Mystery surrounds granite marker on Stoneham island
STONEHAM — On a small island, among chest-high shrubs that sway with the breeze, a granite monument bears three words that denote the precise location where a man — a wrestler, or a colonel, or perhaps a drunk — took a noteworthy tumble.
“WHERE SHUTE FELL,” says the phrase etched deep into the weathered marker.
That much is clear.
But who Shute was, why he toppled, and how the stone was hauled to the island are the stuff of legends — questions that have baffled history buffs and reporters for more than a century.
“There are so many versions of this story,” said Kyna Hamill, a reference volunteer at the Medford Historical Society and Museum, who has become familiar with the Shute monument through her research about the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
The pond is part of the reservation, 2,575 acres of state-owned hiking trails, fields, and water bodies that stretch across Malden, Stoneham, Melrose, Winchester, and Medford.
Hamill and others have speculated for years about the origins of the granite tablet that rests near the eastern tip of Great Island, a place where nesting herons cast fleeting, pterodactyl-like shadows across the pine needle-strewn ground.
For Hamill, the shifting narratives about the stone represent a “good example of how stories about local history can go in very weird directions.”
“These stories are charming, and tell a lot about the people who lived in the area,” she said.
They can also be confounding.
There are numerous accounts dating back to the 1800s that describe what led to Shute’s collapse on the island, a plot that rises from the center of Spot Pond like an enormous turtle shell.
In 1915, The Medford Historical Register, a quarterly published by the historical society, looked into a rumor that the stone was erected by friends of Shute, a colonel who was thought to have been shot and killed in a duel on the island.
The publication’s “own opinion” put the claim of a “duello” to rest. Instead, the unnamed author of the article recalled a “Sunday-school picnic” 41 years earlier, in the mid-1870s, where the children were told the real account of Shute’s fall, albeit one that was much less honorable.
It went like this: There was once a hotel nearby on the shore called the Spot Pond House, which attracted the well-to-do. But as business swelled, the once-posh location “degenerated into a place of questionable repute.”
The article said the area had drawn groups from all over, including some of “lower character” who frequented the island, where “picnic parties” were common.
“One of these latter [parties] was composed of convivial spirits, and one among its number who was somewhat overloaded became overcome, and being too full for utterance, sank down for rest, or stumbled over some insignificant obstruction at that particular spot,” the article said.
Perhaps as a joke, Shute’s “boon companions thought it appropriate to mark the spot for future remembrance,” the author said.
A blurb published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1889 also explored the likelihood of a famous duel and then discounted it. The author said that, based on information passed down by a man who lived near the island, Shute was likely someone who was “more than usually intoxicated,” and fell into the water that surrounds Great Island.
“His friends afterward set up the stone,” the author wrote. “Failing to gain any different explanation, I have always believed the above story to be true.”
Had the authors done some digging, they would have discovered an article published years prior, in 1884, in the Boston Daily Globe.
That article cast Shute in a much different light. The mysterious man was not a drunk, or colonel at all. Shute, when sober, the article said, was the “toughest ’rastler you ever seen,” and used his brute force to toss opponents to the ground during matches that were held on the island.
That is, until one day, the seemingly unbeatable Shute went down himself.
“One time, he got a little full, though, and over he went!” said the article, quoting an unnamed boatman who told the Globe reporter that he had rowed wrestlers to the fighting grounds.
The boatman, who had heard “more cock-and-bull stories about that ‘ere stone than would fill a book,” claimed the monument was wedged deep into the earth a few days after the mighty Shute was felled.
Its existence was kept quiet from Shute. And when the great wrestler returned to the island, the embarrassment of his fall stared him dead in the face, written forever in stone.
“When he saw it he was so mad!” said the boatman, who boasted that he had witnessed the men bring the stone to the island. “Why, he never came there from that day to this.”
Before encountering the gruff boatman, whose recollections of Shute were as unshakable as the stone itself, the reporter had been told by people visiting the island that day that Shute was an “old soldier” shot by the British; or a Puritan settler, killed by a Native American arrow and then buried there.
The boatman dismissed the claims, and told the reporter, “They tell all manners of stories about that stone and I let ‘em . . . I used to know Shute and all the rest of the crowd.”
The notion that Shute was a skilled fighter falls in line with a piece of history that has been well documented, but which is hard to envision nowadays on the overgrown island: It was once used for illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches and prizefights, one of which, between Ned Price and Joe Coburn, went 160 rounds before ending in a draw.
That fight occurred in 1856, around 30 years before the Globe’s account of the monument. So it’s possible an old boatman could have remembered those times.
Douglas Heath, who co-wrote a book called “Middlesex Fells,” said the prevailing theory is, based on his own research, that Shute was likely a wrestler from the Haywardville-area of Stoneham, and was knocked down by bare fists.
“But other than that we don’t really know who Shute was, or what happened to him,” he said.
Heath’s book contains 217 vintage images of the area, including one of the Shute stone taken around 1890. That image was part of a lecture about the Middlesex Fells written by George E. Davenport of Medford, in 1893. Davenport, like the boatman, theorized in his lecture that Shute was a prizefighter, who under the influence of too much “’alf and ‘alf” was taken down. It isn’t clear if Davenport had drawn information from the Globe article published nine years before.
The bottom line, Heath said, is: “It’s a lot of speculation at this point.”
“This stone memorial is all we’ve got. It’s a kind of rabbit hole,” he added.
People who want to explore Great Island cannot take their own boat because Spot Pond serves as a backup reservoir to the Quabbin Reservoir. The island is accessible only by renting a kayak or rowboat from Boating in Boston’s Stoneham dock, and then paddling 15 minutes across the pond to its rocky shores.
On a recent expedition to the island, Mike Ryan, former executive director of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a nonprofit organization, located the Shute stone in the greenery within a half-hour of landing (he had to circle the island to find a suitable spot to dock among the rip-rap, stone used for breakwater).
Ryan brought with him a copy of Davenport’s lecture, and used the image taken of the monument in the early 1890s to pinpoint its location near the island’s sloping shoreline.
After pushing through tangled branches and shoving aside shrubs, Ryan knelt down next to the monument. It was the first time he’d visited the stone in roughly a decade.
It seemed unchanged, he said — gray and uneven, tipping slightly to the left.
Beaming about the rediscovery, he read aloud from Davenport’s lecture, at times placing a hand on the stone.
“The monument still remains, with the inscription badly defaced by time and has given rise to many legends and conjectures as to its meaning, some fanciful and amusing and some historical and probable,” he read.
The words, written more than a century ago, still ring true.
“Great Island has a mysterious history about it,” Ryan said. “There are so many layers to the story here on the Fells.”