Boston Corners: the Town without a government

In 1853, the South Taconic mountains caused a public riot involving thousands of people, scores of fistfights, and who knows how much gambling money won and lost.  All because of geography!

Well, maybe not only due to geography, but that steep wall running from Alander Mountain down into Connecticut was a crucial factor.  It’s the beginning of the reasons that Boston Corners existed for many years as a town without a government, almost a town without a state.

In 1664 a rough agreement was reached (by a royal commission) that the New York /Massachusetts boundary should run twenty miles east of the Hudson River.  The point where the Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York boundaries intersected came to be known as “Connecticut Old Corner.”  But in 1733, a land dispute between New York and Connecticut led Connecticut to cede the “Oblong” to New York — a strip of land that nudged the New York/Connecticut  border about a mile and a half east.  So Connecticut Old Corner remained the southwest corner of the Bay State — but not the northwest corner of Connecticut — with a slice of Massachusetts sticking out to the west.  That slice came to be called Boston Corner — short for “corner furthest from Boston?”  

This arrangement — confirmed by a 1787 survey — might not have caused any trouble, if not for that aforementioned wall of mountain.  It’s not terribly tall, as mountains go, but climb it and you’ll agree it’s plenty steep. It’s an obstacle.

The town of Mount Washington sits atop the Taconics, and when it was incorporated in 1779, occupied the southwest corner of Massachusetts — almost.

The town’s western boundary was set along the west side of the Taconic ridge.  Atop Mount Alander, the Mount Washington boundary met the New York line.  But beginning at that summit, the two lines cut away from each other, the New York line heading to Connecticut Old Corner, the Mount Washington town boundary deviating to the east.  This left an odd triangle of land, its base bordering on New York and Connecticut, hypotenuse on New York, and third (eastern) side bordering on Mount Washington.  A 1793 survey sets these boundaries, and notes, along the eastern edge, that “ragged mountains and ledges of rocks along these lines … fills the space between this land and Mount Washington, there being at least 1000 acres of these rocks.”  

Mount Washington didn’t want that triangle — didn’t want Boston Corners. 

It’s not hard to see why.  Today, if you wish to travel directly from Mount Washington to Boston Corners, you’d have to hike the trail from the State Forest Headquarters to the top of Alander, and then climb down the west flank, a pretty strenuous five and a half mile journey.  You could drive down the Bash Bish Falls road, and emerge well north of Boston Corners.  Or you could come all the way down to Salisbury, and swing around through Connecticut.  These sojourns would doubtless have been a lot more difficult in the 1700s. 

The logic of the land surveys suggests that the Boston Corners area should have been part of Mount Washington.  The logic of the land said otherwise.  This meant that, as Mount Washington worked to create the bottom line infrastructure necessary to an 18th century town — roads, schools, churches, fence surveyors, identifying marks for livestock — Boston Corners was left out.  To vote in state or national elections, Boston Corners residents had to climb to the Mount Washington Town Hall. 

But an 1806 Mount Washington Town Meeting voted to “ send petition to (Massachusetts) General Court concerning Boston Corners …  to have Boston Corners set off in a district by themselves if they think proper and if not to have them annexed to this town.”   

Nothing seems to have come of this resolution.  In an 1811 Town Meeting, the task of “notifying male inhabitants of Mount Washington and Boston Corners” about the date of an election was assigned.  If Boston Corners had been annexed at that date, why mention it separately?  In 1824, a committee was appointed in Mount Washington “respecting the boundary between Mount Washington and Boston Corners.”  In 1847, Mount Washington petitioned the Massachusetts government to define the Town’s western line, stating: “The division line between this town and what is called Boston Corners has long been a subject of dispute and uncertainty.”  But also: “Mount Washington has been in treaty with inhabitants of Boston Corners.”  The petition was signed by Mount Washington officials and “the principal of the inhabitants of Boston Corners.”

So Boston Corners was never a part of Mount Washington.  But it wasn’t part of New York, either.  This didn’t stop settlers from moving in.  

Indian title was cleared in typical, somewhat dubious fashion.  In 1771 Michael Hallenbeck swore he’d witnessed an Indian deed for a “large tract” in the area — fifteen years earlier.  In 1772 Jehoiakim Makhowow stated that about that same time, he sold six square miles “west of Taconic Mountain.”  Field’s 1829 History of Berkshire County states that the area was first settled around the same time as Mount Washington — mid eighteenth century — and that Daniel Porter, first recorded resident, owned 200 acres just north of what became the site of the railroad station.  But Massachusetts didn’t put the land up for sale until 1804. It wasn’t unusual for settlers to make their own purchases and move onto frontier land prior to state oversight, but Boston Corners remained in this limbo for an unusually long time.  Another oddity: most of the new deeds failed to extend to the Mount Washington line, meaning that some of those “ragged mountains and rock ledges” were owned by no-one.  

That exchange over the town lines confirms a fascinating fact: until 1857, Boston Corners had no formal town government at all.  That 1847 petition had to be served on town officials.  In Mount Washington, it went to the Town Clerk; in Boston Corners, according to the server: “There being no clerk or other officers in Boston Corners, I left a true and attested copy of their order and petition with David Eggleston, an inhabitant of Boston Corners.”

