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The office was also an important link in the Underground railway that ferried runaway slaves to the north.

The giant brass tea-kettle was a famous land-mark that hung outside the Oriental Tea Company in Scollay Square. In 1875 a competition was run to guess at the kettle's capacity and more than 12,000 people entered. The large crowd that gathered to watch the measuring was entertained to see eight boys and a tall man wearing a top hat climb out of the kettle before officials poured 227 gallons, 2 quarts, 1 pint and three gills of water into it. The kettle has moved several times, as buildings were demolished from beneath it, but still hangs outside the Steaming Kettle coffee shop.

On 9 September 1919, the Boston police force went on strike, after nineteen policemen were suspended for joining a union. After two days of rioting and looting, centered on Scollay Square, the mayor made up a police force that included the State Cavalry. That evening, about ten thousand people were in Scollay Square, some watching but many rioting and looting again. The First Troop of Cavalry broke this up by charging through the square.

The most famous building in Scollay Square was The Old Howard. An Adventist minister, William Miller made careful calculations from the Scriptures and decided that the Day of Judgement would arrive on 23 April 1843. His followers built a large tabernacle on Howard Street in Scollay Square in which to await the event. "On the appointed day many Bostonians calmly picnicked on the Common, watching for the ascension of the white-robed Millerites, whom they figured would first have to crash through the tabernacle's roof." (David Kruh) When nothing happened, Miller did some re-calculations and announced a new date, 18 October 1847 but his followers decided not to wait and attempted to get back some of the money they'd given away by renting the tabernacle to a theatre company. It opened in 1845 as the Howard Atheneum and was a famous Boston institution until it burnt down in 1961.

In its first incarnation, the theatre staged classical plays, ballets and operas but by 1868 horses were being ridden on-stage in the Buffalo Bill Cody show. As a variety theatre, it was an early venue for many well-known American performers - Phil Silvers, Sammy Davis Jnr, Abbot and Costello and the Marx Brothers. As the years went on chorus girls gave way to strip-tease.

The Old Howard was just one of the many attractions for sailors in Scollay Square and the Square's heyday was during World War II, when ships came into the Charlestown Navy Yard for repairs and supplies. The fame of its restaurants, bars, theatres and tattoo parlours meant that Bostonians fighting overseas would be asked by sailors how to get to Scollay Square. David Kruh quotes the reminiscence of one young sailor, "The next thing I remember I'm back in my bunk on board with this searing pain on my buttocks! ...I didn't know if I was cut up or what. So I turned to a bunkmate of mine and asked him, "Am I bleeding?" "No," he says, "but you've got a tattoo of a pink elephant on your left cheek!" And it's been there ever since, my small reminder of Scollay Square."

The best known performer in Scollay Square didn't appear at the Old Howard but at the nightclub in the Crawford House hotel. Sally Keith, the "Queen of the Tassels" performed from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Her fame arose from being able to twirl her tassels in opposite directions. A professor at Harvard University took his first year medical students to see her act and then gave them a test on which muscles she used. Sally offered a pair of her tassels to a Boston church that was holding a fund-raising auction but they had to regretfully decline the offer. The tassels would probably have raised more money than all the other items together and the priest didn't want to try to explain to the diocese how he had raised the money.

In 1951, an article in the Harvard newsletter, The Crimson, after describing the delights of Scollay Square, said, "Scollay Square was named after Colonel William Scollay, class of 1804. His family was one of the first in the city commercially, socially and civically. The Scollays were a dignified and staid family, but are now extinct in Boston. It is just as well."

Scollay Square was demolished in 1962, to make way for the Government Centre but it was remembered with such affection that a campaign resulted in City Plaza being renamed Scollay Square in April 1987.

William's daughter Mary married the eminent doctor, Jacob Bigelow. He coined the word "technology" in a book he wrote and created the first garden cemetery, Mount Auburn.