[From a pamphlet published by the Durfee Hilltop in 1940. Images of some of the murals are available at Keeley Library - Mann Murals Slides]

History of Fall River in Murals

This booklet presented to the pupils of B.M.C. Durfee High School by the Durfee Hilltop


To answer numerous inquiries con­cerning the historical incidents in Fall River's history portrayed in the beautiful murals recently mounted in the Technical High School [now the Kuss Middle School] auditorium, Miss Natalie Gourse, editor of THE DURFEE HILLTOP, interviewed Mr. John Mann, the artist, to get "the story behind the murals."

The artist graciously assisted the writer with data he had compiled in his endeavor to present a true picture of important episodes in the city's history, and the story was published in THE HILLTOP in five installments.

At the suggestion of school officials it is presented herewith in more com­pact form in the belief it may prove of value not only to pupils and teachers, but also to many others who visit the auditorium.

ABOUT four years ago, the Works Progress Administration sanctioned the petition of Mr. John Mann to paint murals for the walls of the audi­torium. He began immediately to study the history of the city and after four months of intense research began to paint a chronological history of Fall River. Through the facilities of the Public Library and the Fall River Historical Society and with the cooperation of many of Fall River's oldest families, he was able to obtain much information concerning early Fall River history. Working alone, Mr. Mann could choose the subjects at his own discretion and judging from the finished products, he succeeded in making fascinating choices.

Three Eras of City's History

There are three sets of murals, each set depicting a different era in history. The first set deals with our Indian history and consists of six panels. Every figure in each of the panels was posed for by a live model The history of Fall River, revolving about Revolutionary and Civil War days, is featured in the second set of panels along the north wall. Here again, models posed for each figure and the Civil War dresses are authen­tic as Mr. Mann obtained original 1860 style dresses from Fall River families. The murals along the rear wall of the auditorium bring the story up to the present as they delineate modern cotton mills of the city. The artist recently completed the panel placed over the projection booth which portrays workers in a present day cotton mill.

Corte-Real at Dighton Rock

The city of Fall River has a history as romantic as any other New England community with the possible excep­tion of Plymouth. The first record of any white man in this vicinity is found on Dighton Rock, Dighton, Mass. According to the deciphering of Professor Edmund B. Delabarre, Professor Emeritus of Brown University, the description written in perplexing hier­oglyphics proves that Miguel Corte-Real, a Portuguese explorer, landed there in 1511 and further historical data reveals that while in search of fresh water, he had proof of his visit chiseled on the rock.

Mr. Mann incorporated this fasci­nating story into the first panel of his chronological, pictorial history of Fall River.

A Typical Indian Village

The second panel on the south wall of the auditorium depicts an Indian village before the coming of the white man. The Indians are doing their daily work before a thatched hut.

Freeman's Purchase Pictured

"Sealing of the Freeman's Purchase With the Presentation of Turf and Twig" is the title of the third panel. The Freeman's Purchase in 1659 was made by the General Court of Plymouth from Wamsutta, son of Massa­soit. The land included in the pur­chase extended to the northern bound­ary of Freetown and easterly from the Taunton River four miles .... and it was all purchased for some household implements and some pieces of cloth (to appease Weetamoe, the wife of Wamsutta). The Indians sealed the pact by one of their time-honored customs of presenting the "turf and twig." The "turf" represented all the water included in the purchase, and the "twig" denoted all the land and all that was on it. In this panel there is a lone Indian to the right of the group; it is Philip, son of Massasoit, who did not favor the pact and refused to be a party to it. Later, this distaste of the white man's usurping his lands caused "King Philip's War."

Death of Weetamoe

The impressive scene in the fourth panel shows the dead body of the squaw, Weetamoe, with her mourning tribesmen. There is a romantic as well as gruesome story attached to this squaw, Queen of the Pocassets. While escaping from the white men she was drowned in the Taunton River near the site of what is today the Brightman Street bridge. Her pur­suers found the unfortunate Queen on the sand and as a lesson to the rebel­lious Indians, decapitated her and displayed the head. It was recognized by some of her tribesmen and they returned to bury the body.

