In 1953, John Geehan was growing up in a changing Roslindale, Mass., seven miles from downtown Boston. Charged with postwar energy, the neighborhood was full of immigrant families eager to adopt a life outside of the urban core. John, age 9, went to play in the nearest green space available to him — the Arnold Arboretum, the Harvard-managed public park and botanical institute across the road.
Playing in an Arboretum pond area used as a dumping ground for industrial waste, John fell in and drowned. Outraged by the danger the Arboretum’s poorly-maintained spaces posed to their children, about 300 residents signed and delivered a petition to Harvard to fill the pond in. They received no response, and their “furor subsided with time and nothing was done,” wrote the Boston Globe nearly two decades later.
John’s attempted rescuer, Ken Hobart, asked the Globe in that same story: “How many times does something like this have to happen before anyone does something about it?”
In June of 1953, Arboretum Director Karl Sax wrote to Boston Park Commission Chair Frank R. Kelley, asking for Kelley’s help in hastening a fencing project around the same pond John drowned in that year. In the letter, Sax acknowledged that proper fencing would prevent the South Street tract from becoming subject to “the mercy of wandering children.”
Geehan was not the only victim. A quarter-century string of drownings on Harvard property took the lives of at least five Roslindale children. The perpetrating backwater — “Muddy Pond,” as it came to be known — was one of the few public green spaces available for neighborhood kids to play in. But the pond, set in a Harvard and municipal dumping ground, had a perilous mixture of mud and silt that could trap someone: the more you thrashed, the deeper you sank.
Finally, in 1971, after another spate of drownings sparked outcry among community members and Harvard undergraduates, the University caved, rushing to fill the pond in. Still, faced with potential legal liability and student protests, Harvard’s lawyers denied any prior knowledge of the danger the area posed. (University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment, and Arboretum spokesperson Jon Hetman did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)
Letters from officials and residents over the course of several decades prior to the 1971 protests told administrators directly that the pond, a dumping area, was a hazard to children and should be fenced off or filled. Despite that, the dangerous wetland went unaddressed by Arboretum and Harvard administrators for nearly half a century.
But Muddy Pond and the tragedy it wrought were not the results of mere neglect or lack of oversight. This catchment area, used to store industrial waste created by the construction and maintenance of the ‘living museum,’ was necessary for the beautification of the Arboretum’s sweeping meadows and languid natural entrances. It allowed fundraisers, tours, and scientific work to proceed uninhibited, their garbage byproduct covertly stowed.
The Arboretum’s underbelly, the South Street tract, became its dumping ground — an area decidedly part of the Arboretum but distinct in purpose: it was the park for poor kids, filled with the refuse of the rich. When that refuse was all they had to play with, it turned deadly — decade after decade — while the institution seemed to close its eyes.
Tucked behind the Arnold Arboretum’s beautiful tree collection and gardens, a muddy wetland remains. Between the slope of South Street and railroad tracks sequestered off by mounds of land, the wetland now hosts a short footpath. As early as 1662, colonists drained the wetland to use it as pasture, and by the 1830s, a rail line to Providence was constructed nearby. In 1861, the South Street tract was bestowed to Harvard after the death of Benjamin Bussey, its former landowner. Harvard, which established the Arnold Arboretum in 1872, added the South Street tract to Arboretum grounds in 1919.
In the 1920s, Arboretum administrators drained a portion of the peat bog to create a pond — later known as Muddy Pond — connected to nearby Bussey Brook in hopes of making the area “less stagnant and more attractive.” Yet by the late 1930s, archival maps indicate that portions of the wetland had been labeled a “dump.” Archdale, a Boston Housing Authority development home to low-income families, was built a few blocks away in 1953.
Class divides were part of Muddy Pond’s troubled history from the start. In 1971, State Rep. James J. Craven, Jr. told a local newspaper that runoff from West Roxbury’s upscale Bellevue Hill, about a mile away but connected via tributaries, was pooling into the pond, making it larger. The runoff that pooled in the pond was just part of the risk to local children. The systematic dumping of industrial garbage, which began when the wetland was identified as a dump in the 1930s, made it deadly.
