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The anniversary of the death of the Hermit of Grew's Woods will probably pass quietly today

John Gatley

On Feb. 2, 1875, James Gatley quietly died in Grew's Woods, a vast expanse of woods and hills on what was then the Hyde Park/West Roxbury town line, where he'd lived in a 10x12 hut for nearly three decades, studying and stuffing the local birds and reptiles.

Today, echoes of the life Gatley lived remain in Stony Brook Reservation, a 475-acre forest that was part of a much larger estate put together by Henry Grew, a wealthy Hyde Park businessman who helped the Hermit of Grew's Woods supplement the money he made selling stuffed animals. Other parts of the Grew estate became the George Wright golf course and scores of single- and two-family homes in what are now the Boston neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Roslindale, roughly along West and Poplar streets.

Gatley, dubbed by some "a second Thoreau," was not a complete loner - he was well known in the area and ornithologists from around the world made the trek to his little hut.

But Gatley (sometimes spelled Gatly and sometimes Gately) was a secretive enough man that not much is known about how he wound up living in a hut on woods surrounded by Grew's estate, except that he was originally from England.

A few months before his death, the Boston Advertiser wrote an account - later published in newspapers across the country - that stated Gatley been born in England in 1810 to wealthy parents, that he'd gone to Eton and that he then came to America, perhaps to forget a romance gone bad, although no one could tell for sure - Gatley didn't seem to like talking about his past.

This strange man evidently has some property in England, for he has several times received remittances of money through the British Consul, with presents of valuable dogs from the same source. Many ornithologists have visited Mr. Gatley and it is affirmed that in various works upon the subject his views have been frequently entertained. There is a mysterious something which clouds the life of the hermit. He has excited much attention at different times, and many have evinced a strong desire to know the story of his life and the cause which has shut him from the world for the last twenty-seven years.

In 1880, the Globe tried to fill in the blanks of his time after disembarking in Boston: He'd rented an apartment in Roxbury, where he became a taxidermist and maker of bird cages, but wasn't doing very well financially. Down to his last, greatest bird cage, on which he'd spent countless hours without getting any offers he felt merited all the time he'd spent, he decided to try his luck in Charlestown, and started walking there with his cage, his dog and $40 in gold coins. But somewhere in Cambridge he found he'd been pickpocketed. He finally made it to Charlestown, sold his birdcage for a couple dollars and decided he'd had enough of humanity - after which he somehow found himself in the woods along West Street, where Hyde Park met Boston.

Accounts differ whether he bought a small lot for his hut - using money from his family in England - or whether he just decided to squat on land owned by Grew, who'd fallen in love with the wooded hills of the area and bought several hundred acres of land.

But Gatley settled into life in the woods, selling the skins of animals he'd trapped and stuffed birds - aided in part by financial help from Grew, who apparently didn't mind the company on his large estate. Gatley eventually added a taxidermy studio to his hut - and ornithologists from around the world consulted with and visited him, as did members of the general public after Grew built some roads and bridges through his woods.

After word spread of his death, people descended on his hut, carting away things as souvenirs - and digging large numbers of holes in a vain search for the treasure they were convinced Gatley had buried somewhere on the land, the Globe reported. The Globe added $400 in cash was found sewn into "the tattered clothing covering his body" and that an auction of his stuffed birds and other items realized $1,700. Gatley, the Globe continued, was interred in Brookdale Cemetery in Dedham, under a three-ton marker reading simply, "Hermit."

H/t Jake at HUBhistory, the first today to note Gatley's death.

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Comments

Subtle word-play in that headline. +1

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Wouldn't a zoning ordinance or something require a special permit?

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I suspect the zoning codes were a bit more relaxed back then - besides, back then, he either lived in the town of Hyde Park or the town of West Roxbury, so Boston's zoning codes (the first in the nation, I think) wouldn't have applied in any case.

But as long as you mention that, there's currently a city council committee that's looking at ways to encourage micro-apartments, SROs and co-op housing units as a way to keep Millennials in the city. I wonder if they'll be looking at micro-houses.

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That line from the old newspaper report ("he has several times received remittances of money through the British Consul, with presents of valuable dogs from the same source") gave me a chuckle. I can imagine some junior diplomat from the British Consulate cursing as he schleps through the woods with a few hundred quid and a bunch of corgis, to give to some hermit who hasn't bathed in a month.

Good article.

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It was literally a golden retriever.

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I grew up in the neighborhood and wandered those woods and the golf course with my friends as a kid - being chased occasionally by the cop on a motorcycle - but I had not heard of Hermit of Grew's Woods until reading this. Thanks for that. You learn something new every day.

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Gately took sanctuary in the woods that still exist at Sally Rock, a breathtaking 60-foot bluff near the Roslindale Walgreens. Let's get this protected as an irreplaceable urban wild.

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Not sure how many other stones at that graveyard are also labeled "hermit"...so this is probably it:

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/134284547/hermit-hermit

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