Tag Archives: Dorchester history

In the News: Public History Program Helps Dorchester Uncover Its Past

UMass Boston News featured a story about the exciting work that our Public History program has undertaken this spring. Text from the following article was written by UMass Boston News writer, Anna Fisher-Pinkert.

When most people think of Boston history, the images that come to mind are the Old North Church, the brownstones of Beacon Hill, or the Old South Meeting House. UMass Boston history professors and students are working to expand our knowledge and understanding of the history right in the university’s own Dorchester neighborhood through two new projects.

“Building a People’s History of Dorchester.” a community event that occurred in April.

On April 22, Jane Becker, internship coordinator and history lecturer, and Monica Pelayo, assistant professor of history and director of the public history master’s program, collaborated with John McColgan, Archivist, Boston City Archives, to host “Building a People’s History of Dorchester” at the Dorchester Historical Society. The event was designed to encourage current and former Dorchester residents to take part in telling the story of their neighborhood.

Approximately 30 people attended this initial meeting, and contributed ideas for building a timeline of Dorchester history. For Pelayo and Becker, this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to help the community tap into their own history.

“What’s important about this process is that it comes from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Pelayo said.

She added that people don’t always realize that their family photos, documents, or keepsakes are potential historical resources for their communities. Pelayo and Becker plan to have more events in the future to encourage individuals and community organizations to participate in the project.

UMass Boston public history master’s students are also involved in revealing a piece of Dorchester’s history. This semester, students partnered with city archaeologist and UMass Boston alum Joe Bagley to tell the stories of women and girls who lived and worked at the Industrial School for Girls in the 1860s. The school was founded in the 1850s to train poor girls to work as domestic servants.

Online exhibit documenting the history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.

The history graduate students wrote about the women and girls at the school, and created a website to share their findings with the public. Much of the information on daily life in the school came from the objects uncovered by Bagley in a 2015 archaeological dig.

Exhibition Opening & Reception: Dorchester’s Industrial School for Girls.

Want to learn more about the rich history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls?

The graduate students and Bagley will present their findings on May 10 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum.

Join us at this event–it’s free and open to the public.

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Women & Witchcraft in Colonial Dorchester: The Tragic & Mysterious Story of Alice Lake

by: Sarah K. Black

Around the year 1650, nearly forty years before the infamous Salem witch trials occurred, Alice Lake was accused of practicing witchcraft. A native of Dorchester, MA, Lake stunned the community by claiming that she saw an apparition in the form of her recently deceased infant. As word of Lake’s claim spread, she was officially charged with being a witch and a trial ensued. The court delivered a guilty verdict and she was sent to the gallows.

Woodcut of witches being hanged at gallows originally printed in Sir George Mackenzie, The laws and customes of Scotland (1678).
Woodcut of witches being hanged at gallows originally printed in Sir George Mackenzie, The laws and customes of Scotland (1678). Retrieved from “Bristol Radical History Group.”

Rev. John Hale included some details of Alice’s final moments in his Modest Inquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft (1702). She refused to confess to witchcraft but accepted her conviction as God’s punishment for her sinful nature. She admitted to partaking in fornication and attempted to abort the resulting fetus to “conceal her sin and shame.”[1]

Rev. John Hale’s describes the moments before Alice’s execution in his MODEST INQUIRY (1702). Hale is best known for his support of the Salem witch trials.
Cover of Rev. John Hale’s treatise that described the moments before Alice’s execution in his MODEST INQUIRY (1702). Hale is best known for his support of the Salem witch trials.

Hale’s commentary on the incident led me to my research questions: May there have been a connection between Lake’s witchcraft charges and her promiscuity? More importantly, what societal conditions would prompt such a neurotic degree of shame and guilt in a woman years after her fornication incident?

With a very limited source base, only parts of Alice’s story could be reconstructed but through these fragments and reflections I found a broader story to tell. I argue that Alice accepted her impending death as punishment for her crimes because she lived in a society where sexuality was extremely restrictive. Her final moments also reveal a theme in colonial New England witchcraft that scholars may have overlooked or disregarded: sexuality. The erotic component of witchcraft was instrumental in blurring the barrier between “woman” and “witch.” By examining the relationship between sexuality and witchcraft, we can better understand the components of sorcery in Puritan ideology, sexuality in New England society, and why women such as Alice may have solidified their identities as “Handmaidens of the Devil.”[2]

Sarah K. Black speaking to a crowd of 70 at Dorchester Historical Society.
Sarah K. Black sharing her research about Alice Lake–a woman accused of witchcraft in Dorchester, ca. 1650–to a spellbound crowd at Dorchester Historical Society.

On February 19, I had the privilege of sharing my research on Alice Lake at the Dorchester Historical Society. The research was an experience in itself but the opportunity to present at the public forum proved to be the most fruitful. It was my first public presentation in almost a year and by far the largest crowd that I had ever spoken in front of. My professors and peers were extremely supportive and the audience members were very receptive. To move beyond creating history and into actually doing history was an exhilarating moment. Overall, the experience pushed me to step outside my comfort zone, rejuvenated my enthusiasm for the public history program, and reminded me why I chose this career path in the first place.

I knew that calling attention to Dorchester’s only documented witch might generate some interest in our Dorchester history initiative but I was not expecting an audience of about seventy!

Audience at Dorchester Historical Society, Feb. 19, 2017. Many were Dorchester residents eager to hear about their local history.
Audience at Dorchester Historical Society, Feb. 19, 2017. Many were Dorchester residents eager to hear about their local history.

Although I was extremely nervous about giving the talk, the support of my peers and professors—along with the warm reception from the audience—washed away any anxiety I had. I remain very grateful for the chance to share my research with so many intrigued individuals, especially since the event opened up several more opportunities for me to tell Alice’s story. I was invited by UMass professor Maryann Brink to talk with her freshmen students about my research process and how I applied historical thinking and analysis. I was also contacted by a representative of the Boston Public Library; I will be giving the presentation again on April 24th at the Adams Street Branch.

This experience has given me so much more than I could have hoped for in my first semester at UMass. I strengthened my skillset, met many new and wonderful people, and built up my network—all while researching a topic that I love and learning the importance of local heritage in the process!


     [1] John Hale, “A Modest Inquiry the Nature of Witchcraft,” Enquiry, in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, ed. Charles Lincoln Burr (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1946), 408-409, (hereafter cited as Hale, “A Modest Enquiry”).

     [2] Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion (Cambridge, MA: S.G. & B.G., 1692), quoted in Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987), xix.


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