West Boylston is a small town with a lot of history. From Colonial times to the Industrial Revolution to today, the town has seen numerous changes. A little-known West Boylston story is of the Murdock Globe, or the Murdock Orrery Planetarium.
David C. Murdock (1815-1886), a West Boylston native, was an influential town figure at his time. He owned a local shop, served on the school board, and moderated various town meetings. But he contributed to the whole world in addition to West Boylston. He studied cartography, or map making, and created several globes to disperse nationwide for use in schools. These globes were well-crafted and highly detailed. Murdock also created an orrery planetarium to display his globe as part of the solar system; an orrery planetarium is a small, table-top model of the Sun, Earth, and Moon (see picture below). It is crafted with a combination of rotating sockets and metal arms which allow the models to rotate and allow the Moon to revolve around Earth, and Earth around the Sun. It is an excellent tool to educate students about Earth’s journey around the Sun or to model astronomical phenomena like eclipses. Murdock did not invent this device, and they have existed since the 17th century, but he was one of the first American cartographers to mass-produce these globes and planetariums for use in schools and universities.
There are few surviving Murdock Globes in existence today; one is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. According to its description, the surface of the globe is covered in thin paper, which is in poor condition after almost two centuries. It’s exciting to think about the people in West Boylston’s history and the great things they contributed to the world.
In the 1950s, West Boylston resident Ruth Edwards made a surprising discovery: a large stone in her front yard bore a hand-carved drawing of two figures among strange, rune-like lines (pictured below). She called in experts to examine this seemingly inane carving, and they dated it to between 3,000 and 5,000 years old. In an interview with the Worcester Telegram, Edwards referred to the stone as the “mystery rock” because, as she claimed, the drawing of two figures served no purpose to ancient people and likely took ages to carve.
Theories began to pop up about the mysterious stone. As is the case with other old carvings, some people believed Vikings ventured as far south as New England and left their mark on stones. Edwards, in her interview with the Worcester Telegram, said that she thought the carvings looked a bit like Norse runes. But this would date the carving to under 1,000 years old, as the earliest definitive evidence of Scandinavian presence in North America starts in the 10th century. Others claimed that ancient Mediterranean empires—the Romans or Egyptians, perhaps—sailed to the Americas thousands of years ago and left their mark. There is no way to prove or disprove if ancient Mediterranean peoples did come to North America thousands of years ago, but it seems unlikely they would have come so far inland and carved such a meaningless "message" into a rock.
Surprisingly, not many theories cropped up involving Native Americans carving the rock, even though they are the only group of ancient people on Earth confirmed to have actually, definitely been in North America in that vague “3,000 to 5,000 years ago” period. The carving on the rock could have been a marker for ancient Native Americans or else a “doodle” left by a bored stone worker. If the carving really is that old, this seems like the most plausible theory.
The true story of the West Boylston Mystery Rock remains a mystery. Was it a sign left by an Ancient Egyptian explorer who went a bit too far west? What about the Vikings!? Or…is it a complete fake and the dating of “3,000 to 5,000 years old” is wildly inaccurate? It’s unlikely we’ll know the truth—but isn’t that part of the fun?
When looking through the old newspapers from our Local History Room, we sometimes stumble across the names of our “local celebrities.” In this case, it’s not for a good reason. The notice, pictured below, lists two names we’ve seen before: Jabez Beaman and Ezra Beaman. The notice is from June 1812, one year after town founder Ezra Beaman, Esq., died, so we have to assume that this Ezra Beaman is his son, “Uncle Ezra,” the eccentric Tavern owner. Using our historical records of the Beaman family, we’ve determined that this Jabez Beaman is Uncle Ezra’s brother.
This notice is from July 1812 and publicly reports that Jabez Beaman has passed away and that his estate is now under the control of Uncle Ezra. Notices like these are actually quite common in these early 1800s issues of the Massachusetts Spy/Worcester Gazette. Since communication was slower and less accessible in those days, public death reports in newspapers were critical to widespread knowledge. In 21st century speech, this notice states: “Jabez Beaman has died and his brother Ezra has been appointed Administrator of the Estate. If you have any questions regarding Jabez’s estate, please speak to his brother.” It’s a simple message, but this information is essential to any local people that may owe Jabez money or to those to whom he owed money. Maybe neighbors and old friends would send letters or sympathy cards to Jabez's family, too. Articles such as these are standard in these old newspapers and were essential to society.
The history room at the Beaman Memorial Library houses a range of documents, including a series of letters and a memoir from Sgt. John Emerson Anderson, a West Boylston resident who served in the Civil War.
John’s regiment marched to Washington, D.C. in mid-1861. In a letter from September 8, 1861, he hopefully told his parents: “There seems to prevail the opinion that the war soon be ended and we permitted to go to our homes, certainly our prospect look bright at the present…” Unfortunately, the war would not end until 1865. As he did not fight in any major battles, many of John’s letters to his family involved his descriptions of day-to-day life in military camps; he describes being a “silent spectator” as his fellow soldiers gamble, drink, and fight, and he comments on the demoralization of the soldiers as the Confederacy continued to withstand major assaults: “I am not anxious to fight—that is—not over-anxious to expose myself to the enemies bullets—but if we could go into battle today, or soon, I should feel a strong inclination to conquer or die…we need a victory now and must have it soon.”
John’s regiment marched to Atlanta, GA in 1863, where he and his companions camped outside the city while more and more Union armies surrounded it. He wrote to his parents: “Sometimes too I feel that I would like to sit by mother, and father in that quiet little room away from the noise and confusion here…as far as my knowledge goes I am convinced that we are slowly tightening our chain of armies around the enemies making it harder every day for him to hurl us back—each charge being but another slaughter to add to the list of casualties…” The Union eventually captured and occupied Atlanta, and John’s regiment took part.
Thankfully, the war finally ended, but John found it difficult to rejoice once he heard about the death of President Abraham Lincoln: “I thought I would drop you a few lines though I do not feel like writing. We seem to be on the eve of peace. Lee has surrendered to Grant and Johnston to Sherman. About an hour ago a report came to camp that President Lincoln has been assassinated. I do not know what to do. I would like to rejoice that peace is ours. I cannot now. I will waite till my mind is settled.”
We learn so much about the Civil War and its costs, victories, and horrific battles. It’s easy to overlook the story of an average soldier. Sgt. John Emerson Anderson’s collected letters home give us a better look at what one soldier from our little town went through on the fields outside Atlanta.
Arthur Taylor was a West Boylston resident one hundred years ago who escaped death while out of town in December 1917. He was unlucky enough to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on December 6, 1917, when one of the worst maritime disasters in history occurred: a ship carrying explosives and sailing to Halifax Harbor caught fire and inevitably exploded. The explosion wiped out all nearby structures and trees and caused fires to spread across the city. Nearly two thousand people perished as a result of the explosion, the collapse of affected buildings, and a tsunami caused by the blast. Thousands others were injured or left homeless.
Arthur Taylor survived the blast and managed to write home to his wife in West Boylston. Though we know little else about his life from Mary Cook’s write-up in her column in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, we can imagine the terror he felt during the explosion and his wife’s terror when she heard about the explosion. From this small paragraph, we know that Arthur Taylor returned home to his wife unscathed but with new terrifying, sad stories to share with the people of West Boylston.