Ben Edwards is a lot of things–a children’s book author, Boston historian, collector of historic documents, relative of Paul Revere, and the No. 1 private tour guide in Boston with 100+ five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. Given his proximity to history and insider knowledge of Revolutionary tourism, I asked Ben to participate in an interview so he could share some fun stories, educational lessons and Boston travel tips. Looking for a way to make your next trip to Boston memorable? Look no further.
1 // There are dozens of Boston tours. In 140 characters or less, what makes yours–Walking Boston–unique?
Boston historian and children’s book author with ancestral roots to Colonial Boston shares rare newspapers & docs on unique private tour.
2 // Based on your experience, what are the three Freedom Trail stops your tour participants love most? Why?
The three spots, in the order we visit, are King’s Chapel, the Paul Revere House and Old North Church. At King’s Chapel, participants love sitting in the plush box pews on cushions filled with the original horsehair stuffing from 1754. We discuss the history of the church (founded in 1686); view the original wineglass pulpit from 1717; the communion table from 1696; and the Governor’s Pew – once used by the Royal Governor and where George Washington sat as president on October 27, 1789. Participants love learning about the Revere connection to King’s Chapel. They see the pew Paul Revere occupied during the funeral service held here in 1776 for his good friend patriot leader General Joseph Warren; the marble memorial listing the names of members of the church who died in the Civil War including two of Revere’s grandsons – Assistant Surgeon Edward H.R. Revere (Antietam) and Colonel Paul Joseph Revere (Gettysburg); and see images of the largest bell ever cast by Paul Revere (2,437 pounds) that hangs in the bell tower. As a special treat I guarantee that tour participants will hear this bell ring during our visit. If they don’t, the tour is free. I’ve never let a group down! Other well-known people who’ve attended church at King’s Chapel are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louisa May Alcott and Robert Gould Shaw.
The Paul Revere House is a favorite for the families and school groups I work with. On my extended tours we visit inside the oldest home in downtown Boston, circa. 1680. Paul Revere owned this house from 1770 to 1800 and left from here for his famous Midnight Ride on the evening of April 18, 1775. People love standing inside this historic home that’s over 330 years old – 90% of the substructure dates to 1680! I have a depth of knowledge to convey about the home and a real passion for it as my relative Sally Edwards surely spent some time here. Sally was the older sister of my fourth great grandfather Benjamin Edwards and she married Paul Revere Jr., firstborn son of the famous patriot in 1782. One of the rooms called the hall features furniture from the time period of the first owner Robert Howard while the remaining three are decorated to the time period of the Revere family. Tour participants love the best chamber (master bedroom and parlor) as they get to view several items of furniture that belonged to the Revere family as well as an exhibit case containing items that Paul Revere made in his gold and silversmith shop. This was Paul and Rachel Revere’s bedroom and you can’t help but feel their presence in this space. In the back bedchamber people love the sampler hanging on the wall made in 1819 by Paul Revere’s great-granddaughter Maria Revere at the age of 11. In the courtyard, before leaving, tour participants like viewing a bell cast by Revere in 1804, a mortar and a copper bolt that was used in the USS Constitution.
Lastly, Old North Church is very popular with people taking my private tour. The oldest church building in Boston (1723) is certainly most well known for the lantern signal shown from its steeple on April 18, 1775 – the night of Paul Revere’s Ride. We discuss the events of that night; compare Longfellow’s poem to actual events; discuss the mystery of who actually displayed the lantern signal as well as where Paul Revere was at the moment the lanterns were being shown. Tour participants are intrigued by the Newman window where church sexton Robert Newman escaped after displaying the signal with the likely assistance of Captain John Pulling. While relaxing in the box pews people taking my tour peer at the brass chandeliers that hang in the center aisle (they date from 1724 and contain candles) and are fascinated by the story of the four carved wooden angels that predate the church by 100 years and stand atop pedestals in the gallery. They were a gift of privateer Thomas Gruchy – a legalized pirate who discovered them in the cargo of a French ship he seized off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1746. He elected to donate them to his church. To the left of the pulpit, the bust of George Washington that he posed for in 1789 is also a hit. In 1824, on a visit to Old North Church, Lafayette looked at the bust and said “Yes, that is the man I knew and more like him than any other portrait.” It’s always a special treat for people taking my tour to visit Old North on a day when the bells are ringing. The eight change ringing bells were cast in England in 1744 and are the oldest in North America.
3 // As someone whose business is historic Boston, what do you think Boston should build/renovate/enhance next?
