PERHAPS IT WAS ONLY A JOKE, the kind of anecdote that Mark Twain maintained ought to be true, even if it were not. In any event, the story ran that a homesick Bostonian, staying in a small Texas town, went to see a movie called “Crooked Streets” at the local theater, “in the fond hope that his home town was the locale of the film.” Alas, the picture was actually set in Shanghai.
It is unlikely that many readers outside of the Boston area would have understood the joke, but savants recognized the reference to Annie Haven Thwing’s now-classic The Crooked and Narrow Streets of the Town of Boston, 1630–1822. Published in 1920 when Annie was nearly seventy, the book was the culmination of more than thirty years of painstaking work with Boston’s printed and manuscript records. Presaging the work of historians such as Gary Nash and Billy G. Smith a half century later, Thwing’s meticulous reconstruction of pre-metropolitan Boston is an early work of urban landscape and social history, before such terms were current. What began as a diversion, a “personal pleasure” as she later expressed it, became the intellectual focus of her middle and old age, and left not only the book but a large corpus of data still used by historians and genealogists, as well as a scale model of eighteenth-century Boston viewed by thousands of visitors each year.
Annie was born Alice Haven Thwing, the third child of Boston merchant and importer Supply Clapp Thwing, on the Fourth of July, 1851. According to her father, she was born “at midday, when the bells were ringing and the cannon roaring” in celebration of the nation’s seventy-fifth birthday. The middle-aged Mr. Thwing had reason to celebrate the happy coincidence. His first marriage had been childless, and he had been forced to give up the adopted daughter he cherished after his wife died in 1844. As he later confessed, Thwing was “lonely and unhappy during my widowhood.” His business was conducive to travel, however, and while in Philadelphia he visited the home of Thomas Haven, who had married Thwing’s cousin. There he met their daughter, Anne Shapleigh Haven. Anne had gone to school in New England and had apparently imbibed the requisite virtues; Miss Haven, Thwing wrote, “has New England notions, is a sensible and frugal woman, about 29.” Moreover, she was of a “bright cheerful disposition, domestic, and no tendency to extravagance, one of the best specimens of a cultivated New England woman.” Thwing courted her during frequent visits to Philadelphia, and the couple were married on June 30, 1847. With the subsequent births of a son, Walter, a daughter, Florence, and Annie, the fifty-three-year-old Supply could write ebulliently, “I seem to have begun life anew…. I never lived more to my satisfaction and never enjoyed life to a greater degree.”
A tragic accident in 1856 disrupted the Thwing family’s happiness. That summer, Mr. and Mrs. Thwing went on a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, accompanied by Mrs. Thwing’s sister and Annie’s eight-year-old brother Walter. For their return, the Thwing party crossed Vermont and took a steamboat up Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga, where they boarded another steamer, the John Jay, for the continuing cruise up Lake George toward Albany. On the evening of July 29, as the John Jay steamed southward about eight miles from Ticonderoga, a fire broke out amidships. Everything went wrong from that point. The crew could not extinguish the flames with fire buckets, and soon those passengers who had gone toward the bow to enjoy the breeze were cut off from the rest. The John Jay had fewer than thirty life jackets for the eighty passengers on board; these, according to one witness, all had been stowed in the aft part of the vessel and many, too deteriorated with age, would not inflate. No one lowered the steamer’s lifeboat, the skipper apparently electing to run for the shore a half-mile away. The course deviation compounded the disaster; the ship soon struck a rock, pitching some of the passengers at the bow into the water. The steamer bounced from the rock without serious damage, but the tiller ropes had burned away, and the John Jay meandered aimlessly, away from the shoreline. The passengers began to abandon ship. Crew members handed Mrs. Thwing and her sister, who could not swim, deck chairs for flotation and told them to jump. Supply Thwing took his son in his arms and leapt over the side, making it safely to shore. By then, the John Jay was completely ablaze but still moving rudderless through the water. Supply swam out again to find his wife but could not. Later, both he and young Walter saw her body floating beneath the surface of the water near the shore.
