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Historic house mystery unsolved

Archaeologist puzzles fate of Shirley-Eustis privy

Catherine McGloin
Historic house mystery unsolved
Archaeologists spent more than two weeks digging in the grounds of the Shirley-Eustis House, one of the oldest remaining colonial governor’s mansions in the country. Banner Photo

The dig is over, but City Archaeologist Joe Bagley has remaining questions about what lies in the ground beneath Roxbury’s historic Shirley-Eustis House.

Bagley, along with the City Archaeology Laboratory Manager Sarah Keklak and a dedicated team of 30 volunteers, spent the first two weeks of October sifting through the soil and silt surrounding the 18th-century National Historic Landmark that stands at 33 Shirley Street.

“It was all but guaranteed” that they would find either the old foundations of the mansion, which was moved to its current location in 1868, or evidence of a long-since demolished outhouse, Bagley told the Banner last week. “Little did we know what was in store,” he said.

What lay ahead of them was five trenches, each roughly 50 centimeters wide and several meters long, and a lot of rusty nails and broken clothes pegs.

Workers replace clapboard siding on the Shirley Eustis House in Roxbury. Banner Photo

Workers replace clapboard siding on the Shirley Eustis House in Roxbury. Banner Photo

“I’ve never dug anywhere in Boston with so few artifacts … and this tells me something happened to this site,” said Bagley, who heads the Boston’s Archaeology Program and is the fourth City Archaeologist since the mayor’s office established the program in 1983.

When Frederic Detwiller, a governor on the board of the Shirley-Eustis House Association, contacted Bagley at the start of this year to ask the archaeologist to look at a stone patio on the east side of the house before planned improvement works were started, Bagley said he “knew the house existed but had no idea about its background.” Now Bagley hopes to add to the house’s interesting and unusual history.

The Shirley-Eustis House is one of the last remaining colonial governor’s mansions in United States. Built in Roxbury between 1747 and 1751 as a summer home for the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America William Shirley, it served as a Revolutionary War barracks during the Siege of Boston in 1775 and survived, before becoming the home of Federalist Governor William Eustis after the Revolution.

The first people to occupy the house in the 19th century were “fallen women” which Bagley said was shorthand for prostitutes, when in 1868 the home became a convent known as the House of the Good Shepherd.

It was a newspaper article from The Boston Traveller, printed the same year and discovered in an archive by one of his team members, that explained why Bagley saw very little evidence of human habitation in the ground surrounding the house.

“They took the hill,” said Bagley. The article described the removal of the hill upon which the Shirley-Eustis House once sat, during its relocation in 1868, potentially destroying the house’s original foundations and valuable clues about the daily lives of the house’s occupants.

“We found zero evidence that the original foundations are still there,” said Bagley, who speculated that “they could be hiding in the front yard across the street.” As for the other evidence, “It’s probably under the Home Depot in South Bay,” he said.

Finding the newspaper article, said Bagley, was lucky. A challenge he often faces working in the field of urban archaeology is not knowing what happened to a site. The land is constantly changing, thanks to redevelopment and the movement of people, he said, and this makes his job particularly difficult.

With all hope of finding the foundations dashed, the team turned their attention to discovering an outhouse. An 1895 photograph from Historic New England showed a shed or privy below a stairway leading up to what Bagley surmised was the house’s east entrance.

They dug two trenches at the spot, but the majority of artifacts unearthed in the rocky soil were plastic clothes pins from the 1940s “in every color of the rainbow” said Keklak, whose main job was to catalogue the roughly 500 artifacts found across all five trenches and transport them for storage at the City Archaeology Laboratory on Rivermoor Street in West Roxbury. “It took us 2 feet to get out of the 1940s,” said Bagley, before they hit upon what he described as the shed’s basement or cold cellar.

But this confused Bagley. He said it seemed unlikely that in a house with 2,400 square feet of basement, the occupants would have needed additional storage space in a shed in the garden.
Their other hypothesis had been that it was an outhouse, a privy or toilet, and dump site for household waste and other unwanted items.

“You want to dig in the back yards of old houses as that’s where they threw all of their stuff,” said Bagley.

But they didn’t find any “night soil,” a polite term Bagley used for excrement. They also did not discover clay lining, traditionally used to keep biological waste separate from the water supply, leading Bagley to doubt if the structure they had uncovered was in fact a privy.

“I still think it’s the best of the two options,” Bagley told the Banner, while admitting that he is biased in favor of this outcome.

With the mystery of the outhouse unsolved, Bagley says there are two remaining options: to keep digging or to use a radar survey to look beneath the earth.

“I’d love to dig, but there’s no reason to,” said Bagley, who has given the Shirley-Eustis House Association permission to proceed with renovation work. He said that leaving an archaeological site undisturbed is preferable, but “if there’s ever a threat to it, then dig.” Should the association start planning work in another area of the grounds, Bagley and his team will return to continue excavations and check that nothing of historical significance is lost. A radar survey is expected to be conducted at the house during the winter.

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