September 10, 2009

Death by Apples



Roxbury Russet apples from Flickr.

An article in the Boston Globe noted that the apple crop has been particularly good this year. The cool rainy weather that ruined things like tomatoes and eggplant has been perfect for apples. So, get out to your local orchard or farmers' market and get a bag of local apples!

There's a lot of folklore about apples in New England, much of it spooky. I guess apples pair with strange deaths as well as they pair with pie crust. I've mentioned bloody Micah Rood apples and the apple tree that ate Roger Williams' body earlier, but the very introduction of apples into New England was a cause for misery and death.

The first named variety of apple cultivated in New England and the the United States was the Roxbury Russet. Named for the Colonial town of Roxbury (now a Boston neighborhood), and the apple's greenish brown color, the Roxbury Russet was in cultivation by the mid-1600's. Some sources say it was being grown as early as 1649. I guess apples were a high priority for the English, since they only settled the Boston area in the late 1620s.

According to a book called Apples of New York State, an English settler in Roxbury named Joseph Warren was the first person to grow the Roxbury russet. He died in 1755 when he fell off a ladder while picking apples and broke his neck. (I got that little tidbit here).

The idea that Joseph Warren was killed by the very thing he was famous for makes this story seem mythic to me. Not mythic in a "what a lie" way, but in a "Wow! That's seems to make strange sense" way. I'm not saying it isn't true, but the story wouldn't be as resonant if he died in bed from pneumonia.

When I read the Roxbury Russet story I was reminded of a similar "death by apple" story. Strangely, it's also from Roxbury.

I live on Mission Hill in Boston, which is part of Roxbury. Mission Hill used to be called Parker Hill, after the wealthy Parker family which lived here in the 1700's. Back then, the hill was quite agricultural and covered in orchards. Peter Parker, the scion of the family and owner of the hill, also met his end through apples. He was crushed by a barrel of his own cider when if fell off a cart. (This tidbit is from Samuel Francis Drake's book The Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places, Its History and Antiquities, with Numerous Illustrations of Its Old Landmarks and Noted Personages.)

Although Mission Hill is now quite urban, it still has a lot apple trees. They grow in people's yards, and the park at the top of the hill actually has an orchard in it. One of my neighbors has an apple tree, and he told me it is indeed a Roxbury Russet. The agricultural past peeks through into our modern urban neighborhood.

I feel I should wrap up this post on a dramatic note, like "And I've seen the bloody ghosts of Peter Parker and Joseph Warren wandering in the orchard!" I haven't though, so the stories will have to stand on their own.

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