Mr. Mann explains that he has for­saken accuracy in this one instance in order not to portray the revolting sight. This mural is a particularly effective one and the artist has suc­ceeded in conveying the solemnity of the occasion.

King Philip's Revolt

"King" Philip finally revolted against the usurpation of the white man as he forsaw the inevitable withdrawal of the Indian from his land. In the fifth panel, Philip is the dominating figure. He is shown pointing to the result of the white man's invasion of his land, and the present shore-line of Fall River is clearly discernible. While the Indian used the land for hunting and agricul­ture, he moved on from time to time and set no boundaries against a neighboring tribe, but here the white man had come, possessed the land and settled himself forever.

The power of the Indian in this immediate vicinity ended with the death of the great chieftain, Philip. Strangely enough, Philip died by the hand of an Indian. The final panel about Indians depicts the death of this renowned red man. During the war that he instigated, he was ambushed by Indians that had been converted to Christianity and were fighting with the white man.

Death of Philip

Under the direction of a white leader, Philip was finally shot by the Indian, Alderman, at Mount Hope in 1676. The background in this panel is very verdant and is symbolic of the scenic beauty that exists among the hills of Fall River.

In a small panel to the right of the stage, the artist has pictured an In­dian legend; shown are two old Indians, one drinking from a little pool of water, which according to Indian folklore, was supposed to bring eternal youth.

Slade's Ferry

Between "King Philip's War" and the Revolution, a period of 100 years, Fall River rapidly became a prosperous town. Commerce was carried on with other towns and it became necessary to have a dependable means of crossing the Taunton River. Up to1689, the only way to get across was to row one's self or to pay Indians to paddle one across. Finally, in 1689, Mr. William Slade of Somerset established the first permanent ferry. This ferry was plied only by man power and travellers -who used it had to make their horses swim the stream. Stage coaches had to go all around by land. In 1826, horses were used to supply the power and it is this Slade's Horse Ferry that Mr. Mann has pic­tured in his first panel on the north wall. The view across the river is recognizable as the same panorama we see today even though the pictur­esque, winding, dirt road has been replaced by a modern three-lane high­way.

Grist Mill Portrayed

The second panel, "The Interior of a Grist Mill," portrays a scene that has completely disappeared from the modern landscape. Remains of this ancient occupation have been discov­ered in different parts of Fall River, but Mr. Mann had to work from pic­tures and from any other information he could discover in his research.

Battle of Fall River

The part played by Fall River in the American Revolution, while not widely known, is nevertheless inter­esting and important. The third panel on the north wall portrays the most exciting episode - the Battle of Fall River - in minutest detail. History tells us that when the British stormed Fall River, they arrived in boats from Mount Hope Bay. The city was inadequately protected by volunteers, but due to the stamina and fervent patriotism of the Fall Riverites, the 150 British soldiers were beaten back in a slight skirmish. One seriously wounded British soldier, who can be seen in the mural, was left behind and when he died a few hours later, he was buried near where now stands the south end of the Massasoit fac­tory.

After a great deal of research, Mr. Mann finally discovered the information that it was the 54th Regiment of the British Army under the command of Major Ayres that fought here. He also discovered that they wore all-red uniforms. This statement may seem strange as it is a generally accepted fact that all the British soldiers in the Revolution wore "red coasts," but the fact really is that different regiments wore different color combina­tions. The three factors of red-coats, volunteers, and a miraculous Amer­ican victory all make this battle cor­relative to Lexington and the famous story of the Minute Men.

The burning house in the back­ground of the mural has aroused much comment and a few skeptics have doubted its authenticity, but according to an accurate account of the battle by Col. Joseph Durfee (who organized the volunteers and whose grave may still be seen in the old North Burial Ground) when the enemy arrived, they set fire to the residence of Thomas Borden, which was then newly built. As they fled away they also set fire to the home of Richard Borden, but the volunteers were so close on their heels that the fire was extinguished before much damage was done.

