Friday, May 23, 2014

Strange Happenings at Barnes’ Folly

Barnes' Folly

Lowell’s newest physician, Dr. John H Barnes, had big plans literally.  Having just finished his apprenticeship with Dr. J. W. Graves, Dr Barnes purchased a plot of land in 1832 on the edge of the Acre on Merrimack Street near the corner of Lewis Street.  He contracted with Osgood Pingrey to do the carpentry work on a building he was having built from canal rubble for the bottom floors and brick for the upper stories. The plans called for a series of dry goods stores at the basement and street levels and a number of halls to be rented out on the remaining floors.  Where the term Barnes’ Folly comes from is rather unsure.  According to the Lowell Cutural Resource Inventory, where the previous information can be found, it could be from the large size of the building or because the property changed hands so many times.  Whatever the reason, Dr Barnes’ hope for such a venture soon dissipated.  The building was sold, foreclosed, returned to the bank for nonpayment of taxes and sold yet again.  And yet it still stands there today with its original canal rubble foundation.
One of the first uses of the new building was space to teach Irish students.  The venture was not very successful perhaps because the school was probably paid for by parents who were hiring their own teachers rather than attend the public schools.  Attendance was not mandatory and even a few cents to pay the rent might be more than the pioneer Irish could afford.  The rooms in Barnes’ Folly were often rented out for offices or as venues for plays and musical presentations such as Damon and Pythias.  The area’s reputation quickly declined and soon the site is mentioned in a number of police reports.  A certain William Marston was arrested with a certain “Sal Sprague” for fornication at the Folly.  Each was fined $10.  In 1857 George Dane, the blacksmith who lived on Dane Street, had the misfortune of falling down a flight of stairs at the Folly and breaking his leg so badly amputation was a possibility. 
Liquor was often involved with the goings on at Barnes’ Folly.  The St. Nicolas Saloon in the building was cited for being the cause of a number of disturbances.  The saloon itself was known to sell liquor on the Sabbath!  A sad case happened in 1862.  Catherine Mullen was found dead on the floor in one of the rooms at Barnes’ Folly.  It was apparent that she died of alcoholism.  Her husband was away at war and Mrs. Mullen had taken $12 from the city and spent it all on liquor.  Barely a stick of furniture was found, just some straw ticking and a few clothes.  She was buried in a pauper’s grave. 

Another sad case was a 17 year old girl whose mother and  sisters resided at Barnes' Folly with her.  She was found murdered in the Pawtucket canal.  Screams were heard in the neighborhood, but no one responded.  She was known to be in the company of "rowdy young Irishmen."
Conditions got so bad that in 1864 complaints against the building were lodged before the Board of Aldermen.  The owner, Alanson Folsom, met with the Board at the building to discuss matters.  He was ordered to improve conditions.  Being so close to the Western Canal, it happened that residents of the Folly occasionally met their end by accident or design in the canal.  Also being one of the tallest buildings in the area the mention of someone falling out a window was not unknown. 
A final mention of Barnes’ Folly was when the city tried out their new fire steamers on the building.  The sheer size of the building made it a great target for the fire hoses.  The curse of the building began to fade towards the 20th century when a new owner bought the building and adapted it to new uses.

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