The wreck of the John Jay claimed as many as fifteen lives, including Mrs. Thwing and her sister. At the funeral for the two sisters in Roxbury, five-year-old Annie was lifted up to the coffin by her father to give her final farewell. “I cannot speak now of my sad and unspeakable loss,” grieved Annie’s father. “I have three children now motherless. My house from one of the most cheerful and happy homes is now desolate.”
For months, Mr. Thwing was inconsolable, finding little comfort in familiar surroundings and the sympathy of friends. Finally, in the winter following the tragedy, he resolved to make a trip to Europe, confiding to a friend that “I want change.” Annie and her siblings stayed with aunts in Philadelphia for six months while their father sought solace in solitude and new surroundings. Upon his return, “finding it absolutely necessary to have not only a mother for my children, but a companion for myself,” Mr. Thwing married his deceased wife’s cousin Anna Haven, who had often taken care of the children and become attached to them. Her first and only known pregnancy ended in a miscarriage induced by an attack of “cholera morbus.”
This third marriage, Supply Thwing’s last, seems also to have been a happy match. “Anna … is a devoted and kind mother to the children”; both she and her husband encouraged them to be physically active. In the winter, Anna went skating with the children, and Supply rented rooms at Foss’s Beach in Rye, New Hampshire, for several summers, explaining simply “I am very anxious that the children should swim.” When the Thwings moved into a new home in Roxbury, Supply converted the accompanying stable into a gymnasium for the children, “where they have fine fun.” Even in the cold month of January, Mr. Thwing admitted that, apart from the language tutoring they received from “a French young lady,” the children had time for little else, “as we keep them out of doors as much as possible.” One winter excursion was especially adventurous: a cold spell in 1875 froze Boston Harbor solid enough for more than 30,000 people to venture out onto the ice on foot, on skates, and in sleighs. Annie, with her sister and stepmother, was among these last, driving their sleigh from the beach at Savin Hill, around Spectacle Island to Fort Independence, “looking into Squantam,” and finishing finally at Dorchester Point.
Annie developed a fondness for travel, embarking alone by railroad at age eighteen for a two-month stay in Washington, D.C. Later that year, she and her sister Florence toured the White Mountains, making the ascent of Mount Washington. Unlike her sister, though, “Annie walked up and down, sixteen miles a pretty good feat,” her father proudly recorded. She also impressed her father as a sensible, responsible woman; during one of her subsequent trips to Washington, her father told a friend at whose house she planned to stay “you may let her have any money she may want. I trust her.” For her twenty-fourth birthday, Annie with a party of eight other women went on a tour of Europe. The passport issued her at that time described her as five feet, two inches tall, with a high forehead, light brown eyes, straight nose, small mouth, brown hair, light complexion, and an oval face. Her father, now in his seventies and in declining health, was reluctant to part with her, complaining that “Next week my dear Annie embarks for Europe. I begin to feel lonely already.”
Annie’s father had come to depend on his unmarried daughter’s presence about the house. Mr. Thwing once beamed that “my two girls are a real source of happiness to me,” but Annie’s older sister Florence was married by this time and had children of her own. Son Walter, conspicuously absent from the praise given his sisters, may have been a disappointment to the elder Thwing. Walter attended Harvard but did not graduate. In 1871, “at the insistence of his father,” he made a trip around the world, apparently with the intent of introducing him to his father’s world of commerce. Instead, he made lifelong acquaintances in New Orleans and San Francisco, upon whom he lavished too much time and money. When he returned, Walter worked at his father’s office on State Street in Boston and rented a room elsewhere in the city. His father hoped to pass his business on to his son, but after Mr. Thwing’s death the business folded and Walter never found a lucrative profession. He eventually returned to live at his father’s house in Roxbury, by that time presided over by younger sister Annie.
