Community Archive: Lesser known stories from Worcester’s history

June 30, 2022
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

Editor’s Note: This year, as the city of Worcester has marked the 300th anniversary of its incorporation as a town, the city’s rich and complex history has been center stage. Worcester State Urban Studies Professor Thomas Conroy, an American historian and local historian born and raised in Worcester, says such moments are also opportunities to reflect on the lesser known people, places and events that shaped the community. As a scholar of urban exclusion historically and contemporarily, Conroy focuses his research on Worcester, and the city often serves as the lab for his students’ field work. We are sharing a handful of (sometimes strangely connected) stories of people and historical moments you may not know about.

Stories by Thomas E. Conroy, Ph.D.

Points of contact in Nipmuc country: Indigenous people and English colonizers

The place now called Worcester was the ancestral homeland of the Indigenous Nipmuc people who lived in scattered villages throughout Central Massachusetts. Three Nipmuc villages occupied land that would eventually become Worcester: Pakachoag (presently the location of Holy Cross), Tataessit (presently the site of the Worcester Airport) and what was called Wigwam Hill (along the western shore of Lake Quinsigamond). The villages knew each other and interacted peaceably. Importantly, descendants from these and other Nipmuc villages still live and work in and around Worcester and Central Massachusetts, with the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council located in Grafton, Mass.

The English colonists made multiple attempts to settle Worcester prior to the 1722 incorporation. The settlement in 1674, called Quinsigamond Plantation, was abandoned due to King Philip’s (Metacom’s) War that lasted from 1675 to 1678. Especially brutal, the war was prompted by increasing tensions between colonists (and their native allies) and other native peoples including the Nipmuc. A second settlement, this one called Worcester, was underway by 1684. Although this settlement extended further than the first—colonists lived around a fortified citadel north of today’s Lincoln Square and to the Sagatabscot Ridge (Grafton and Union Hills). Again, the settlement was abandoned amid fears that growing tensions between Indian groups and English colonists would again erupt, which they did in 1702. Stoking this fear was the fact that a 12-year-old Worcester child, Samuel Leonardson, was taken captive by what may likely have been Abenaki Indians in 1695 (a historical marker now exists at the location of the Leonardson house in Billings Square). A third settlement led by Jonas and Gershom Rice returned in 1713 lasted and would be incorporated nine years later in 1722 as the Town of Worcester, a moment that the city marked this year in its tercentennial events.

Even lasting naming conventions of streets derive from the native and colonial past. Plantation Street connects the first settlement to the third (Quinsigamond Plantation to Rice Square). College Street becomes Pakachoag Street at the Worcester-Auburn border. Wigwam Hill Drive takes you to the hill’s summit overlooking Lake Quinsigamond. And Tataessit, even according to Worcester’s earliest white historians, was corrupted over time to become Tatnuck, as in Tatnuck Square, less than a mile north of Worcester State University.

Worcester and the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

Once the Constitutional Convention completed its work in the summer of 1787, the delegates sent a new constitution to the states to be ratified. While the convention had exceeded its mandate—it was charged with reforming the Articles of Confederation, not replacing them—it called for the states to convene special ratifying conventions. States determined the size, rules, and procedures of their respective conventions, and the first few state meetings ratified the new U.S. Constitution easily. But as time went on, the ratification votes became more difficult.

The Massachusetts Ratifying Convention brought together 370 delegates from across the state, from January 9 to February 5, 1788. By the time it met, five states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut—had already ratified the Constitution, but Massachusetts only narrowly adopted it, in part because the delegates from Worcester County, including the then-town of Worcester, voted overwhelmingly against ratifying the new frame of government. Delegates from Central Massachusetts were particularly concerned about the Constitution’s protections of slavery, opposed the centralizing tendency of the federal system, and disapproved of the lack of a religious test for holding office. In the final tally, the state ratification vote was 187-168, a 19-vote margin for ratification. The tally for Worcester County was 7-43 against ratification—the Worcester delegate, David Bigelow, also opposed the Constitution.

One legacy of the close call in Massachusetts, though, was a list of amendments proposed by convention president John Hancock, based in large part on the opposition’s arguments. After further tweaking in subsequent conventions, these would become the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Worcester County’s opposition to the centralizing tendency of the new federal government made it into the 10th Amendment.


The state’s first mental health hospital was built in Worcester.