Jeffrey Savill, a 7-year-old student at Charles Sumner Elementary in 1957, lived in a working-class Catholic household in a duplex about a mile south of Muddy Pond. His father Vincent, a baker, and his mother Evelyn, a waitress, raised him and his three siblings: Vincent Jr., Dianne, and Neal.
Four years after John Geehan’s drowning, Jeffrey and a friend, Lawrence, went to look for frogs at Muddy Pond. They might have ventured in through the dilapidated fencing partially surrounding the area. It’s also possible that they traversed the “cow tunnel,” created to move cows under the railroad between a pasture in the Arboretum and a nearby ice cream factory on Washington Street.
Once at the pond, they happened upon two 10-foot planks, leftover construction debris. These planks were typical of the industrial waste left in the pond at the time. The boys decided to use them as rafts to paddle into the expanse of the pond. Meeting in the middle, they collided. Both boys were thrown overboard. Lawrence was still able to stand, but couldn’t drag his sinking friend out; he ran back home to raise the alarm.
The fire department, the ambulance, and Jeffrey’s father came to the scene. At the hospital, Jeffrey was declared dead on arrival.
In 1958, a year after Jeffrey’s death, Edward G. A. Powers, a Division Engineer at the Boston Department of Public Works, sent a letter to Henry H. Cutler ’29, who served as Harvard’s insurance manager. Powers wrote of “dangerous ponding conditions” around Muddy Pond. He told Cutler that after Public Works ran the numbers, the department estimated it would only cost Harvard $1,540, what is now $15,000 adjusted for inflation, to fill it in. Powers wrote that by doing this, Harvard “would eliminate any hazard due to drowning.”
“Anxious to know if the University would be able to meet the cost of this project,” Powers offered his engineers and inspectors for Harvard’s use. He proposed a bargain price of $1.10 per cubic yard of dirt for fill. The offer never left the table, and the drownings continued.
Less than a decade later, in 1966, Arboretum Director Richard A. Howard wrote to the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation expressing concern over a visitor’s entrance on the west side of the Arboretum, about a mile from Muddy Pond. City construction crews had completed water system maintenance work on Harvard’s behalf and “regrettably” left debris strewn around the visitor’s entrance. In his letter, Howard called for the “rehabilitation of this area as part of the Arnold Arboretum.”
The grounds — originally co-designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture — were intended as a “pleasure ground for the citizens of Boston” and as a tree museum, according to the Arboretum website. Staying true to this mission, Howard wanted to restore what he called “an attractive corner” in the park, rather than permit construction waste to stay there. For suburban visitors who drove in for day trips to the manicured grounds, the debris surely would have been an eyesore.
Howard’s suggested destination for the wooden planks, debris, and other assorted garbage from City work was simple: “dump this in the South Street tract area […] This would be fill for a swamp area of little use to us in its present wet condition.” Thus, Howard’s mandate to maintain the “pleasure ground” became part of the same tradition that led to the deadly conditions for children in Muddy Pond.
Muddy Pond’s ownership existed in a murky space between Harvard and the City, but both treated it as a dump. And as trash continued to pile up over the decades after John and Jeffrey’s deaths, kids still came to play.
In 1968, yet another child drowned in the Arboretum in a different pond — the third death in the archival record. The pond, part of the same wetland as Muddy Pond, was quickly filled, Arboretum spokesperson Wendy Marks then told the press.
The 1968 drowning was not referenced in the Arboretum’s annual Director’s Report.
The ‘Death Hole’
In 1971, Clyde, Margaret, and Lesley Johnson were growing up in a working-class household of 10. They lived in the Archdale housing development, constructed by the Boston Housing Authority a few blocks from the Arboretum. The development was built for low-income families in 1953, the same year John Geehan drowned. Their father James, a carpenter, and mother Margaret received government benefits. The Johnsons, unlike the Geehans or Savills, were a Black family living in Roslindale during a time when the neighborhood remained mostly ethnically Irish and Italian.
The Johnson family had recently suffered multiple losses: two of their children had died a few years prior. James Jr. died fighting in Vietnam, and Maceo was killed in a car accident.
The three young children set out to play on a chilly Saturday morning on May 15, 1971, joined by their friend Michael Terry. Like many other neighborhood kids, they went to the nearest outdoor space available to them — the South Street tract, which contained Muddy Pond.
