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North End History: John Child’s Flight From “Old North”

Lost in the Passage of Time:  John Childs Flight from the Steeple of Dr. Cutler’s Church

March and April are memorable months in Boston’s North End.

Not just for the blossoming magnolia trees by St. Leonard’s along Hanover Street – the perfect harbinger of Spring.  But also for the March 17th celebration of Evacuation Day commemorating the 1776 departure from Boston of General Gage and his British forces during the American Revolutionary War.

Also on the 17th, of course, is St. Patrick’s Day. Boston’s dynamic and numerous Irish descendants get an additional reason to celebrate.  Many of their forebears once considered themselves “Dearos” –  a name Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s father, “Honey Fitz”, coined in memory of  his legions of political supporters who lived in Boston’s “Dear Old North End.”

On April 16th we memorialize Patriot’s Day in both lofty and down-to-earth ways. There is the world famous Boston Marathon on the eve of which neighborhood restaurants open their doors to some of the 20,000 pasta-passionate participants packing in the carbs before hitting the pavement the next morning.

That same day we commemorate the 1775 ride of patriot Paul Revere. Hanover Street is cleared of cars, swept clean of winter rubble. A stage is set before the Prado for speeches and benedictions to buoy the spirits of the two horsemen on their reenactment ride out to Lexington and Concord.  And high in the steeple of Old North Church two lanterns are hung signifying that the British were marching by sea and not by land.

It’s sometimes too easy taking that simple, majestic spire for granted. It is so ever-present, both day and night. We admire it’s architecture; its glistening brass weathervane, its bright white magesty against the night sky.  We’re aware of its significance, schooled in the several roles it has played in early American history. And we can also admire its longevity, its endurance, not just as a historic site but as a living, vibrant  place of religious worship and fellowship.

It took a poem to remind the public of its pivotal position in American history. That Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem in 1860 raises an interesting question as to how and in what ways was Old North Church remembered – if at all – in the period prior to Longfellow’s poem being published. How was the church perceived over the preceding 137 years since it’s construction in 1723? One answer is clear: with its steeple topping 190 feet, North Church was for many years the tallest building in Boston. Simply put, it stood out.  It served for over a century as a navigational beacon guiding ships safely into port.

Another answer is much more frivolous. And delightful!

It’s significance and memory were instilled and prolonged in the memory of several generations of Bostonians by an extraordinary feat of one John Childs, gentleman from England,  who flew from the steeple of Old North Church 250 years ago this year. And lived to tell the tale!

If truth be told, Childs’ feat was not unique; flying performers had appeared at English fairs and celebrations over the centuries, according to Boston historian J.L.Bell, who maintains a blog of “history, analysis, and unabashed gossip” about Revolutionary Boston at www.boston1775.net.  Childs admitted as much in the pages of the Boston Gazette on September 12th, 1757, announcing:

“This is to give notice to all Gentleman and Ladies, that John Childs has flown off of most of the biggest Steeples in Old-England, and off of the Monument by the Duke of Cumberland’s Desire, and does intend this Day, and two Days following, to fly off of Dr. Cutler’s Church, where he hopes to give full Satisfaction to all Spectators.”

And on the appointed day, in the early afternoon of Tuesday, September 13, 1757, John Childs did in fact fly from the steeple of Dr. Cutler’s Church, “to the satisfaction of a great number of Spectators.”  The very next afternoon, he gave two repeat performances to a much larger group of spectators who had left hearth and homes and closed their shops to bear witness to this extraordinary flying Englishman.

As reported by The New Hampshire Gazette:

“Wednesday in the afternoon he again performed it twice; the last time he set off with two pistols loaded, one of which discharged in his descent, the other missing fire, he cocked and snapped again before he reached the place prepared to receive him.”

That “place” was 700 feet away on the sloping hillside of what is now known as Copps Hill Burying Ground.

How did he do it?  Was it with wings? With a balloon, a kite? Was it an early precursor to bungee jumping? What allowed John Childs  to fly? That is the simple piece of history that up until quite recently appeared to have been lost in the passage of time.

A number of theories have been proposed. One of the most fanciful tales told is by the late Edward Rowe Snow, a popular storyteller, lecturer, preservationist, and treasure hunter from nearby Winthrop. In a lengthy account entitled “Boston’s First Flyer”, Snow described how Childs as a boy grew up in the vicinity of Unity Street and became fascinated by how birds flew. “Especially he would watch the actions of seagulls and,” according to Snow, “he developed many sound theories” of wind action and flight. “[Childs] decided that when comparing a bird and a human, greater areas of sail must be used for man…”

Snow went on to describe how Childs fashioned a set of wings and “took off from the Old North Church bellfry, stretching his arms with their winged attachments outward to the fullest extent … [and] landed a hundred yards away in a field now identified as in the vicinity of Henchman’s Lane.”

A delightful and even plausible tale, indeed! But nevertheless a complete figment of Snow’s fertile imagination.  The real answer was revealed barely a decade ago by historian J. L. Bell.  He described Childs’ daredevil performance in the following terms:

“Childs had a rope attached to [the Church] spire. Pulled taut, the cord slanted 700 feet down to a pile of feather mattresses… Childs appeared in the steeple. On his chest he wore a flat board with a groove running down its center. The Englishman laid himself along the rope, head first, arms and legs spread wide. He started to slide, faster and faster.  Viewers counted sixteen heart-stopping seconds before he landed on his mattresses. Then Childs, most likely, bounced up and passed his hat.”

Thus, in some ways, the real story behind the flight of John Childs – the “rope-flyer” – is the story of how history is oftentimes lost only to be re-gained.  For the hundreds of spectators who witnessed John Childs’ “flight”, they managed to keep the memory of his feat – and the secret of his technique – alive for several generations. Until over time the true tale was lost. If only there had been a poet of Longfellow’s stature to write John Childs into the permanent pages of history.

Guild Nichols is the founder and president of NorthEndBoston.com, the premiere web site portal for comprehensive information on dining, shopping, visiting and living in Boston’s historic North End.

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