Vikings in Boston?

On October 20, 2009 · 3 Comments

I’m in Boston, Massachusetts this week, attempting to get my geo-weirdness fix satisfied between all-day business meetings. Fortunately Boston has a compact core with several walkable neighborhoods and a great public transportation system. I had an opportunity to spend a couple of hours wandering around the Back Bay yesterday, the former tidal flats of the Charles River and now one of Boston’s more upscale neighborhoods, admiring the architecture of the massive Victorian brownstone townhouses.

Leif Ericson Statue on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston

Then I encountered this oddly situated statue of an unlikely subject as I strolled along Commonwealth Avenue. It’s Leif Ericson. You remember him from the history books, right? He’s the Icelandic explorer who sailed from Greenland to North America some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus, and who has been immortalized in the old Viking sagas? I wondered if perhaps there might be a Boston – Iceland connection, which would seem logical but turned out to be absolutely wrong.

Maybe Boston had and Icelandic community, I thought. That’s not impossible. I’m familiar with parts of the United States that were settled primarily by Icelandic immigrants (Washington Island, Wisconsin comes to mind). There does appear to be an active Icelandic Society in Boston with about 200 members but they don’t seem to be erecting any statues. Perhaps then Boston has a sister city relationship with Reykjavík? Boston has a bunch of those but none with any city in Iceland, unfortunately

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What could possibly account for the Leif Ericson statue with its runic characters chiseled onto its base atop an old Norse longship. The answer presented itself on the Straight Dope website under "Did Leif Erikson once live in Cambridge, Massachusetts?" Apparently I’m not the first person to wonder about this conundrum and the experts have already weighed in.

The article goes on to explain that a Prof. Eben Norton Horsford became a wealthy man when he reformulated the ingredients for baking powder in the 1850’s. With his newfound fortunes he was able to turn his attention to various crackpot theories. As improbably as it sounds, he concluded that Leif Ericson had sailed up the Charles River during his explorations and built a home in Cambridge.

His theories were widely discredited even at the time but that didn’t stop him from placing various markers and plaques around town. His crowning glory was the Leif Ericson statue erected in 1887 that still graces Boston to this day, a testament to a hair-brained idea posed by an amateur archeologist with more money than sense a hundred years ago. I wish I had that kind of cash. Think of all the odd geography tags I’d be leaving in my wake. I’m thinking the highpoint of the smallest county-equivalent unit in the United States really needs a monument. Anyone have a good formula for baking powder?

I will be in Boston for the remainder of the week and hope to post additional local geo-oddities at least one more time before I return.

On October 20, 2009 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Vikings in Boston?”

  1. If the statue was erected in 1887, why does it appear in the 1883 King’s Handbook of Boston on page 109? I’m sure you didn’t just pull this date out of thin air. Don’t you just love it when historic records don’t agree?

  2. Okay, on second reading–why is a wannabe statue listed with already built statues? Here is what the 1883 King’s Handbook of Boston says:

    “The Norsemen Statue and Fountain was to have been erected in Postoffice Square, to commemorate the supposed visit of the Norsemen to New England, about the year 1000. The enterprise contemplated a statue,
    of bronze, representing Leif. son of Eric, who first colonized Greenland, wearing the ancient armor of the Norsemen, — a shirt of mail, a two-edged sword, and the pointed helmet of that people. The pedestal was to have been of rough granite, richly incrusted in bronze, with grape vines, leaves, and clusters; and water was to fall from twisted vine-stems.”

    I wonder how many tourists in 1883 went looking for this thing?

    • It does seem rather unusual for a guidebook to feature something that didn’t yet exist at the time. There is an analogous situation today by the way. A memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is envisioned for the National Mall in Washington, DC. It doesn’t yet exist but it has a website — which is kind of the modern day equivalent of a guide book. If one were to look at it quickly it might seem as if the memorial actually existed, much like Leif Erikson in the 1883 Boston guidebook. Perhaps inclusion helped with fundraising?

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