Botanist-turned-historian Peter J. Del Tredici built a career studying the landscape of the Arboretum and its flora as the institution’s Senior Research Scientist. He says the children gained access to Muddy Pond, now Bussey Brook Meadow, via the cow tunnel, coming in from the southwest side of the tract to make their way through the muddy wetland.
The trio assembled a raft fashioned from construction garbage strewn around the pond, full of waste left behind by Harvard and the City. The Johnsons rafted into the pond and capsized. Michael made it back to Archdale to get his father, and police and fire were called. Lesley was revived, but when first responders arrived, it was too late for his siblings. Clyde, 9, and Margaret, 8, drowned.
According to local newspaper the Jamaica Plain Citizen in 1971, “though there have been periodic drownings at the pond for many years, there has been little attempt to fence or clean the area, or otherwise remove the hazard.” A fence did wrap around a portion of the pond, but in its dilapidated state, could not close off the water to neighborhood children. And after all, as Arboretum Director Howard wrote to a concerned local resident in 1968, “fences do not stop kids.”
Harvard’s administration stalled in response to the children’s deaths. When asked by a reporter from The Crimson about the University’s potential responsibility for the event, Harvard’s General Counsel Daniel Steiner ’54 remarked that “this is a tragedy…I don't want to get bogged down in the legal aspects of the thing.”
Meanwhile, Cutler, now Harvard’s real estate manager, told The Crimson that it would be “pretty stupid” to fill in or modify the pond.
Cutler was known for operating with such nonchalance. In 1969, after a graduate student was murdered in a building without locks on its doors, Cutler refused to install any in the aftermath. He reportedly told the graduate tenants’ union president that “‘we can't make improvements if we don't get more money out of you people.’”
Cutler spent his career in the administration of University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28. G. Garrett Epps ’72, who in 1971 was a Crimson reporter covering the drownings, says that the Pusey administration met the community with a “tell these people to go fuck themselves” mentality. Only after the installment of the next president, Derek C. Bok, shortly before the drownings, did the University shift towards a stance of, in Epps’s words, “we’re awfully sorry you have to go fuck yourselves.”
Asked about the children’s drownings in 1971, Cutler remarked to The Crimson: “We can't just go around filling up every piece of water. Should we fill up the oceans because people drown there?”
Some Harvard students immediately decried the administration’s messaging. On campus, there were “always groups wielding bullhorns, and there was always a disruptive protest,” says David Landau ’72, a reporter for The Crimson in 1971.
With student activism in vogue — often with civil rights and anti-Vietnam War efforts working in tandem — campus culture had shifted dramatically since 1953.
Students for a Democratic Society, a group primarily engaged in anti-war protests, began to pressure Harvard’s administration to fill in the pond. They staged a protest about a week after the Johnson drownings, speaking in front of the Holyoke Center (now the Smith Campus Center). As they concluded their rally, Sargent Kennedy ’28, secretary of the University’s highest governing board, the Harvard Corporation, exited the building.
“We ended up following him with the bullhorn, and about 10 or 20 people, across Harvard Yard, and he walked into the Faculty Club,” says Joseph Rothchild ’74, an SDS member at the time.
A report from the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR), a Vietnam War-era tribunal convened by Harvard administrators, states that protesters called Kennedy and other Harvard officials “murderers.” They chanted: “Fill the pond with Sargent Kennedy.”
SDS members, including Bonnie E. Blustein ’72, Ira D. Helfand ’71, and Rothchild, later faced disciplinary action from the CRR. Blustein was initially ordered to withdraw from Radcliffe College following the incident, though she was later readmitted.
The SDS protest added pressure to an issue that was already coming to boil in the neighborhood around the Arboretum. According to an article in the local newspaper, The Parkway Transcript, locals Mary Boucher and Helen Clifford collected 1,300 signatures from Roslindale and Jamaica Plain residents calling on the state’s Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) — a predecessor agency to the Department of Conservation and Recreation — to seize Harvard’s land by eminent domain and develop a children’s play area. Community members also spoke up about other solutions, like filling the pond in, an option offered cheaply to Harvard back in 1958.