Annie returned from her year-long European tour, during which time she and her party “never had an hour’s illness, perfect harmony, and not a line of unpleasant news from home, never missed a train, and … saw as much as any party in the same time.” Her father’s health was in serious decline by the time she returned, and the family doctor confided to her that Mr. Thwing might pass away at any time. He advised her not to let her father know this, however, as he feared a “sudden stroke.” In June 1877, five months after the doctor’s warning, Annie’s father died. More loss followed two years later when sister Florence died giving birth to twins. Apparently Annie assumed their care, but within the year her sister’s widowed husband, Henry Putnam, forced a difficult choice upon her. He proposed marriage, but “when I refused, he said that if I did not want him I could not have the children.” Putnam left with the twins, and Annie did not see her sister’s children again for fifty years. When she did, the reunion was not pleasant. She never married.
It was sometime in the mid 1880s that Annie began her career as a historian. As she later expressed it, her interest began with the not uncommon desire “to find out where my ancestors lived, who were their neighbors, and what the neighborhood was like.” Her investigation commenced as a “pastime,” with “a desire to locate certain individuals,” but she soon realized that the task would not be as simple as she had expected. She found it was an “impossible task” to locate her subjects “without tracing back each estate.” For example, she explained, “one lived in Bogg lane, but no author seems to have heard of such a lane. This led to a study of the streets, and here again no book was found that gave the history of the streets back of 1708, when the streets were named for the first time.” While some antiquarian work had been done on street nomenclature, “just the points wanted seemed to be missing,” and too much mistaken and unreferenced data was already in circulation for her liking.
Accordingly and, as she insisted, strictly as “a personal pleasure,” Annie began a systematic study of the pertinent public records. Recent documentary publications made many of Boston’s oldest records easily accessible, significantly aiding her in her quest. The first of the Reports of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston was published in 1876, and by the time Annie began her investigations, at least fifteen of the thirty-nine volumes of town meeting records, selectmen’s minutes, and Boston vital statistics were already available. Similarly, a multivolume compilation of Suffolk Deeds began publication in 1880. Still, one of the richest sources for Annie’s inquiry—the probate records for Suffolk County—were only available in manuscript, and the published deeds, completed in 1906, stopped well short of the eighteenth century.
As frequently happens with researchers, Annie became, as she admitted, “addicted to facts.” From a simple desire to know more about her own family history, Annie launched a much more ambitious project: a fully documented study of Boston’s physical appearance and inhabitants before the population explosion and topographical face-lift of her own century. “It was the original intention,” she wrote, “to put under one roof, so to speak, by a card catalog, all the items of interest of each inhabitant.” With the naïve enthusiasm of the convert, Annie simply applied the methods she had used for her family investigation to the thousands of families and properties of Boston over the course of its first 170 years. It was a “pastime” in the way that Penelope’s tapestry was a pastime: a complex interweaving of historical threads, requiring care and dogged determination, without a prayer of ever reaching completion.
Fifteen years later, Annie was given the opportunity to translate the fruits of her research into a three-dimensional form. In 1900, the Massachusetts Infant Asylum, a charitable organization for which Annie served as one of the directors, planned a fundraising fair. Typically, Annie decided upon an ambitious project for exhibition: an accurate scale model of the town of Boston, ca. 1775, based largely on the information she had amassed. She apparently had in mind a famous precedent with a family connection.
About 1809, Joseph Duchesne, “a French gentleman” impoverished by the revolution in his homeland and at that time a resident of Boston, began carving models of prominent Boston buildings for an exhibition he hoped would attract patrons to his gallery. The model of Boston he produced and exhibited in 1813 was built on a scale of 1 to 320. Including a part of Boston harbor, the model stretched to twenty-four feet in length, its hundreds of buildings carved from wood “with mathematical exactness” and painted with “astonishing” realism. The acclaim awarded his efforts in the newspapers, however, did not pay his rent, and sometime in 1817 or 1818 he left Boston for Haiti, somehow taking his elaborate model with him. There, a year or two later, he was found by Annie Thwing’s father while on a business trip to the new Caribbean republic. According to the story he later related to his children, Supply Thwing saw a child playing with a beautifully executed model of Boston’s Old South Church. Struck by the incongruity, Thwing made inquiries and discovered that Duchesne lived nearby and still had the model, though obviously with some parts missing. Thwing bought the entire model from the undoubtedly grateful Frenchman and brought it back to Boston. Apparently, Thwing kept it until about 1845, when he broke up housekeeping upon his first wife’s death and gave the model to the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Society, which had little room to spare, put the model on exhibition on Bedford Street, where it was destroyed in the disastrous 1872 fire.
