I've long been intrigued by catacombs – those underground chambers and passageways most commonly associated with Rome or Paris. Their secret nature, association with burials, and use as hiding places long ago captured my attention. I've always wanted to find a way to incorporate them into my writing. Never did I think it would be in the book I'm setting in my own city.
Last October while perusing the gift shop of the Worcester Historical Museum during one of my research trips for Erin's Children, the forthcoming sequel to Kelegeen, a slim volume titled Worcester's Forgotten Catacombs caught my eye. Astounded, I snatched if from the shelf. Could there really be catacombs beneath the streets of Worcester? I grew up in the next town, worked for decades in the city itself, but never once had I heard so much as a rumor about catacombs. I simply had to find out.
According to author Charles W. Longeway, Sr., catacombs do indeed exist beneath the streets of downtown Worcester. Likely built in the 1700s, possibly used in the 1850s for nefarious business such as illegal gambling or being in the more noble employ of the Underground Railroad, they were seemingly forgotten by the late 19th century. The author claims to have been fascinated by the tales of the Worcester catacombs for over 50 years after unearthing several published accounts of their rediscovery in the 1930s.
The catacombs contain more than thirty rooms forty feet below the ground. Built of brick with massive pillars, elegant archways, and thick, almost sound proof walls, the underground chambers invite speculation as to their origins and subsequent use. The jury is still out on both, though several theories abound. Built in the 18th century, some say they were created as a foundation in the downtown section of Worcester which was supposedly a mass of quicksand. Others say they were actually the basements and lower floors of the first homes built in the area and later covered over by numerous changes to the grading of the streets.
More intriguing is their possible later use. A 1930 newspaper article claimed them as the site of an 1850 50-round “Fistic Battle” - a bare knuckles prize fight featuring the then famous English heavyweight, Jem Mace.
A 19th century hostelry sat above one section of the catacombs. It appears to be well attested that the hostelry employed a number of African Americans who may have used the chambers as living quarters. The discovery of a 19th century bathtub in one of the rooms suggests that some such use was made of them. Since Worcester was an anti-slavery hotbed, the possibility of being a part of the Underground Railroad is a valid theory, though whether they were an official stop on the famous route north or simply a hiding place for runaway slaves is unknown.
What is not in question is the fact that these catacombs exist and have been in existence since the 18th century. Since Erin's Children is set in Worcester in the 1850s I can't possibly resist making them part of the story. Since what use they were put to in the 1850s is, and maybe always will be, debatable, I have creative license to let my imagination run free. I'm getting near the section of the story where the catacombs will come into play. I have some ideas as to what will happen down there, but even I'm not sure until I actually write it. My characters tend to have minds of their own so I may be as surprised as anyone about what was going on in Worcester's catacombs. One thing's for sure, I will have tremendous fun finally setting part of a story in catacombs even if they are in the most unexpected place.
Pictures courtesy of Charles W. Longeway, Sr.
BuzzMediaLife - "This Week in Worcester"