“Harvard should have filled that hole in long ago,” a resident told The Crimson in 1971.
The Liability Question
Under pressure from all sides, the administration began to take quick action while sidestepping liability. Boston Fire Commissioner James H. Kelly sent a letter urging Edward S. Gruson, Harvard’s assistant to the President for Community Affairs, to take immediate action to prevent “the senseless loss of our young citizens.” Local politicians joined with Boucher and Clifford, asking the MDC to seize Harvard’s land, while SDS students continued to agitate around an immediate fix for the pond.
“The public pressure to fill this pond in was incredibly great,” Del Tredici, the botanist-historian says.
The MDC felt the heat. A letter from Gruson to Director Howard said that the MDC was “under considerable political pressure” to “take by eminent domain the South Street land.” Gruson told Howard that “it will take very persuasive arguments on our part to convince him not to take the land.” To keep its land, Harvard knew it had to act.
Blustein says that SDS planned to distribute protest leaflets to attendees of the 1971 commencement. Each handout would be emblazoned with the line: “No racist murder, fill in Muddy Pond.” But Harvard got word of their demonstration.
“Somebody from Harvard came knocking on the door” of one of the SDS members’ dorms, Blustein recalls.
She believes it was either the day of or the day before commencement. The Harvard representative told them to call it off: bulldozers had just dumped granite blocks in the pond, reducing its depth from five or six feet to just under two.
“They wanted to take no chances that we would miss the news that they had gone and filled in this hole,” Blustein says.
Under pressure, Harvard and the city government hurriedly reduced the pond depth with granite blocks, shy of a full fill-in. City officials additionally agreed to drain a channel downstream of the pond and clear their debris surrounding the pond. Harvard’s construction costs totaled about $10,000, or roughly $70,000 adjusted for inflation.
Despite the uproar among students and residents, the Johnson family never moved forward with legal proceedings. Steiner, the University lawyer, told The Crimson in 1971 that there was not “any question of liability here.”
Geneva Boykin, the aunt of the deceased children, said “that pond is a death hole for little kids,” but that “we’re not thinking about suiting anybody at a time like this.”
“We’re worrying about the money to bury them,” she added.
Steiner deflected further when asked in 1971 about the University’s responsibility in the drownings, holding that Harvard’s liability was minimal. Despite Steiner’s stoic front, Harold Kaltz, a Boston casualty claims lawyer quoted in The Crimson, said that the University may have been liable if it “had knowledge of a history of children in the neighborhood being attracted [to the pond].”
Whether Steiner, Howard, or Cutler knew about the drownings prior to 1971 is unclear, but the question of liability was on the lips of many student activists.
Had these drownings occurred six years later, Harvard could have stared down a liability lawsuit. In 1977, the Massachusetts legislature amended state torts law. Legal analysis from Westlaw details that under this law, landowners can be held liable for physical harm when: they know children are likely to trespass, know kids could be harmed by land conditions, where the children do not recognize the danger, where eliminating danger is easy compared to the risk for the children, and where the landowner fails to exercise reasonable care.
Rewind to 1971: the liability Harvard had, if any, for the drownings is unknowable in the eyes of the common law without litigation.
The 1971 granite fill-in only shallowed the water, and the pond area continued to pose some risk thereafter. George L. Homsy of Harvard’s Planning Office acknowledged in a construction management memo in 1975 that “wet and boggy” parts of the South Street tract still remained “a safety hazard to children.”
The pond remained a hazard for four more years before Harvard quickly moved to fill in the pond area again in 1975 following the circulation of the memo.
However, in 1972, Massachusetts codified a law requiring prior notice of construction on wetlands, including filling and dredging ponds. As a result, Harvard’s hasty 1975 fill-in earned them a stern cease-and-desist letter from the City of Boston Conservation Commission, reprimanding administrators for not providing prior notice.
“Harvard was in such a sweat to fill it in that they neglected to follow proper procedures,” says Del Tredici.
