Mudgett: Summer Souvenirs

Jul 20, 2015

The next time you visit Boston Common consider this: at one time the squirrels who inhabited the Common were Vermonters. Vermont squirrels.

That’s because in the summer of 1855 Boston Mayor Jerome Smith decided that Boston Common needed squirrels and that he should import some from Vermont. Mayor Smith was not alone in the idea that urban areas could benefit from touches of rural beautification; historian Etienne Benson has written about what he calls the “urbanization of the eastern gray squirrel” during the nineteenth century and about how cities like Philadelphia, New Haven, and Boston imported them in an attempt to beautify urban spaces and uplift city residents.

What Benson’s interesting study doesn’t mention is that the Vermont squirrels ended up on Boston Common because Mayor Smith himself brought them back from a trip to Vermont. I know this because Vermont Historical Society librarian Marjorie Strong and I researched the Boston squirrels on a beautiful summer afternoon, as resident squirrels frolicked on the lawn outside the library windows. The most pressing research question in my mind was this one: How, exactly, did Smith capture the squirrels?

I still can’t answer that, but what I do know is that the Boston press went nuts over the news of Smith’s Vermont souvenirs, and not in a good way. They taunted the mayor mercilessly, and compared his failed squirrel program to his failure to enforce a recent liquor law. For one thing, Mayor Smith apparently initially imported only about 5 squirrels, some red and some gray. The Boston Evening Transcript worried that a lack of squirrel food would cause the immigrants to eat all of the bird eggs on the Common and joked that Mayor Smith had also placed a 20 foot shark in the frog pond. By early July, the papers were reporting that two of the five squirrels had already died, the victims of an unhappy relocation. At one point, concerned Bostonians took the sick squirrels in at night and returned them to the Common in the morning. More squirrels were released but the effort to populate the Common eventually failed.

The Boston Post eulogized the deceased Vermont squirrels in a poem that included the following lines, told from a homesick Vermont squirrel’s point of view:

He grieved for waving forests far away,
And shady nooks;
And verdant hills where his companions play
Fast by the running brooks;
The crowded town with all its noise and glare
He could not bide:
His free heart loathed its very common air,
And so he died.