Annie may never have seen the model, but she recalled that her father often spoke of it and of the circumstances of its rediscovery in Haiti. She resolved to build a new model based on her own research. Annie was no modeler, however, and time was short, so the model had to be reduced to a more modest five and a half feet by four and a half feet. The outline and topographical features were drawn from a map Annie had commissioned for the book she planned to write. For the model buildings, Annie turned to a carpenter named Munsey living on Orr’s Island, Maine, where she passed her summers. Lacking Joseph Duchesne’s intimate acquaintance with Boston’s architectural landmarks (many of which by that time had been lost), Munsey worked from pictures supplied by Annie Thwing. Although the finished product was considerably smaller than the lost Duchesne model, and the miniature buildings (one to three inches high) tended toward the “landmark” variety, Thwing’s model featured the eighteenth-century street pattern she had so carefully reconstructed and nearly 120 handcarved building replicas.
Unlike Duchesne’s 1813 model, Thwing’s has not been lost. In addition to the acclaim it received for its appearance at the fair for the Infant Asylum, the Thwing model also received appreciation in a city exposition in 1909. In December of that year, Annie gave the model to the Old South Meeting House Association, where it resides as a popular exhibit to this day.
Annie reached the age of sixty-five in 1916, the year she wrapped up work on her great research project. The help of a friend, Susan Minns, aided its timely completion. Minns offered financial support, hired an assistant, and supplied a typewriter. The additional engagement of a stenographer and Annie’s occasional resort to typewritten, dictated letters to her many correspondents suggest that she may have suffered from arthritis by this time. When Annie presented her research collection to the Massachusetts Historical Society in December 1916, it consisted of twenty-two typewritten volumes of Boston deed extracts entitled “Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630–1800,” a two-volume “History of the Streets of Boston, 1630–1800, ” and the Thwing Card Index. This last comprised approximately 125,000 index cards, with all the “items of interest of each inhabitant” she had compiled arranged alphabetically by name. That index, still much used by researchers and now the foundation of an electronic database, fills seventy-four library drawers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Annie spent the next three years preparing the manuscript for the book for which she is best known today. Drawing from her vast research base, she published in 1920 The Crooked and Narrow Streets of the Town of Boston, 1630–1822. It was quickly acclaimed as an historical work that went far beyond mere antiquarian interests. Thwing’s reconstruction of pre-municipal Boston was neighborhood history as well as town history, detailing the processes by which the town’s built environment developed from the first houses huddled around Town Slip to the crowded and bustling late-eighteenth-century entrepôt of New England. Crooked and Narrow Streets linked Boston’s famous as well as its less well known histories to a chronicle of urban landscape. Through Thwing’s maps, illustrations, and histories of streets and their inhabitants, readers could more readily imagine a world that by 1920 had been lost to fire, replaced by “improvements,” or increasingly hidden by skyscrapers. In response to one of the many genealogical inquiries she received after publication of her book, Annie concluded that “there have been many books written about Boston which are far more delightful reading than my book, but, though perhaps I should not say it, in some cases, the writers have drawn on their imagination.” For her part, Annie wrote, “I am addicted to facts.” When Walter Muir Whitehill came to write his own classic Boston: A Topographical History, he singled out Thwing’s book, and especially her research materials, for special mention. Without the work of Thwing and other “devoted and formidably industrious scholars” of the previous century, he wrote, “it would be impossible to attempt a simplified and intelligible narrative of … the topography of Boston in historic times.”