Community health: Early efforts to provide mental health care

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts committed itself to the public care of mental health patients in 1833 with the construction of what was then called the State Lunatic Asylum in Worcester, one of the first of its kind in the country. Located on a large tract of downtown state-owned land that would later include the county jail and State Normal School/Worcester State, the hospital accepted patients from across the state.

The impulse to create it came out of a statewide survey of jails and prisons that showed too many mentally ill and substance abuse patients were incarcerated, essentially as and alongside criminals. This was an age of perfectionism and reform movements including women’s rights, labor, temperance, and body reforms, attempts to change nutrition, eating habits, and leisure time for better health and anti-slavery. Looking at mental health through the lens of reform, state leaders sought to build a hospital better suited to care for these patients than jails were.

The work of establishing the hospital was taken up by a relatively new state legislator from Dedham, Horace Mann. Mann, an advocate of many reform movements including temperance, believed in a more humane treatment of patients. Not only did he spearhead the construction of the asylum in a centrally located town but he also served as the hospital’s first chairman of the board of trustees. Mann’s career continued unfettered. Elected as a state senator from Boston in 1835 and its president from 1836 to 1837, Mann achieved enduring fame when he was appointed secretary to the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. It was from this post he conducted a thorough and wide-ranging reform of public education in the Commonwealth that also influenced public school reform nationwide.

Soon after its opening, the asylum in Worcester became full quickly as patients were transferred from the state’s jails. This required expansions of its physical plant far more quickly than initially thought, but it also spurred the later construction of more state hospitals for the mentally ill, and by the 1870s the state had built a second mental hospital in Worcester to replace the initial asylum. Methods of care by that time emphasized serene and bucolic surroundings that were simply not possible in the downtown of a rapidly urbanizing city. The new site, Worcester State Hospital, was built on a large piece of state land on the east side of the city beginning at the corner of Belmont and Plantation Streets across from where the state would eventually build UMass Medical School.

The original site continued as a medical facility for patients who were judged to be beyond psychiatric help or too dangerous to keep at the new site. Called the Chronic Hospital or the Hospital for the Chronically Insane, it was located where the Central Post Office is today. Although Worcester State Hospital burned in a fire in 1991 and was demolished years later, a new but smaller mental health facility now occupies that space, illustrative of the state’s continued, though diminished, support of mental health today.

Immigrant complexity: The Palm Sunday riot

There is a tendency when looking at immigration to America to treat immigrant groups monolithically without recognizing the subtle and unsubtle differences that separate interests among the people within each group. Beginning with the first major immigrant group to Worcester, the Irish, historians point out that despite some unifying cultural similarities, there were deep divides within the larger group of Irish immigrants that led to decades of conflict in the 19th century.

Vincent “Jake” Powers, the founding professor of the Worcester State Urban Studies Department, noted that, before mid-century, there were at least three types of early Irish settlers: the pioneer Irish, the new Irish and the Famine Irish. The pioneer Irish were a small community of skilled and semi-skilled laborers who arrived in Worcester to work on the Blackstone Canal in the 1820s. They settled in an East Side area near what is today Kelley Square. Led most famously by immigrant Tobias Boland, they completed the canal and remained in the city to oversee the construction of multiple railroads soon after the canal’s completion. The new Irish were those who arrived after the pioneers and who, in a number of different areas, disagreed with them. Economically they resented the pioneer Irish for their close (but subservient) financial ties to Worcester’s Yankee leaders, for the pioneer’s aspiration to emulate and do the bidding of the city’s English Protestant elite and for their quiet Catholicism that preached a subtle “don’t rock the boat” message to new arrivals.

Even before the Famine Irish immigration began in earnest, tensions between the pioneer and new Irish regularly surfaced. Notably, the new Irish, upset with hiring practices that drove down their wages and with the inability to stop it due to their political exclusion, formed a Shamrock Society, a radical Irish protectionist club that opposed Irish exploitation of any kind, especially Irish-on-Irish exploitation because it conjured relations from back home. People in positions of authority—city leaders, pioneer Irish leaders and Catholic clergy including the bishop in Boston—feared the group and what it might do.

