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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2002 > Sleuthing a Historic Image

Sleuthing a Historic Image


ABOVE Downer-Hancock-Page House, Roxbury, Mass. The fact that few pre-Civil War houses are left in Roxbury makes this photograph a valuable historic document. The picture was probably taken in the early 1870s by A. H. Folsom, a noted Boston photographer. The Library and Archives has long been collecting Folsom's work because of its fine quality and rare subject matter.

The SPNEA Library and Archives recently acquired this photograph of a Gothic Revival house in the Long-wood section of Roxbury, Massachusetts, one of few surviving images depicting pre-Civil War houses in that part of Boston. How SPNEA volunteer David Rooney was able to identify its exact location demonstrates the fundamental research method of cross-checking street atlases against photographic records and genealogies.

Notes on the back of the photograph indicate that it depicts the "Old Downer-Hancock-Kilby-Page home-stead next to the House of the Good Shepherd near the Muddy River." Rooney first checked the Atlas of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts, Roxbury 1873, an insurance atlas that shows building footprints, lot lines, streets, and identifies the building material. Next, he looked at the SPNEA photograph files and found images of other houses on the street but none of this house. He concluded that the photograph had to depict 1717 Tremont Street, because the atlas listed the owner as Catherine Hancock and shows an irregular footprint that appears to match the photograph. Furthermore, Downer was the name of a street running behind the house. Inspection of the Downer family genealogy revealed that Catherine Hancock's middle name was Downer, and that her son-in-law was Kilby Page.

Later atlases show that the street was widened and renamed Huntington Avenue in 1895. By 1915 the house no longer appears in the atlases, having been replaced by a row of houses with bay windows.

-Rebecca Aaronson

Sleuthing a Historic Image