Hawthorne's Province House

 From The Province House historical plaque

From The Province House historical plaque

"One afternoon last summer, while walking along Washington street, my eye was attracted by a sign-board protruding over a narrow archway nearly opposite the Old South Church. The sign represented the front of a stately edifice which was designated as the 'OLD PROVINCE HOUSE, kept by Thomas Waite.' I was glad to be thus reminded of a purpose, long entertained, of visiting and rambling over the mansion of the old royal governors of Massachusetts, and, entering the arched passage which penetrated through the middle of a brick row of shops, a few steps transported me from the busy heart of modern Boston into a small and secluded court-yard. One side of this space was occupied by the square front of the Province House, three stories high and surmounted by a cupola, on the top of which a gilded Indian was discernible, with his bow bent and his arrow on the string, as if aiming at the weathercock on the spire of the Old South. The figure has kept this attitude for seventy years or more, ever since good Deacon Drowne, a cunning carver of wood, first stationed him on his long sentinel's watch over the city.

"The Province House is constructed of brick, which seems recently to have been overlaid with a coat of light-colored paint. A flight of red freestone steps fenced in by a balustrade of curiously wrought iron ascends from the court-yard to the spacious porch, over which is a balcony with an iron balustrade of similar pattern and workmanship to that beneath. These letters and figures—"16 P.S. 79"—are wrought into the ironwork of the balcony, and probably express the date of the edifice, with the initials of its founder's name."

Thus begins the frame narration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story collection called “Legends of the Province House,” found in his Twice-Told Tales, Volume II. The tales themselves are told by Mr. Bela Tiffany, whom the narrator befriends in the common room of the house, and they center around the haunting of Revolutionary War era Bostonians by the ghosts of Puritans past. Here are the stories:

 Steps to the Province House stables and rear grounds, located near DTX today

Steps to the Province House stables and rear grounds, located near DTX today

"Howe's Masquerade": Flash back to the Revolutionary Way, and a masquerade ball General Howe is throwing at the Province House during the Siege of Boston. A number of characters dressed as the old Puritan governance of the early Colony appear - but are they men dressed up, or ghosts who have appeared? "Now, were I a rebel, I might fancy the the ghosts of these ancient governors had been summoned to form the funeral procession of royal authority in New England."

"Edward Randolph's Portrait": A creepy old painting made black with soot and age has those eyes that follow you around the room. It is of Edward Randolph, one of the early governors of Boston, and the current Lieutenant Governor is currently deciding whether to allow British troops to land and establish themselves in Boston. He signs the decree - but is forever cursed. "When his dying hour drew on, he gasped for breath, and complained that he was choking with the blood of the Boston Massacre…”

"Lady Eleanore's Mantle": The rich, high-born, haughty, and prideful Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe comes to stay at the Province House. Suddenly, an outbreak of Smallpox wreaks havoc in the city of Boston, and it can all be traced back to...Lady Eleanore's mantle, so beautifully and delicately made by dying hands.

"Old Esther Dudley": After the British defeat, General Howe must take his leave of the Province House, and gives his keys to Old Esther Dudley, who offers to tend to it. Legends rise up about her, specifically about how she can bring the dead back to life (somewhat). She is also a supporter of the King. She remains at the House until, years later, Governor John Hancock relieves her, symbolically ending connections with the past.

 The Province House was torn down in 1922; you can see the Old South Church/Meeting House right across the street.

The Province House was torn down in 1922; you can see the Old South Church/Meeting House right across the street.

Did you catch where the Province House of Hawthorne’s time would have been? It sounds like it was on the site of the Walgreens at Downtown Crossing, across from the Old South Meeting House. In fact, that IS where it was (on the Walgreens site, and probably a little south into the Bank of America/CVS building). Built in 1679 by merchant Peter Sergeant - thus the initials Hawthorne mentions above - it became the official residence of the royal governors of the colony from 1715 until the Revolution. During the 1800s it functioned as an available space - theater, tavern, inn - which was around the time Hawthorne wrote these stories. It was unfortunately torn down in 1922, but you can still find remnants of it. Did you ever walk down School Street and pass a Province Street? That was the alleyway behind the Province House. Head down it and you’ll find Province Court; nearly across from it you’ll find the original set of stairs that led to the Province House’s stables and rear grounds - it’s still there! You’ll find a big plaque, too, with the history of the Province House, and list of both the governors of the Province (colonial Massachusetts) and of the Commonwealth. According to The Next Phase Blog, the coat of arms that once hung above the doors can be found at the Old State House, and the Native American weathervane that Hawthorne mentions can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society.