The most spectacular violence attributed to the Shamrock Society was a large riot on Palm Sunday weekend, 1847. The night before, a pioneer Irish railroad builder who had hired French workers to deflate Irish wages, suffered a severe beating at the hands of a small mob who followed him home from his praying and confessing at St. John’s Church. The next day, hours after Palm Sunday mass, growing groups of Irish men who had been moving from pub to pub all day coalesced in Washington Square to demand that Peter Donlevie open the bar in his Swan Hotel. When he refused, the mob broke in, stole the liquor, and marched on the Worcester Brewing Company on Grafton Street. Finding that there was no beer there, the mob moved down Water Street and turned toward Kelley Square looking for Boland and, after learning he was in Providence, moved on to St. John’s. Father Matthew Gibson met the crowd on his porch where he was sworn at, shouted down and removed from the porch. To prevent him from returning, the mob boarded up the first floor windows and doors and left a sign that said, “SAXON TYRANT.” Apparently satisfied, the mob disbanded.

Gibson left for Boston that night and was in the Bishop of New England’s office by morning. The Bishop came to Worcester on Easter Sunday—during mass he excoriated the Shamrock Society and forced its members to publicly confess their sins and sign a pledge renouncing the Shamrock Society. The Worcester constabulary followed up by arresting 38 people, including the Shamrock leaders, and tried them for a variety of crimes.

It is important to note that this was underway before the Famine migration brought even more poor Irish to the city, making the Irish population surge from 600 in 1845 to 3,300 in 1850. Even though the pioneer Irish had won this battle, they would lose the war because the Famine Irish tended to side with the new Irish more. Rather than assimilate, which was the tactic of the pioneers, the new and Famine Irish resolutely built their Catholic churches, schools, convents, hospitals and cemeteries often right next to Protestant buildings and public schools. As the immigrant community came to comprise more and more immigrants, each new group saw conflicts with other groups and within their own that led to the construction of rival ethnic churches and schools.

Unchallenged Irish leadership in Worcester, though, took a century to establish and came only after eventual Yankee acquiescence.

Lucretia Mott. Image from Library of Congress

Sojourner Truth. Image from Library of Congress

The early suffrage movement: The first national Women’s Rights Convention

Worcester was a hotspot for Antebellum reform, as suggested by its hosting the first national Women’s Rights Convention on October23–24, 1850, with some of the most important historical figures of the time. According to the conference announcement, the purposes of the conference were to discuss and demand “a just settlement” to the questions of women’s “Education, Literary, Scientific, and Artistic—Her Avocations, Industrial, Commercial, and Professional;—Her Interests, Pecuniary, Civil, and Political; in a word—Her Rights as an Individual, and her Functions as a Citizen.”

Proceedings of the first national Women’s Rights Convention. Image from Library of Congress

The two-day conference was attended by delegates from 11 (of 31) states including the newest state, California, which had been admitted to the union only a month before. Meeting in downtown’s Brinley Hall, where the Slater Building is today, more than 1,000 participants discussed a range of women’s rights issues including women’s enfranchisement and suffrage, their right to own property, their legal rights in American society and admission to higher education, the medical community, and the ministry. Besides local activists such as Steven and Abby Foster, many of the nation’s leading women’s rights reformers and abolitionists were in attendance, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah H. Earle, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Lucretia Mott. Other significant reformers of the day, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, submitted letters to be read at the convention.

Frederick Douglass. Image from Library of Congress

The event was covered extensively in the press. Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy and the Boston newspapers were generally supportive. The most extensive coverage came from the New-York Tribune, which was edited by Horace Greeley, an advocate of many Antebellum reforms. Conservative New York newspapers, particularly the Tribune’s rival, The New York Herald, ridiculed the convention mercilessly. An especially scathing article in the October 25 Herald ran under the headline “Woman’s Rights Convention Awful Combination of Socialism, Abolitionism, and Infidelity.” Nevertheless, a second annual convention also occurred in Worcester in 1851.

Local abolitionist: Thomas W. Higginson and the Secret Six

Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Image from Library of Congress

Leading up to the Civil War, Worcester-based Unitarian minister, reformer, soldier and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a member of the Secret Six, a group of northern abolitionists who encouraged, raised money and procured supplies for John Brown’s anti-slavery initiatives, including his 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. A deeply religious man, Brown so hated slavery that he had grown tired of pacifist abolitionism by the mid-1850s and instead opted for increasingly violent opposition to the continuance of the slave system. He was involved in Bleeding Kansas, something of a dress rehearsal for the Civil War after 1855, including the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, in which five pro-slavers were killed as retribution for the Sacking of Lawrence. His plan at the Harpers Ferry armory was to seize and distribute weapons to enslaved people in the hopes of spurring a mass rebellion.