Tablet Marks Site of Battle

The site of this battle is now marked by a bronze tablet on the southwest corner of the City Hall, placed there by the Daughters of the American Revolution on May 29, 1899, the 121st anniversary of the historic battle. The actual fighting was done around the falls of the Quequechan River which now flows under the heart of the city.

Civil War Recruiting

Most ardent Fall Riverites know the large part played by their city in the Civil War, with regard to the freeing of slaves through the "Under­ground Railroad," but many do not realize what a large number of our men were in the ranks of the Union Army. The panel entitled "Recruiting for the Civil War" exemplifies the manner in which they were enlisted.

The particular instance shown in the painting occurred in 1862 when President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 additional men. A public meeting was held and the men signed up in the streets or wherever the recruiting officer was stationed. Mr. Mann places this scene on the Bedford Street of 1862 before it became a thriving thoroughfare. The inn and the houses in the background are not authentic, although there is reputed to have been an inn of this type there at one time.

The dresses of the women in this mural are particularly colorful and as this panel holds a central position it is especially attractive.

Boundary Line Dispute

The title of the next panel, "Pre­senting of the Deeds and Records, of Fall River, Rhode Island to the City of Fall River, Mass.," has perplexed many people but this scene actually depicts the finish of one of the most exciting boundary disputes in this vicinity. Its beginning can be traced to the original charter grant made by the King of England in 1629, when no definite boundaries were placed.

No trouble arose until 1740, when Massachusetts discovered that Rhode Island had infringed upon her territory when she was establishing her Tiverton boundary. No agreement between the two states could be reached at this time or again when it was brought up in 1844.

Finally, in 1860, the controversy was presented to the Legislature and an act of Congress was secured pro­viding for the establishment of a conventional line between the states and engineers were appointed to mark a described line. Meanwhile, the residents of Freetown had a disagree­ment and the town was split - part of it becoming Fallriver, Rhode Island. At last, in March 1862, the United States Supreme Court settled the century-old dispute and the entire town of Fallriver, R.I., was declared a part of Fail River, Mass.

The beautiful mural represents the meeting in which the deeds and rec­ords of the town with a population of 3,593 and an area of nine square miles were officially presented to Fall River, Mass.

'Keeping History Alive'

"Keeping Alive Tradition and His­tory" is the very appropriate name the artist has given to the last panel in the second series. Great is the delight of Fall Riverites when they discover well-known landmarks shown in this splendid view of the west side of the city. There are three figures, grandfather and grandchildren, sitting atop a hill and one can almost imagine the old man saying, "And when you grow up you can tell your grand­children all the stories of the Wampanoag and Pocasset Indians and the glorious history of Fall River."

'Skeleton in Armor'

While Mr. Mann has faithfully por­trayed the actual history of Fall River he has not neglected its most famous legend-that of "The Skeleton in Armor." This ancient relic was found near where now stands the old gas holder building on Fifth Street. A plaque now marks the site where it was found. Many theories of its origin were advanced and historians finally agreed upon the explanation that it was the skeleton of an adventurous Norseman who visited these shores some 900 years ago - long be­fore Columbus.

This romantic explanation of the crumbling old skeleton quickened the imagination of the great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and letting his thoughts run rampant he composed the famous poem, "The Skeleton in Armor."

The small panel to the north of the stage is a portrayal of one of the verses of Longfellow's beautiful poem. Almost every Fall River school child has memorized the first stanza in which the poet urges the skeleton to

"Speak speak! thou fearful guest!
Who with thy hollow breast
Still in rude armor drest,
Comest to daunt me!
Wrapt not in Eastern balms
But with the fleshless arms,
Why dost thou haunt me?"
In the next few verses the skeleton tells of his early life and his wooing of a "blue-eyed maid."
When the "blue-eyed maiden" died, the Norseman felt there was nothing left to live for and
"Still grew my bosom then,
Still as a stagnant fen.
Hateful to me were men,
The sunlight hateful.
In the vast forest here,
Clad in my war-like gear,
Fell I upon my spear,
Oh, death was grateful."
However, it is the final verse of the long ballad upon which the panel is actually based:
"Thus, seamed with many scars,
Bursting these prison bars
Up to its native stars
My soul ascended.
There from the flowing bowl
Deep drinks the warrior's soul,
Skoal! to the Northland! Skoal!
Thus the tale ended."

