Circling the Square

Stoughton Hall

William Stoughton, Class of 1650, was a "prominent, wealthy, and unpopular" leader in Massachusetts life during the latter half of the seventeenth century. His grandiloquent sermons and the leading role he played in the witchcraft trials led a contemporary to describe him as a "pudding-faced, sanctimonious, and unfeeling witch-hanger."

Like later 'malefactors of great wealth," Stoughton turned in his declining years to repairing the reputation he had earlier destroyed. The result was the donation in 1799 of 1,000 pounds to the College for the first edifice in Harvard history to be built through the gift of an alumnus. This sum did not completely cover construction cost, and it was necessary for the College to petition the Massachusetts General Court for the right to use brick from an Indian college that had fallen into decay. This right was granted, but only after the College agreed that Indians coming to study would be domiciled free of charge in the structure. No Redskin ever exercised the privilege until a band of Dartmouth Indians stormed Stoughton Hall in 1939.

Following its completion in 1700, the building led a comparatively sedate existence until the Revolutionary War, when General Washington quartered 240 troops there, and the New England Chronicle and Essex Gazette were printed within its walls. Apparently the War was too much for Stoughton's unsubstantial construction, for crumbling masonry necessitated the destruction of the building in 1780.

As both the College and the Commonwealth found themselves in straitened financial circumstances, no attempt was made to build a new edifice on the site until the General Court authorized a state-wide lottery in 1794 to raise money for the building. Started in 1804, the new Stoughton Hall was completed a year later, and officially named in 1806. It watched the years flow by gracefully, housing Edward Everett 1811, and Oliver Wendell Holmes 1829, until the night of December 15, 1870, when its prim, Puritan peace was disturbed by the explosion of a bomb under the floor of Room 17.

The entire north wing of the building was materially damaged by the blast, and the furniture in several of the rooms was totally destroyed. Though the culprit responsible was never caught, startled College authorities surmised that some prankster, underestimating the potentialities of his boxful of gunpowder, had placed the bomb in the cellar, with its fuse, long enough to permit escape, running out the window.

Today, the bomb and the revolutionary troops are as unremembered as William Stoughton's evil reputation, and Stoughton Hall continues to look down in respectable near-anonymity at students trekking past the Old Pump.