Yet the U.S. census noted Boston Corners’ existence, counting 67 persons in 1790, rising to 74 by 1850.  21 were “male children under sixteen” — where did they go to school?  How were roads built and maintained?  What about fences and disputes over wandering animals?  Did the residents pay no taxes at all?   A modern day Libertarian might hold this little community up as evidence that government isn’t really necessary — apparently, they managed.  By 1829 Boston Corners possessed a Post Office, store, tavern, clothier’s works, carding machine, and a sawmill.  But before a Libertarian starts celebrating this example, they’d have to reckon with one crucial drawback of a government-free zone.

In 1838, Massachusetts finally incorporated Boston Corners (as a district).  But the fact that the area belonged politically to one state, yet geographically to another, meant that it lived in a state of lawlessness.  A New York sheriff had easy access to the area, but no jurisdiction.  A Massachusetts lawman held authority, but getting there seems not to have been worth the trouble.  Even if said lawman made an arrest in Boston Corners, he’d face the task of traveling with his prisoner across the mountainous state line.  Small wonder that an 1850 commission recommended takeover by New York, because “evil disposed persons had resorted there to commit trespasses and make disturbance knowing that the inhabitants had no means of redress.”

What sort of “trespasses” were they referring to?  For one, the area seems to have become a hideout for horse thieves.  It also probably harbored a number of fugitives. But the crime that made Boston Corners famous — or infamous — is tied to the watershed event in the area’s history: the arrival of the Harlem Line of the New York central railroad.

Once isolated, Boston Corners now contemplated a direct tie to Manhattan.  Construction began in 1848, and it’s likely no coincidence that in that same year, a group of citizens petitioned to be annexed to the Empire State.  A railroad would mean new prosperity.  Did the long tolerated lawlessness now seem an impediment to growth?

In January, 1855, the Federal government approved the transfer of Boston Corners from Massachusetts’ jurisdiction to New York’s.  But the law arrived too late to prevent one last burst of mayhem. 

Mid-nineteenth century New York City was hardly crime-free.  Rival gangs regularly faced off in street brawls, but two of the most renowned fighters were John Morrisey, owner of the Gem Saloon, and Yankee Sullivan. The story goes that Sullivan marched into the Gem and announced he could whip his rival on the spot.  The Gem was not the spot; prizefights were illegal in New York.  But gamblers and gang members were eager to stage the match, and someone proposed an isolated hamlet about a hundred miles from the city, reachable by train, and known to be free of the law.

Examine the various accounts of this event, and you’ll be told at some point that Boston Corners separated from Massachusetts because of the prizefight.  It’s a good example of sloppy history: sounds like a clear cause and effect story, but the match took place five years after the first cession petition.  The law-abiding citizens seem to have sensed trouble on the way, but the slow wheels of bureaucracy left the town in 1853 still waiting for protection.

On October 5, the day set for the match, thousands of gamblers, gang members, and fight fans mobbed Boston Corners.  Morrisey and Sullivan faced off in an abandoned brickyard for a purse of $2000. Morrisey was 22 years old, Sullivan 40, but he’d earned a rep as a man who could take punches and stay standing.  He got some last minute encouragement from his wife, who leapt up at ringside declaring that $1000 said her man could draw first blood.

He did.  (Did Mrs. Sullivan collect?)

Rules then said that a knockdown ended a round.  Picture one fighter or the other hitting dirt as round one gave way to round two … round twenty … thirty … and on.  It must have been bitter and brutal.  Every good shot landed inside the ring inspired imitation outside the ring; Morrisey and Sullivan became a fight inside fights.  The slugfest finally ended when … 

Actually, there’s no way to know now how it finished, because in the chaos and crowding, no-one then knew.  Here’s a few versions:

* Round 37.  Sullivan looked up to see a friend take a hard shot; enraged, he stormed into the crowd and the audience became one crazy brawl.  The referee, seeing Morrisey standing alone in the ring, declared him victor.  

* Round 37. Morrisey dropped to his knees.  Sullivan punched him.  The crowd stormed the ring and the referee declared Morrisey the victor.

* Round 37.  Morrisey tried to throw Sullivan out of the ring; Sullivan’s enraged fans charged him; chaos ensued, the referee raised Morrisey’s arm.

At least it seems clear that in Round 37, Morrisey was declared the winner.

Given the level of pandemonium, the rest of the tale seems quite believable: the mob turned on the town and ravaged the businesses, not only in Boston Corners, but in other villages down the line.  The Massachusetts law finally arrived, too late to protect property, but in time to arrest Morrisey, jail him in Lenox, and fine him $1200. 

The last legal hurdles were cleared by 1857, and in that year Boston Corners became a small part of the small town of Ancram — state of New York.  It also became a railroad hub — the junction of three different lines — and in 1878 boasted a hotel, a store, a blacksmith shop, and of course a train depot.  But the last train rolled through in 1972, and today Boston Corners is as quiet as it once was raucous.  Those troublesome mountains gaze down on fields, woods, a rail trail, and a handful of citizens abiding under the clear domain of government.