I’m excited to tell you that there are SO many enhancements ALREADY completed or in the works along the Freedom Trail! In the fall of 2011, Old South Meeting House hoisted an original bell made by Paul Revere in 1801 into its steeple and connected it to the 1766 tower clock. Today it rings out the hour along the Freedom Trail. Also in 2011, extensive landscape renovations were completed at Granary Burying Ground including the addition of new walkways. Old North Church has turned the Clough House on its property, built in 1712, into a colonial printing shop. The Printing Office of Edes & Gill is a highly educational experience and one of the finest colonial print shops in the country. Here you can interact with a colonial printer, operating an English Common Press, as he prints John Gill’s Boston broadside version of the Declaration of Independence and see a copper plate printing press from 1740 – the exact size and type of press Paul Revere would have used to print his Boston Massacre engraving. Also opening in this same building this year is Captain Jackson’s Colonial Chocolate Shop. Here you can learn how colonial chocolate was produced and purchase chocolate made from an original colonial recipe. The Old State House is marking the 300th anniversary of its building this year with, among other things, some exciting renovations to its Council Chamber in an effort to match closer to original period furnishings. The Paul Revere House is in the midst of raising funds for and renovating two row houses from 1835 that abut its courtyard and stand on a piece of Paul Revere’s original property. This building will become a 3,600 sq. ft. Education and Visitor Center that will dramatically increase program space, house a Midnight Ride exhibit and displays and include an elevator offering full handicapped access to all floors as well as the second floor of the Revere House. The goal for opening the new facility is the spring of 2014.
4 // When you’re not giving tours of Boston, what’s your favorite historic site to visit?
Locally, I enjoy driving out to Lexington and Concord to see the historic sites there including the Hancock-Clarke House (Revere’s destination on his ride where he warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock that “The Regulars are coming out!”); Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green (where the minutemen gathered on the morning of April 19, 1775) and especially Munroe Tavern (which served as a British field hospital on April 19, 1775.) Of the three, Munroe Tavern is a top pick for me as it was recently renovated and the guided tours are excellent. The tour is supported by a video as well as audio messages that the guide activates in each room that help bring the history to life. The historic artifacts you’ll see are outstanding and include a damaged musket used by tavern owner William Munroe’s cousin John Munroe in the Battle of Lexington; a British bullet hole in the plastered ceiling; the chair where President George Washington sat when he dined at the tavern in November 1789 (along with other items from his visit); and a spoon buried by Lydia Mulliken on her family’s property, being part of the family silver she hid from the advancing British troops. Munroe Tavern is open weekends April – Memorial Day. Daily Memorial Day-October; 12 noon – 4 pm. Guided Tours hourly.
5 // For people who haven’t visited Boston in 5-10 years, what will they be surprised to see different when they return?
With the completion of the Big Dig, also known as the Central Artery Tunnel Project, at the end of 2007 the North End is easier to access on foot and the area where the elevated highway once stood is now a series of parks called the Rose Kennedy Greenway in honor of President Kennedy’s mother. People who haven’t been to the city for 5-10 years would notice a series of five parks with manicured grass, plantings, fountains, light blades and even a carousel winding through downtown Boston for almost a mile. These five Greenway Parks include those located at the entrance to the North End, in the Wharf District, Fort Point Channel, Dewey Square and Chinatown.
6 // What’s the craziest or funniest tour story you are willing to share publicly?
When you’ve been a private tour guide in Boston for 10 years, some interesting things are bound to happen. I can share two brief stories. The first occurred on June 8, 2007 (yes, I made a note of the exact date.) I was with a group of 50 5th grade students standing across the street from the Omni Parker House hotel, located on the Freedom Trail near King’s Chapel. This is the original Parker House hotel, founded by Harvey Parker in 1855 – the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. I had pointed at the front door and just finished saying “with all the famous people who have stayed at this hotel, I’ve never seen anyone famous go in that door or come out.” Just as I finished those words, a Secret Service detail exited the door and then President Jimmy Carter came out. He looked directly at my school group, waved at them and they all waved back. One of the students asked if I had “set that up for them” and if I had, I was surely “an amazing tour guide.”
The second story relates to this same building, which has a reputation as a “haunted hotel,” and Harvey Parker himself. During my family tours we visit inside the Omni Parker House to discuss its history. While in Parker’s Restaurant I point out the painting of Harvey Parker that hangs on the wall. A teenage boy on the tour went over to the painting and took three photos of it with his iPhone. In every photo, the painting was turned upside down. He showed me all the photos he took earlier in the tour and they were right side up. In front of me he took a fourth photo of the painting of Harvey Parker and it was also upside down. Finally, at that point, I asked him to take another photo in the restaurant that did not contain the painting. He did, and that photo was right side up! I can’t explain what caused it but can tell you it is a true story.
7 // What kind of time and research investment do you make in remaining historically accurate on your tours?
