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Eliot, Samuel Atkins, 1798-1862



Samuel Atkins Eliot, who was the father of Charles W. Eliot, a president emeritus of Harvard, came of a long line of distinguished ancestors, the first of whom to come to this country landed in 1668. He was the son of Samuel and Catherine Eliot, and inherited from them a moderate fortune, which was increased by the estate brought him by his wife, who was a sister of Mayor Lyman.

He was born March 5, 1798, and graduated from Harvard in 1817 and the Divinity School in 1820. Instead of entering the ministry, he spent three years studying languages and literature in Europe, and then devoted much of his time gratuitously to public service and charitable work.

He was much interested in the Prison Discipline Society, and was also first president of the Boston Academy of Music, under who auspices Beethoven's Symphonies were first given in Boston. As a member of the School Committee, he introduced music into the public school curriculum of Boston, which thus became the first American city to make music a part of public instruction. He served on the Board of Aldermen and in the state legislature. Eliot was mayor at a time when Boston needed a strong hand to save the city from the worst element, which was getting control. His efforts to organize both the Police and Fire Departments were successful only so far as the Fired Department was concerned. This department, having become a nuisance and a menace, as firemen received no compensation but received a certain amount for "refreshments," a hoodlum element was attracted which soon filled the fire companies and made them as prone to riot as to put out fires. A crisis was finally reached on June 11, 1836, when an Irish funeral "collided" with a company coming from a fire. A fire alarm brought out another company, and soon 15,000 people were engaged in the riot. Houses were barricaded, blood was spilled, and finally, peace was restored by the mayor's arrival at the head of 800 lancers and infantry. This resulted in the establishment of a paid force. He also created the first organized day police. Previous to this, there were no day police, but a night watch only, consisting of 110 watchmen and ten constables, who were on duty from 7 p.m. in the summer, and 6 p.m. in the winter until sunrise. During his term of office, a hospital for the insane was erected and opened in South Boston. He was elected to Congress in 1850 to fill out the unexpired term of Robert C. Winthrop. Although a friend of the black, he voted for the fugitive slave law, believing that the only way to preserve the Union, prevent war, and help all men, was to support the actual Constitution.

Near the end of his life, a firm in which he was a silent partner failed. He gave up all his property to meet the debt. Returning to Cambridge in "honorable poverty," he spent his time writing and editing books. He died on January 29, 1862. Mayor Eliot was one of the most respected citizens of his time.

Taken from "Boston's 45 Mayors from John Phillips to Kevin H. White," City Record, Boston, 1979.

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Mayor Samuel A. Eliot, 1837-1839, undated

Identifier: 5210004_015_007
Scope and Contents From the Collection:

Photographs and other images collected by the Boston Landmarks Commission for reference use and for publications as well as photographs taken by the Landmarks Commission documenting their work and city neighborhoods.

Dates: undated

Mayoral addresses

Identifier: 0200.001
Scope and Contents

Includes two compilation volumes of addresses from 1822-1867 and printed copies of annual and inaugural addresses of the Mayor from 1824-1980 with gaps.

Dates: 1822-1980 with gaps

Sundry papers and returns

Identifier: II
Scope and Contents note From the Collection: The City Council Committee on the Fire Department records date from 1816-1844, bulk dates from 1831-1841. The collection contains fire department records and correspondence which document the transactions, personnel, activities and growth of the department from a subscription organization to a professional fire department. The original organization has been retained as much as possible, including the title Sundry Papers & Returns, which reflect the variety of the contents. The...
Dates: 1816-1844 with gaps (bulk, 1831-1841)