Sketch of Harpers Ferry insurrection, Library of Congress

There is some question about how much the Secret Six knew of this particular plan in advance, but Higginson had long been a militant abolitionist who knew of the violence of Brown’s attacks before Harpers Ferry and was deeply involved in other anti-slavery measures. He was among those who stormed a Boston courthouse to rescue Anthony Burns from the perils of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1854, and he established aid societies for Kansas and toured New England to preach in favor of abolition, women’s rights, labor rights and temperance. Higginson also organized the 1857 Worcester Disunion Convention, which declared the federal union was a failure for its attempts to unite two antithetical systems, free labor and slavery, and called for slavery’s end even if it meant war.

When the Civil War came, he was initially a captain in the Massachusetts 51st, organized in Worcester in 1862, that was stationed in New Bern, N.C., which became the entry point of an emigration pathway for formerly enslaved people to Worcester. Following a battle injury, he retired in 1864 but later became colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of individuals from South Carolina and Florida who had escaped enslavement. Whether he knew specifically about Brown’s plan at Harpers Ferry or not, Higginson was very likely sympathetic, and definitely was one of Brown’s supporters.

In the end, Brown was successful in capturing the armory, but the slave rebellion never materialized. He was caught, tried for treason against Virginia and executed. However, the Harpers Ferry attack helped bring about the American Civil War because it amounted to an invasion of Virginia by an armed (albeit unofficial) Northern force.

A brochure from the 1920s shows the original State Normal School. Image from Worcester State University Library Archives

Educating teachers: The original site of Worcester State

The present-day 58-acre campus of Worcester State University is the second location of the nearly 150-year-old school. It was founded downtown in 1874 as the State Normal School at Worcester on what was then known as St. Anne’s Hill. The idea of a normal school was developed by Horace Mann in his overhaul of Massachusetts public education. Specifically designed as a teacher-training institution, the Normal School provided post-secondary education that focused on the learning of pedagogical norms and curricula. In the case of Worcester, it was set up for the local school district to work together with it, both in terms of student teaching and then hiring the graduated students. The student teaching program it developed, in turn, became a model for other normal schools including those that were forming in other states. Over time, many of the normal schools diversified and grew far beyond their initial purposes into comprehensive public universities in which education remained an option among many others. The shift was evident in the title of its administrator: the first leaders were called principals, but as the school evolved, they came to be called presidents. For many decades the president and faculty ran the college more or less by themselves with staff support—faculty members took administrative positions (dean of students, dean of admissions, etc.) for periods of time and often rotated back to faculty.

Image from the Worcester State Library Archives

Worcester State was the fifth of the Commonwealth’s normal schools. At its original site on Normal Street, the school first consisted of a single multi-story building with classrooms, offices, a library and a dining space. A separate but attached gymnasium was added in the mid-1890s and was outfitted for calisthenic exercise—basketball had only been invented a few years earlier in the winter of 1891–92, so full courts were not yet a feature of school gyms. In the corner of the campus was the principal’s house, which was next to the first Worcester State “dormitory,” a house called Stoddard Terrace. In it lived female students who came from a distance and, periodically, at least one faculty member. The site was surrounded by a low wall with gates at stairs and driveways.

The current Helen G. Shaughnessy Administration Building was the first building at the University’s new Chandler Street location. Image from the Worcester State Library Archives

The school moved to Chandler Street in the early 1930s and into a single building: the current administration building. In it were a library (the fourth floor), all the existing academic departments and classrooms, the president’s office, a cafeteria, a theater in the south wing (now Fuller Theater) and a two-story gymnasium, this time with a full basketball court in the north wing. During the 1932 move, it dropped the Normal School appellation to become Worcester State Teachers College, then Worcester State College in 1960 and Worcester State University in 2010. The old building fell into disrepair and was demolished, but the Normal School land was eventually transferred to the city school department, which erected City View School in its place. Stoddard Terrace was also destroyed, but the principal’s house remains as a private residence at the corner of Normal and Prospect Streets. Remnants of the old Normal School walls and gates still circle the perimeter.