Remembering and Reconciling
There are several victims mentioned loosely in the local press that we could not find records of, who remain nameless and unknown. In 1968, Craven, the longtime state representative, called Muddy Pond and the surrounding wetland, a “tremendous hazard to children,” claiming that it was where “ten youngsters drowned.” A Boston fire official estimated the number was even higher, telling the Boston Herald Traveler in 1971 that Muddy Pond and its surrounds had led to “15 to 20 drownings in the past 23 years.” These figures, though estimated, indicate a longer, unarchived legacy of death on Harvard land.
Most of the deaths are absent from the reports, letters, and other documents that Harvard maintains about its own history.
Not to be forgotten are the stories of the children who came close to death on the property but lived. The son of Robert Wheaton, a local resident, fell in while fishing amidst the industrial waste around 1968. He was saved by some friends, but residents in 1971 remarked in The Crimson that another death was “bound to happen sometime.”
Today, the South Street tract has been reimagined as Bussey Brook Meadow. Muddy Pond is no longer a dumping ground, blended into the bog it came from. From the Forest Hills MBTA station — a major terminal for local bus routes — the meadow is a short walk. The newer Washington Street Gate, a modest entryway whose design takes a cue from the wrought-iron decadence of the Arboretum’s other historic gates, opens up the north side of Roslindale to the tranquil meadow.
Bussey Brook Meadow is home to Blackwell Footpath, laid down in 1996, an idyllic winding gravel path that cuts through it. Along the walkway, stone blocks live out another life as spartan park benches, overlooking the shallow wetland remnants of Muddy Pond.
On the path, there’s a small sign the size of a pocket square, and just short enough that a kid could read it. It advertises a meadow soundscape app the Arboretum created. But it also has a map of Bussey Brook. That map contains one of the few contemporary institutional acknowledgements of the pond. A lowercase font resembling handwriting in the center, reads, “muddy pond (filled).”
The Blackwell Footpath today takes you through a manicured ‘pleasure ground,’ much like the rest of the Arboretum, with little reminder of the pathside death toll. The Washington Street Gate and the footpath are a new opening for the community to come in, but it only just begins to bridge the gap between the park and its neighbors.
The Archdale Housing Development still stands close by. In a 1969 Arboretum land appraisal delivered to Cutler, the realtors called this neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks “low quality three family housing.” Separated by invisible, stark divisions across race and class, Washington Street is a dividing line between sculpted park land and the low-income, working-class communities who live right next to it.
“While the Arboretum is free and open to all, that does not mean it is accessible or comfortable to all,” writes current Arboretum Director William “Ned” Friedman in a 2020 Black Lives Matter statement.
The cow tunnel is today derelict, covered in graffiti. The City of Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, Rev. Mariama M. White-Hammond, says in an interview it is “dark and dingy, and the road is not quite as maintained as it could be.”
Now, the City is “looking at rehabbing an entrance that would be most accessible for people in the Archdale Housing Development,” according to White-Hammond. Olmsted, the Arboretum’s original co-designer, “has this vision of land being available to the masses…particularly for folks who were living in tenement housing. That was some of the vision of what the parks were supposed to be,” White-Hammond says.
For children living in Archdale, this would mean direct access through a rehabilitated cow tunnel that “ beckons people to come,” White-Hammond says, and enjoy an Arboretum that is perhaps a bit more welcoming — and safe — for all its neighbors.
With a new gate and footpath, both built at the turn of the millennium, the South Street tract has become arguably more accessible to Roslindale residents, but nothing memorializes the young people who drowned. It doesn’t seem that either Harvard or the City ever provided any recourse to the families whose children died, at least no recourse that the archival record retains.
Fifty years after the Johnsons drowned, Muddy Pond today is filled with granite and topped with about two feet of water, rendered mostly harmless. The Arnold Arboretum remains idyllic, filled with flora and fauna from around our world. Its beauty is remarkable, but it is sobering to remember how faulty land stewardship engendered the needless loss of children’s lives.
White-Hammond put it well: “Sometimes, we can miss the people for the trees.”
CORRECTION: September 28, 2021
A previous version of this article misstated the owner of the Arnold Arboretum. It is owned by the City of Boston, but managed by Harvard.
CORRECTION: October 3, 2021
A previous version of this article misidentified the location of the Archdale housing development. It is several blocks from the Arboretum, not across the street.
—Staff writer Henry N. Lear can be reached at email@example.com.