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Life on the Corner: Ghost of Old North Church

Here is another picture from the walls of Nick’s Tavern, my family’s bar on Lewis Street.

The photo was taken during World War II when many North End boys were overseas serving their country. It appears to be a dinner honoring wounded and fallen servicemen. The woman in the middle is a Gold Star mother. To her right is Vito Capraro, one of the bravest men to fight in the war. Vito was seriously wounded in the battle of Guadalcanal and spent a year recovering in an Army hospital. His daughter, Corinne, thinks this picture was taken in early 1944 when he had just been released from the hospital. Vito was awarded the Purple Heart. The other seated people are unknown to me but I would love it if someone could fill in the blanks.

Standing, from left to right are: Salesman Sam, who I don’t know, my uncle Arthur who owned Nick’s Tavern at that time and became Mayor of Medford, another soldier, perhaps an officer and, on the end, Angelo Berlandi, a North End original. Angelo became a State Representative from Hyde Park but his power base was always the North End. He was a skilled practitioner of the bare knuckles politics so prevalent in Boston at that time. He became briefly famous in 1978 when he helped Ed King, then an obscure Director of MassPort, beat Mike Dukakis in the Democratic primary for governor and Frank Hatch in the final election. When asked how he was able to accomplish such an unbelievable feat Angelo replied, “We ran a hate campaign. We put all the hate groups into one pot and let it boil.” That comment went “viral” thirty years before the internet was invented.

So, what does all this have to do with ghosts in the Old North Church? Read on, it all comes together.

After the war Vito worked in the Charlestown Naval Yard as a skilled craftsman. When he retired he got a part time job at the Old North Church working in the gift shop and doing some general maintenance. I ran into Vito one day having an espresso in the Cafe Paradiso with his friend Angelo Belmonte. I told him my daughter, Emily, was writing a high school report on Paul Revere and the Old North Church. “Great”, Vito said, “I’ll take her on a private tour of the church. I’ll even bring her up to the steeple where they hung the lanterns. Tourists aren’t allowed there but I have the key.”

So, early on a cold Spring day we met Vito in the gift shop. He led us up the stairs to the archives room, an austere but attractive light filled room paneled in white. From there we went through a door and ascended a much more rustic stairway to the bell ringing room. Above us were the eight, huge change ringing bells. Another door led us up a series of winding, precarious ladders to the place where the famous lanterns were hung by Sexton Robert Newman on April 18, 1775. We had to be very careful going up the ladders because one slip and we would fall to our deaths on top of the exposed bells. Vito led the way, Emily was next and I was right behind her making sure she didn’t slip. When we arrived at the lantern platform the view over the Copp’s Hill cemetery to Charlestown was spectacular. What an exciting treat this was for all of us and after several wonderful minutes enjoying the view and reflecting on the events that led to the Revolutionary War, we began our decent.

We were on the second ladder with me leading the way down when the lights suddenly were extinguished and we were thrown into complete darkness. Panic set in and we couldn’t see six inches in front of our faces. We knew that the tops of the bells were right below us but we couldn’t see them. I told Vito and Emily to hang on to the ladder rungs and not move while I tried to feel my way back down to the room where the light switch was located. I slowly made it down several rungs when, miraculously, the lights went back on. We quickly scrambled down the ladders and made it back to the archives room expecting to thank the person who had saved us but the room was empty. We went down into the main church and that too was empty. So, who turned on the lights and saved us from almost certain doom? We’ll never know. Vito said something like that had never happened before.

I have a science background and don’t believe in ghosts. My rational side tells me it was probably a loose wire that just happened to reconnect at the exact right time but there is something mysterious about the Old North Church. So much of Boston’s history is cradled in those walls. As kids we always thought there were ghosts in the secret passageways of the Old North Church and the Copp’s Hill cemetery. So, the next time you walk by the Old North Church be on the lookout for any unexplained lights or mysterious creaks and groans. A lot of stuff happened in that church and maybe still does.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.