Despite her advancing age, Annie showed few signs of slowing down. Perhaps as a reward to herself for her labors, Annie celebrated her seventieth birthday in 1921 with a trip to Iceland. But her retirement years were not altogether happy ones. For reasons that remain obscure, brother Walter never became financially independent. After the breakup of his father’s business, he appeared in the Boston city directories only occasionally as a “genealogist” or “author,” references to two published family genealogies and a history of the First Church of Roxbury where he was a deacon. He returned to the Thwing home at 65 Beech Glen Street in Roxbury while still in his forties and never left. He may have been infirm—certainly he was so in his last decade or two—with occasional attacks of dementia. It fell to his more active and able-bodied sister to support him physically and financially, which she did for forty years. Undated photographs from the Thwing family albums—probably taken by Annie—show a white-haired and thin Walter in vacation locales, indicating that Annie indulged their shared fondness for travel. As for money, the Thwing siblings lived comfortably in the house their father had bought long ago and received an allowance from his estate. Annie saw to it that all bills and expenses were paid, giving the remainder to her brother. He, however, “never saved any of his money and if he did he would spend it for presents for his New Orleans friends.”
Such was the situation at the Thwing household when Amy and George Putnam, the twins by Annie’s sister Florence, reentered her life. Henry Putnam, Annie’s old suitor, had died of cancer, and shortly afterward someone made overtures for a reunion. Annie gave “a handsome dinner” at her house for Amy and George (now in their fifties) and their children, at which she presented gifts to them all. Perhaps too much time had gone by, however, or perhaps the twins had heard unfavorable stories about the woman who had spurned their father. Amy took to driving her genial and spendthrift Uncle Walter home from his club, but never came in to visit with Annie. One day, Annie later recorded, when Amy brought Walter back to the house with typically empty pockets, she shouted from the parlor “you don’t give Uncle Walter half enough money!” A year before his death in 1935, when the eighty-six-year-old Walter suffered temporary dementia, Annie—only three years his junior—sent him to a rest home in Brookline. When Amy discovered this, she visited Walter and declared to the facility’s staff that Annie was unfit to take care of him. During one of Walter’s more lucid moments, Amy convinced him to sign a paper requesting a professional conservator, promising that a conservator “would let him have all the money he wanted and that, naturally, made him sign.” Annie brought Walter home, though she complained that with the additional cost of the conservator there was no spending money left for Walter. After that, until Walter died, Amy was always “interfering in our affairs.” George caused Annie grief also, hampering her attempts to give some of her father’s effects to the Roxbury Athenum, of which he had been a founding member. Annie was convinced that George wanted these items for himself.
At least that was Annie’s version, but she was now elderly and having difficulty moving about herself. Amy may have been sincerely concerned for her uncle’s welfare and might have rightly concluded that Annie was too feeble to give Walter proper care. Annie, however, asserting that “for forty years I took care of him,” had become accustomed to running her brother’s life as well as her own. Understandably, she might have resented any assistance, however well intended, as interference, and with Walter’s conservator about the house, Annie fumed, “I am no longer mistress in my own home.” Whatever the case, Annie never forgave her sister’s children; it must have broken the old woman’s heart to think that she and the infants she had once cared for, who might even have called her “mother” under different circumstances, should now be so estranged.
The flood of sympathy letters Annie received after Walter’s death in 1935 certainly confirmed her dedication to her brother during his life, and so many well-wishers must have consoled her. “We know,” wrote one, “that you always wished to outlive Walter so that you could care for him and you dreaded having him left without you as he was so helpless. It is now taken out of your hands.” Miles Hanson, their beloved former minister and longtime friend, wrote that he was “glad for Walter’s sake that he has gone on, for life was not a blessing for him.” A relative who understood Annie’s devotion acknowledged that “your life and his life have been one life for many years.”