Reading up on Norse mythology, Mr. Mann decided that their mystical and fanciful theories about the ascen­sion of souls of the dead into Valhalla made interesting subject matter that would link well with Longfellow's final verse. Thus in the painting can be seen the Valkyrie, who has come to guide the noble Norsemen's soul to the halls of Odin in Valhalla by means of the legendary Winged Horse seen in the background.

These romantic, mythological fig­ures make a fascinating addition to the narrow but impressive panel.

The colors and shading are partic­ularly beautiful and one gets the full import of the mystery surrounding the figures from the dark shadows in the panel. As the original armor, which was unearthed in 1831, was burned in the great fire of 1843, Mr. Mann had to work from various descriptions still existing and from his own vivid imagination.

Fall River-Cotton City

Fall River was long recognized as one of the leading textile cities in the world. With easily accessible water facilities, it was natural that mills and factories should take root here. Operatives were almost entirely of Ameri­can birth but after 1850 the fact that the industry did not require experi­enced help alone proved a considerable drawing card to huge numbers of European immigrants and greatly helped to increase the population.

It was very appropriate, therefore, that Mr. Mann should choose to devote the entire rear wall to portraying the inner workings and scenes of both early and modern cotton manu­facturing.

'Evolution of Cotton Cloth'

The panel on the south side of the projection booth is an interesting scene that could be entitled, "The Evolution of Cotton Cloth." At the extreme left of the painting can be seen a quantity of raw, uncombed cotton. Eli Whitney had not yet in­vented the cotton gin and the boys standing over the cotton are labori­ously picking it by hand. The woman, seated to the left of the center, is combing the cotton in the old, crude hand method.

Next in the process is spinning, and the spinning wheel pictured here is of the type that can be found in the attics of many of Fall River's oldest families.

The earliest history of cotton man­ufacturing in this country is incor­porated in the pictorial scene of the panel on the north side of the projection booth. While it is not directly concerned with Fall River's earliest cotton mills, the epoch of Samuel Slater's establishment in the United States is one not to be omitted in any recital of the history of the cotton industry.

Samuel Slater and Moses Brown

Previous to 1790, no cotton ma­chinery of any great value was built in the United States. The Arkwright Co. of England had a monopoly on the industry and allowed no patterns or plans to leave their country. Samuel Slater was an employee of this com­pany who realized the possibilities of cotton development in America and finally came here. He first located in New York but upon being informed that Mr. Moses Brown of Providence, R.I., would financially back him in building machinery, he removed to Pawtucket,. R.I., where he set up the first successful cotton mill in the country. The mural portrays both Mr. Samuel Slater and Mr. Moses Brown in the first mill examining the first water frame of 24 spindles that Slater built.

This frame was indeed a marvelous achievement because Slater had been unable to bring any written plans or calculations with him and he had to build the complete machine from memory - a remarkable memory that did not fail him in one single instance. He also had difficulty in obtaining the parts and tools necessary.

Modern Machinery Portrayed

The two huge panels on the west wall of the auditorium are magnif­icent views of modern cotton machin­ery. In order to paint the intricate mechanisms, Mr. Mann spent several hours sketching the machinery in the Pepperell Mill. He obtained various parts from actual machines so that the murals would be accurate in every detail. These parts were destroyed along with his plans and sketches when fire recently swept his studio in the Weetamoe Mill.

The final panel in this set of murals was recently placed on the face of the projection booth. It is a composite of scenes in a modern cotton mill.

In painting these murals of modern machinery, Mr. Mann tried to create the illusion of a deafening noise - the first impression a visitor gets when he enters a cotton mill. He has suc­ceeded in doing this through his com­position and by means of striking colors, which contrast greatly with the subdued tones of the side panels.

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Last Updated: June 18, 2008