Friday, September 4, 2009

Ghost Stories and Historical Fiction

Having accumulated information over the past several years relative to the life and work of regional architect Solomon K. Eaton, it was with a mix of interest and dismay that I read the recent article [“Ghost at Middleboro Town Hall May Be Former Architect, Says Investigator”] by Eileen Reece in the September 3 edition of the Brockton Enterprise. It is not the "ghosts" in this tale that are fanciful, but rather the reworking of historical facts which are widely reported.

The first historical error made in the case, and assuredly the most devastating, is the identification of Eaton based upon the recognition by a witness of a purported photograph of the architect. The photograph identified by the witness which is captioned “Solomon Eaton” and depicted on the Enterprise’s website is in fact not a photograph of Solomon K. Eaton, the architect, but rather of Solomon Eaton, Solomon K. Eaton’s father who was an inn keeper at North Middleborough. The photograph of the elder Eaton is taken from Thomas Weston’s History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts (1906) which clearly identifies the subject of the photograph as Solomon Eaton both in the text and the index. Consequently, the witness in truth identified a person other than the architect as the “ghost haunting Town Hall”.

Secondly, the assertion that Solomon K. Eaton “was never given credit for his work” in designing Middleborough Town Hall is not supported by any evidence. While Eaton died on October 9, 1872, during the construction of Middleborough Town Hall, and completion of the building was overseen by Horatio Barrows as head of the town-appointed building committee, never was anyone other than Eaton credited as the architect. Newspapers at the time, including the Middleboro Gazette, Middleboro News, Plymouth Old Colony Memorial, New Bedford Evening Standard, New Bedford Daily Mercury, and others all cite Eaton as the architect prior to, during, and after the building’s construction. The Middleborough Town Report for 1873 records that Eaton was paid a large sum, including money on account with the executor of his estate, “for [building] plans”. Weston’s history unequivocally calls Eaton “the architect and contractor” of the building who “drew the plans for the town house.” There is not one source which labels Barrows as “architect” of the building in place of Eaton, and to suggest as much is contrary to all documentary evidence.

Finally, the supposition that Eaton’s plan for Middleborough Town Hall was altered by Barrows is also not borne out by the facts. A comparison of the works attributed to Eaton demonstrates without a doubt that Middleborough Town Hall as built is clearly derivative of Eaton’s earlier works, including the Elizabeth Taber Library at Marion (1872) and the State Normal School Building at Bridgewater (1871). Had Barrows altered the plans to such an extent as to make Eaton “unhappy” as is suggested, the building would not likely bear such a striking similarity to its predecessors, particularly the Taber Library. Further, at the time of Eaton’s death, a considerable portion of the work upon Middleborough Town Hall had been completed, so much so that Barrows would not have had an opportunity to alter the design to any great extent. The frame had been raised and the building was in the process of being boarded in, leaving Barrows little opportunity to alter anything but the interior layout which so closely resembles Eaton’s earlier works as to be attributable solely to him. And while Barrows did oversee the completion of the building in his role as building committee chairman, the day to day work (at least relative to the roof and tower, but probably for the entire structure) was directed by Middleborough contractor James P. Sparrow who was both more likely and more qualified to have suggested changes (if any) to Eaton’s design. Also, as head of the committee which contracted with Eaton to design then build the Town Hall, it is unlikely that Barrows would have agreed to hiring Eaton if he were so dissatisfied with the architect’s plans that he altered him the moment Eaton died.

Ironically, while the investigation of the paranormal seeks to claim for itself a rational, scientific foundation, its disregard for what are well-documented, easily verifiable, and readily available facts regarding the history of Middleborough Town Hall and the life of Solomon K. Eaton, only undermines the claim by that "science" to objectivity. Rather than being recognized (as he should) for his contribution towards fostering a uniquely New England architectural aesthetic regionally, Eaton has become the fodder for ghost stories and historical fiction.


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