Misled Again!

Before last week I had never been on a walking tour of my hometown of twenty years, and I probably would not have signed up for the Cambridge Historical Society’s recent outing had it not been titled “Misled.” You see, the word “misled” has long been a running joke in my family, ever since I realized that, in my mind, I had been mispronouncing it myz-əld, despite knowing perfectly well how the past participle of the verb “mislead” should be pronounced. For years – well past college – I persisted in this private malapropism, until the time I read it aloud using my invented pronunciation, provoking howls of laughter from my husband. He’s my ex-husband now, but this is one of the enduring catchphrases from the happier years of our marriage. “Myz-əld again!” one of us will say, and the other is guaranteed to laugh.

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

“History with an asterisk” is how our guide, CHS Executive Director Gavin Kleespies, framed the Misled tour’s organizing principle to the forty-odd folks who turned out for a two-hour stroll in the Brattle Street area on August 14. One of our first stops was the buttercup yellow Georgian-style mansion at 33 Elmwood Street. Built in 1767 as the then-100-acre country estate of the Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, a Tory whose wealth came from a slave plantation in Antigua, Elmwood was later the lifelong home of the poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell (1819-91). Since 1962 it has served as Harvard’s own White House, but it would be 45 years before a female president took residence. I think Lowell would be pleased that Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust now presides over Elmwood, succeeding economist Larry Summers, whose foot was in his mouth for a good deal of his tenure.

More interesting from an etymological standpoint, however, is Elmwood’s connection to the political deck-stacking practice of “gerrymandering.” Elmwood was also the home of Elbridge Gerry, a Bay State governor and briefly vice president under James Madison (he died in office after one year). Mr. Kleespies told us that the “-mander” in the term derives from a journalist’s observation that the controversial new voting district was shaped like a salamander. I suppose “lizard” was too prosaic, or we might be talking about the ongoing “gerryarding” in Texas.

Gerrymander is one of those words that trips up people unless they know the historical name association. Otherwise it’s reasonable to assume it’s spelled like “jerry-built,” itself derived from and often confused with “jury-rigged,” which sounds sort of like gerrymandering from a judicial standpoint, except that the “jury” derives from the 17th century term for a stopgap ship’s mast, not from a jury of your peers. Misled again! By the way, I’m surprised Jerry Seinfeld never tackled the Jerry-Gerry confusion, or why Gillian and Jillian are pronounced differently, but the men’s names aren’t.

Leif Erikson never slept here (and he's not buried here either).

Leif Erikson never slept here (and he’s not buried here either).

A little further along our walk we stopped at a large granite marker set in a weedy no man’s land behind Mount Auburn Hospital, hard by the busy intersection of Memorial Drive and Fresh Pond Parkway. “On this spot in the year 1000, Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland,” the marker proclaims. This inscription has misled passersby for 110 years, Mr. Kleespies said – and not because it was moved from its original spot a dozen yards away when the intersection was widened in 1964 – but because there is no historical proof that any Vikings settled in what is now Cambridge, first known as “Newtowne.” The man responsible for the spurious theory and the marker was Eben Norton Horsford, a Harvard-affiliated chemist best known for reformulating baking powder, who waged an proto-Aryan propaganda campaign to credit America’s discovery to the Norse Erikson over the Italian Columbus. Misled again! And while we’re at it, is the preferred spelling “Erikson” or “Ericson” and should his first name pronounced “leaf” or “lay-f”?

Back on the quieter side of Mount Auburn, at 7 Lowell Street, we admired the former home of Edward Bernays, a direct descendent of Sigmund Freud on both sides, who made a name for himself on Madison Avenue by reformulating propaganda as “public relations.” After noting that the house originally fronted Brattle Street when it was built in 1850 for Moses Rice, Mr. Kleespies mentioned that Bernays led a local lobbying campaign in the early 1960s opposing the planned expansion of Memorial Drive, which would have necessitated cutting down the stately old trees lining both sides of the road and would have blocked access to recreation along the Charles River. The rallying cry of the Citizens Emergency Committee to Save Memorial Drive was “Save the Sycamores,” a bit of poetic PR license that garnered even more press for the campaign after it was revealed that the trees are not sycamores but London plane trees. Most of those same plane trees still stand proud, and Memorial Drive, though hardly a cow path, is at least closed to cars on Sundays from May through October. Misled again, but for a worthy cause.

A side note, not mentioned on the tour, is that while the “father of public relations” was saving trees, his Cambridge contemporary Julia Child, the mother of French cuisine in America, was extolling the virtues of béarnaise sauce, a near homophone for “Bernays.” I wonder if the French Chef was aware that in the 1920s Bernays had been instrumental in making bacon and eggs a staple of the hearty All-American breakfast through a doctor-endorsed PR campaign for his client Beech-Nut, a leading producer of bacon? With their pincers attack on the American diet – fatty meat at breakfast, buttery sauces at dinner – Bernays and Child may have unwittingly contributed to the rise of heart disease in the U.S. But, to their credit, both were benefactors of Mount Auburn Hospital, which boasts one of the nation’s most highly rated cardiac care units. And despite their rich tastes, both outlived many of their Cambridge contemporaries; Bernays died in 1995, at 103, and Child in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday.

The Washington Elm (Scribner's Magazine May 1876)

The Washington Elm (Scribner’s Magazine May 1876)

Near the end of our walk, as summer’s late twilight closed in, we paused in Cambridge Common to consider another misleading granite marker. This one stands beneath a tree it identifies as the famed Washington Elm, where General George Washington camped with Patriot troops in 1775. While no one disputes that the tree is an elm, only the most credulous passerby would mistake this welterweight specimen for a tree that stood more than two centuries ago. Mr. Kleespies informed us that the original Washington Elm, which was located across Concord Avenue, saw its demise in 1924. The modern replacement is, at least, genetically identical, having been grafted from one of the many small pieces salvaged from the forefather.

The tour was a delightful way to discover some quirky bits of Cambridge history, and more than anything I was struck by how fortunate we are to have the Cambridge Historical Society working so energetically to fact-check and share stories that bring history to life. And, to clear up a last bit of potential confusion: the CHS is a nonprofit, founded in 1905, whose primary mission is educational, while the Cambridge Historical Commission is a public agency, created in 1963, that oversees the landmarking and conservation of historic sites and districts. The blue oval plaques that mark official historic sites bear the CHC seal; on the tour Mr. Kleespies pointed out a phony, seal-less plaque on the fence at 92 Brattle Street. The Sarah and Emma Carey house is old, dating to 1881-2, and a splendid example of Queen Anne stick style architecture, but not designated as historic, per se. The CHS and the CHC work together harmoniously, but the Society depends on the support of donors while the Commission is publicly funded. The CHS is in the midst of a capital campaign to preserve its headquarters, the 17th century Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at 159 Brattle Street, the second oldest house in Cambridge. Give, if you can, and history will keep giving back.

Hooper-Lee-Nichols House c. 1960-69 (CHS archives)

Hooper-Lee-Nichols House c. 1960-69 (CHS archives)


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