African-American legacy: George Alfred Busby and Jennie Cora Clough

The husband-and-wife team of George Alfred Busby and Worcester State graduate Jennie Cora Clough, Worcester Normal School Class of 1878, broke new ground for African-American leadership in Worcester.

G. Alfred Busby was a Barbados-born tailor who was the first African American elected to the Worcester City Council. Born in 1857, he arrived in the United States in 1874 and showed up in Worcester by 1886. Specializing in men’s fine suits, he operated a shop that changed locations a few times in his early years. By the turn of the century, he had become interested in politics. In 1896, he and another Black man, Hiram Conway, ran for Common Council and School Committee respectively, the first Black candidates in the city’s history. Both were Republicans in Ward 1, a ward with a Black population that had been bolstered after the Civil War through migration from New Bern, N.C. Both men lost, but Busby ran again and again, eventually winning in 1903 and 1904 by garnering votes via his white clientele, but at the same time further dividing the small Black electorate.

In 1893, he married Jennie Cora Clough, the first African-American graduate of what was then Worcester Normal School (Worcester State University) and the first African-American teacher in Worcester Public Schools. She taught first grade at Thomas Street School and then at Providence Street School. She retired after fifteen years of teaching after getting married, which was customary at the time, and went to work in the tailor shop. They had two children, Alan Thacker Busby (b. 1895) and George Clough Busby (b. 1897). Both left Worcester by 1920.

However, African-American political leadership has been a mixed legacy with which the city still struggles. The second Black man elected to the city government was Charles E. Scott, who was elected to the Common Council in 1917 and remained in the seat until his death in 1938. Although Scott wielded a considerable number of Black votes, their elections did not establish an enduring legacy of Black male office holding in the city. In fact, as of 2022, the two current African-American city councilors, Khrystian King (2016) and Sean Rose (2018), are the third and fourth Black men ever elected to that body, and in the 2021 city elections, Worcester finally elected its first Black male school committee member. As for the legacy of Black teachers in the public schools, while in academic year 2022 Black students comprised 17.1% of WPS’s student body, only 2.9% of its teachers were African American.

Immigrant success story: Near East rice pilaf

As with many American cities, the history of Worcester is intricately tied to the histories of both industrialization and immigration. Drawn first by the city’s industrialization, waves of immigrants arrived in the city and settled into different ethnic enclaves that were either populated by similar immigrants who came before them, composed of available (often affordable) land into which they could move, or officially or unofficially designated as worker housing areas for factories. For instance, Quinsigamond Village expanded tremendously at the turn of the 20th century with the influx of Swedish and Finnish immigrants who then became the workforce at the Washburn & Moen’s South Works (later a U.S. Steel plant). Urbanizing cities patterned like this have prompted some historians to reconsider the idea of a Melting Pot and substitute another culinary concept, the Tossed Salad, to illustrate that in America’s urban spaces there was not an automatic and complete assimilation into a host culture. Different features and traditions brought from other parts of the world are discernable and distinct from other components, creating a much more complicated city than the term “Melting Pot” suggests.

As immigrants arrived, of course, they brought with them traditional ways of living, recreating, worshiping and eating. While such ethnic-influenced spaces—religious buildings, schools, social clubs and restaurants—led to conflict at different times, they also altered the cultural fabric of Worcester. Foodways provide a method of exploring how immigrant groups introduced new ideas into their new cities, and one food, a particular type of rice pilaf, not only changed Worcester but went on to influence the foodways of America.

The Near East story reads like an American fairy tale. Well-known in stores today, the company has roots in the 1940s Worcester home of Armenian immigrants George and Hannah Kalajian. Theirs is a typical immigration story, albeit with horrific elements. After separately fleeing the Armenian genocide in Europe, the Kalajians met and married in New York and eventually found their way to Worcester. Since the late 19th century, Worcester had been a primary site for Armenian immigrants in the U.S. George opened a store/luncheonette; Hannah worked preparing food, including a rice pilaf from a recipe she remembered having as a child in Europe. Inspired by rice and noodle mixes appearing in grocery stores, she began producing mixes with, according to her daughter, “All these Armenian ladies working in that tiny room.” Over time, Hannah traveled the east coast doing cooking demonstrations and making deals with supermarket chains for the mix and in 1962 formed the Near East Company using her original recipe.


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