Lifeboat manned by Cohasset Crew, April 2, 1918

Credit: Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts/Massachusetts Historical Society

How Shacks For The Shipwrecked Spawned Mass. General Hospital

February 28, 2014

In Boston in the 1780s, there were fewer places more dangerous than Boston Harbor.

"Shipwrecks were a part of life," explained Hull native John Galluzzo, who is writing a revised history of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the state's first charitable organization. "It was going to increase as the years went on as Boston became busier and busier until you had that forest of masts out in Boston Harbor."

And so when a blind Scottish physician named Henry Moyes gave a lecture here about the London Humane Society and their work to try and save shipwreck victims, the idea struck a chord.

"That catches fire in the city of Boston, people really get excited about this," said Galluzzo. "In 1786 a group of the top merchants and philanthropists and doctors get together at the Bunch of Grapes tavern and the sit down and hash out what’s going to become the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

At the start, the Humane Society organized  lectures on the latest ship technology and life saving measures. Then in 1787 they take it one step further and build houses of refuge on three beaches: Humarock Beach in Scituate/Marshfield, Nantasket Beach in Hull and Lovells Island in Boston Harbor. Each hut was packed with the supplies a shipwreck victim who found his way to shore would need to make it through a stormy night including, dry clothing, blankets, food, water, matches, firewood.

There is no evidence that the huts ever saved a single life, and as Galluzzo explained, at least one prominent New Englander was not a fan. "Henry David Thoreau, when he was walking the beaches of Cape Cod, he actually comes across one and he mentions to the friend with which he is walking that 'What a waste this is.' There's a rusty nail holding the door shut the windows are all broken. And his friend turns to him and says, 'this isn't a waste this is a step forward this is a beautiful thing. This is the first time we’re starting to think about our fellow man this way.'"

The Humane Society pressed on. On this week in 1791, they were officially incorporated by signature of Gov. John Hancock. And their next idea was a hit. 

"They come up with a concept of launching a boat from the shore to go out into the teethe of the storm, a storm that is blowing larger ships ashore, and send out volunteers who are willing to risk there lives who are willing to go out and bring those people to safety," said Galluzzo.

America’s first lifeboat was build on Nantucket and placed in Cohassett, and by the 1840s the Humane Society had 18 fully staffed lifeboat stations up and down the coast of Massachusetts.

"The classic story is about Joshua James of Hull who was born in 1826 and when he was just 15 years old jumps into a lifeboat," said Galluzzo. "And in the maelstrom that’s going on, the darkness and the crashing waves, the captain doesn’t realize there’s a kid in the boat. Well Joshua goes on for the rest of his life saving lives and steps out of his lifeboat in 1902 at 75 years old and collapses after saving one thousand people in his career."

Their lifeboat network was the model for the U.S. Life Saving Service, forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

And back on dry land, the Humane Society was also steadily raising funds, providing seed money for other life-saving organizations, including Mass General Hospital, McClean Hospital and the Perkins School for the Blind.

Today, 223 years later, the Humane Society is still saving lives. They meet regularly, and award grants to life saving organizations like the Coast Guard Auxiliary, MedFlight, and area hospitals.

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