Wicked Good Guide to Bizarro Boston /


Compiled by Adam Gaffin

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The Harvard Bridge

Between Massachusetts Avenue in Boston and Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

The Harvard Bridge goes to MIT.

So why is it called the Harvard Bridge? When it was built, the state offered to name the bridge for the Cambridge school that could present the best claim for the honor. Harvard submitted an essay detailing its contributions to education in America, concluding that it deserved the honor of having a bridge leading into Cambridge named for the institution. MIT did a structural analysis of the bridge and found it so full of defects that it agreed the bridge should be named for Harvard.

Editor's note: If you don't get it, that's a joke.

Also see: Smoots.

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The John Harvard Statue

Harvard Yard, Cambridge

Who is that?
Fraud! That's not John Harvard.

After they get over the thrill of saying "You can't pahk your cah in Hahvahd Yahd," about 30 bazillion times, tourists love to walk through the Yahd and have pictures of themselves taken with the statue of John Harvard, whose foot they then rub for good luck.

What most of them don't know, however, is that it's really "the statue of three lies." Despite what the plaque on the statue says, Harvard didn't actually found Harvard (the colonial government started the school, then named it after him when he bequeathed his library to it) and the school was started in 1636, not 1638. Even worse, that's not actually John Harvard! Harvard died portraitless, so Daniel Chester French (as in the Lincoln Memorial) used a friend as a model in 1884. However, French did give the statue skinny legs - because that was one symptom of tuberculosis, which Harvard had.

In 1996, some rascals from MIT dressed ol' John up like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (Harvard '62).

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The case of the dismembered doctor

North Grove and Fruit streets at Charles Circle

Today, this is part of the vast Massachusetts General Hospital complex, hard by Storrow Drive. In 1849, however, it was home to the Harvard Medical School - and on the shores of the Charles River.

The crime
Pow! Webster does Parkman in. Click on image for more detail (then scroll down a couple pages).

George Parkman, prominent physician and member of the Boston Brahmin elite, had donated the land for the school a few years earlier. Unfortunately for him, he had loaned some money to John White Webster, a professor of chemistry at the school who had no way to pay it back. Even more unfortunately, Parkman began to get cranky about the money. He went to Webster's lab on Nov. 23, 1849 to demand the money. They got into a fight and Webster knocked him out. Webster then dismembered him and shoved his body parts into a vault under his office.

Boston police, deferential to Webster as another Boston Brahmin, at first believed his story that he didn't know anything about the doctor's disappearance (instead, one of the first people they picked up was an Irishman who tried to use a $20 bill to pay a bridge toll; the theory being that no Irishman could possibly have earned such a bill by honest labor).

But Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at the school, suspected Webster from the beginning - even more so after Webster gave him money to buy himself and his wife a turkey for Thanksgiving (Littlefield had worked at the school for seven years, and Webster had never given him anything). So while the turkey cooked, Littlefield broke into the sealed-off vault, where he found what was left of Parkman.

Webster's trial made the Louise Woodward trial look like a misdemeanor hearing - more than 60,000 people from across the country attended (they were rotated in and out of the courtroom in ten-minute shifts). The trial marked the first time dental work was introduced as evidence (Parkman had an unusual set of false teeth due to the way his lower jaw jutted out; for many years after his death, the falsies were kept on exhibit on the floor above Webster's lab). William Morton, better known for the discovery of ether, testified for Webster. Webster was found guilty and, shortly before he was hanged, confessed.

Note: Parkman's house still stands at 8 Walnut St. on Beacon Hill.

More info:

Detailed maps of the murder scene - To orient yourself, Cambridge Street is still in the same location; Vine Street has been renamed Parkman Street and North Grove Street is now basically the onramp to Storrow Drive and Leverett Circle.

Divine Providence and Dr. Parkman's Jawbone: The Cultural Construction of Murder as Mystery - A loooong piece on mystery writing that finally gets around to the Parkman case about two-thirds of the way down.

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The glass bugs and diseased fruit

The Botanical Museum, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge

Diseased pear

This Harvard museum (formerly known as the Museum of Vegetable Products) is famous for its Glass Flowers - a collection of several thousand realistic glass reproductions of flowers and flower parts (you will never again see so many stamens in your life), all carefully handcrafted over 50 years by a father-son pair of Austrians. To get to the collection, you have to pass through a room with equally realistic glass reproductions of fruits suffering from various types of diseases (in particular, fungal growths) and big, hairy bugs with large stingers (which may explain why nobody wants to get near them with a duster). $5 admission.

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Timothy Leary's office

6 Prescott St., Harvard Square

In 1960, Timothy Leary came to Harvard to teach psychotherapy. Not long after, he began his experiments with psilocybin and LSD (bonus fun fact: Among his early test participants: inmates at MCI-Concord, who took psilocybin under his watch).

His office was in the Dept. of Social Relation's Center for Personality Research in Morton Prince Hall, a house built in the 1840s and named for a professor of abnormal psychology at Harvard Medical School. Now, when Leary was at Harvard, the house was located at 5 Divinity Ave., behind the Busch-Reisenger Museum. In 1977, however, the college moved the building to its present location to make way for a new biochemistry building. Today's it's home to the freshman dean.

More info:

The Man Who Turned on the World: The Harvard Happenings - Way more than you might want to know about Leary at Harvard.

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Warren Anatomical Museum

10 Shattuck St., Longwood Medical Area, Roxbury

Ever wonder what the skull of somebody who's had a 13-pound, 3 1/2-foot long spike blown through his head might look like? Find out at this Harvard museum, which has said skull. It's just one of 13,000 medical curios the museum has collected since the early 1800's.

Museum Web site

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