I’m always making an effort to read the latest books that come out on the American Revolution and Boston history and discussing them with other guides and historians. I also attend many of the excellent lectures offered by the sites along the Freedom Trail. These include events sponsored by the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere House and Old State House. The reenactments are also something I enjoy attending. These include the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, the Lantern Ceremony at Old North Church and the battle reenactments on Lexington Green and at the North Bridge in Concord.
8 // If someone called you tonight begging for a one-hour tour tomorrow before they fly home, what essential sites would you cover in 60 minutes?
If we only had 60 minutes I would begin at Old South Meeting House with a discussion of the Boston Tea Party. One of my relatives, Alexander Edwards, was a member of the Sons of Liberty and surely attended the famous meeting held here on December 16, 1773. Next stop would be the Old State House (300 years old this year!) to talk about the Boston Massacre and the reading of the Declaration of Independence from its balcony on July 18, 1776. From there we’d walk to the “Cradle of Liberty” Faneuil Hall for a quick visit to the Great Hall; and after that meander down Union Street and Marshall Lane making our way to the North End. Here we would see North Square and the exterior of the Paul Revere House and then head over to the Old North Church to sit in the high box pews and hear one of the excellent 6 minute talks given by the staff there. Finally we would dash up Hull Street to pay a quick visit to Copp’s Hill Burying Ground where 29 participants in the Boston Tea Party lie along with 43 soldiers who fought in the American Revolution and five generations of my Edwards ancestors.
9 // What are your favorite books on Boston’s Revolutionary history?
A few of the favorites that sit on the bookshelf behind my desk are Defiance of the Patriots by Benjamin Carp; The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young; The Boston Massacre by Hiller B. Zobel; Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston by Samuel Adams Drake; Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes; and Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer.
10 // How often does your tour evolve to include new and interesting historical discoveries? Anything being added to the tour this year that wasn’t there previously?
As far as interesting and historical discoveries, I keep in touch with the historic sites and, on occasion, learn new and exciting information that I can share with my tour groups. One example of such a discovery occurred just last year when an individual brought a box of materials to the Paul Revere House for Executive Director Nina Zannieri to look at. That box contained a fragile letter, long believed lost, written by Paul Revere on May 2, 1775 to his wife Rachel. In the letter he urges her to leave Boston with the children and join him – Revere can’t return to Boston after his Midnight Ride for fear of being arrested by the British. At the end of this letter, Paul Revere instructs his oldest son Paul Jr. to stay behind until he is sent for. This 15-year-old boy would marry my relative Sally Edwards seven years later and the children’s book I wrote, that all tour participants receive on audio, includes the story of how the two may have met.
There is something new I’ve added to my private tours this year. It is called Access Our Collection. Some of the rare documents and historic newspapers in my personal collection are either too fragile or too valuable to bring on tour. I’ve had these professionally photographed and tour participants have access to them online all supported by interactive articles and multimedia. Here you’ll view a Revolutionary War era document signed by Boston Tea Party participant Amos Lincoln. Tour participants can listen to audio podcasts of the original press coverage they’ll read here including a first report in a colonial Boston newspaper of Washington Crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton and President Washington’s visit to Boston in 1789. As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and this year the 150th of the 54th Regiment honored by the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, I’m sharing part of my Civil War collection as well. It includes newspapers containing original press coverage of the 54th Regiment’s parade march through the streets of Boston on May 28, 1863 and the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Participants can also view a first report of the Lincoln assassination in the 2 a.m. edition of the New York Herald. Audio podcasts support all of the above.
11 // Based on your videos and website, it looks like you complement your tours with a show-and-tell of historic documents on every tour. Can you give our readers some exclusive details about which documents you share?
Sure. I’ve been collecting original colonial and Civil War newspapers as well as historic documents for 15 years. Along the tour route I share an original document signed by Boston Tea Party participant Thomas Melvill; colonial newspapers printed in Boston between 1787 and 1807 containing ads for Paul Revere’s many businesses; a newspaper printed on Benjamin Franklin’s printing press in Philadelphia in 1757; and another Philadelphia paper dated 1776 with a mention of the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston. A particular favorite that I also share on tour is the Massachusetts Centinel from October 28, 1789 with press coverage of President George Washington’s visit to Boston.
12 // As someone who walks a marathon almost daily, what are the most comfortable shoes?
An easy question to answer. I’m a big fan of Nike products. Although I don’t actually walk a marathon daily, my Nike FuelBand tells me that last tour season I did walk over 1,000 miles! My shoe of choice is the Nike Lunarglide+ 4 Shield. It’s extremely comfortable and just a little more high tech than the shoes my early Boston ancestors would have worn.
Video embed: Boston’s Private Tour Guide Ben Edwards