Annie had five years more of her own life to live, and with her historical career long finished, travel a luxury she could no longer afford, and with little family left on speaking terms, she found her chief delight in corresponding with her many friends and acquaintances. “You write cheerfully,” replied one, “and as if you had determined to drop your worries and be happy in what you can enjoy. You are naturally cheerful and I am very glad that your cheerfulness is re-asserting itself. I am sorry you cannot walk,” she continued, “remember, however, that you once danced the Tarantella which I have never been accomplished enough to do.” Annie Haven Thwing died June 5, 1940, a month short of her eighty-ninth birthday. The notice of her death appeared in the Boston Transcript two days later, but no one published an obituary for her, and for all her tremendous accomplishments in Boston history—the book, the model, and the mountain of data she collected for historians then and now—no memorial appeared in any historical publication to attest to her achievement. Perhaps none was necessary, for Annie seems always to have considered her work a “pastime,” a “personal pleasure,” like traveling, rather than the outstanding reference works they are in fact. She seemed simply to have enjoyed being busy, and near the end of her life she earned from her friend and correspondent Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whose father had also lived to be a “last leaf,” this judgement: “you have made more out of your life than any woman I have ever known.”
LEN TRAVERS, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, is the author of Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (1997).
1. Undated newspaper clipping, Annie Haven Thwing, Scrapbook vol. VIII, Massachusetts Historical Society.
2. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, July 7, 1851, Thwing Family Papers, M.H.S. (All citations are from the Thwing family papers unless otherwise indicated.)
3. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, June 26, 28, 1847, Jan. 12, 1848.
4. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, May 15, June 8, 1850.
5. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Aug. 7, 15, 1856.
6. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Sept. 29, 1857.
7. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Sept. 21, 1858.
8. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Jan. 31, Aug. 6, 1859, Jan. 20, Oct. 20, 1860.
9. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Mar. 3, 1875.
10. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, Feb. 8, Aug. 2, 1870.
11. Supply C. Thwing to [J. J. Higginson?], Apr. 17, 1874.
12. U.S. Passport, 1875. Thirteen years later a new passport indicated that she had grown an inch, changed her eye color to gray, acquired a “medium”-sized mouth and “medium” complexion, and developed a “round” face. Passport, 1888, Oversize, Thwing Family Papers, M.H.S.
13. Supply C. Thwing to unknown recipient, June 26, 1875.
14. Supply C. Thwing to H. H. Furness, Aug. 28, 1877[?].
15. Typescript note by Annie Haven Thwing.
16. Typescript statement signed by Annie Haven Thwing, Mar. 11, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
17. Lynn Betlock, “Annie Haven Thwing: Guardian of the Crooked and Narrow Streets,” The Dial of the Old South Clock 7 (Spring 1995):1.
18. Annie Haven Thwing, “Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630–1800, Introduction and Miscellaneous Records,” unpublished typescript, M.H.S.
19. Philip S. Thayer, “The Thwing Collection: A Resource for Boston Genealogy,” Nexus, Apr. 1985, 30.
20. Annie Haven Thwing, “Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston,” unpublished typescript, M.H.S.
21.Columbian Centinel, June 9, 1813; Sept. 15, 1813; New-England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser, Mar. 14, 1817.
22. Annie Haven Thwing to Julius H. Tuttle, May 22, 1915, J. Duchesne Papers on his Model of Boston, M.H.S. Also in this collection is a one-page exhibition program describing the model as it appeared in 1867.
23. Betlock, “Guardian of the Crooked and Narrow Streets,” 1, 2.
24. Letter from chairman of “Boston—1915” Exposition, Jan. 4, 1910.
25. Philip S. Thayer, “The Thwing Collection,” 30.
26. Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History (Boston, 1959), 2, 3.
27. Typescript statement by Annie Haven Thwing, March 11, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
28. Typescript statement signed by Annie Haven Thwing, Mar. 11, 1935; Edward E. Call to Annie Haven Thwing, Nov. 14, 1934, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
29. Typescript statement signed by Annie Haven Thwing, Mar. 11, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
30. Mrs. Graham Brook to Annie Haven Thwing, July 28, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
31. Miles Hanson to Annie Haven Thwing, July 26, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
32. Charles F. Thwing to Annie Haven Thwing, July 30, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
33. Mrs. Graham Brook to Annie Haven Thwing, July 2, 1935, “Thwing Family Archives,” M.H.S.
34. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to Annie Haven Thwing, 1935, Annie Haven Thwing, Scrapbook vol. IX, “Portraits,” M.H.S.
By LEN TRAVERS