Ongoing Studies at the Jason Russell House

A new hole found near kitchen stairs. This hole was hidden
when new molding was attached to the stairs leading into the
cellar. It can be viewed only by looking along the wall on the
reverse side with a flashlight.
Commonly seen bullet holes shown to all visitors at the JRH fired by British soldiers from kitchen into basement.
A new hole found near kitchen stairs. This hole was hidden when new molding was attached to the stairs leading into the cellar. It can be viewed only by looking along the wall on the reverse side with a flashlight.

New and exciting work is being done at the Jason Russell House thanks to a dedicated group of scholars and professionals. We would like to share what has transpired so far, and alert you to ongoing research. It’s truly hard to believe that there is still information to be found in a 270+ year old house!

Joel Bohy, Director of Arms & Militaria at Bruneau & Co. Auctions contacted Society Director Sara Lundberg in the fall of 2019 with an exciting project – a ballistics study of the Jason Russell House. He has done similar projects at other sites, and in doing so has accumulated an incredible group of historians and archaeologists who have been studying battle damaged sites all over the U.S. We were very excited about the opportunity to find out what more we could learn.

Bohy, along with his friend and colleague Christopher Fox,  Director of Historic Arms & Militaria at Skinner Auctions, paid the Jason Russell House a visit in November of 2019. Most surprisingly, they discovered a lot more bullet strikes than we knew existed. The first new musket ball hole was found within the first ten minutes of their visit, when he carefully peered around with a flashlight standing in the stairway that leads down to the cellar. Most visitors are familiar with the holes that you can see on the stair risers as you look down into the cellar. Standing just inside the landing area, with a flashlight pointed back at the kitchen, Fox found another hole along the door jamb, which had been covered over by replacement casing in the intervening years. Record indicate that the original door was absolutely riddled with holes, but was replaced and given away in the 1880s when the Russell family was selling the house. The Society made an effort to find out where it went based on scant details when they purchased the house in 1923, but came up short. Bohy and Fox are using their network of resources to look for it, and are hopeful that it’s in a public or private collection somewhere.

Bohy and Fox continued their investigation, and found yet another new hole in the exterior wall of the kitchen chamber (room above the kitchen), and to near the window in the attic facing Massachusetts Avenue, and in the reverse side of the stairs leading into the attic. It appears they were fired through the windows from the street below, either as a preventative measure or to target a person shooting out of them. They determined that more formalized study was necessary and arranged a site visit with a cadre of experts who were to attend the Society for Historic Archaeology conference in Boston in mid-January.

The group convened at the site on January 13 to collect precise data using modern technology. The team included representatives from the National Park Service Regional Archaeology Program, Bohy, Fox, and Dr. Douglas D. Scott. Scott is one of the foremost battlefield archaeologists, especially known for using the tools of forensics to aid in his research.

The team examined every hole and strike and measured with calipers to determine the caliber, which can often determine whether the projectile was discharged by a British soldier or provincial. They used metal detectors and a video scope to investigate within the walls. Scott swabbed each hole to detect for lead residue, and the team used ballistics rods and laser lights to determine the trajectory of each musket ball. The data is still being studied by Bohy and Scott, but a few things became clear immediately that may be of interest to those familiar with the Jason Russell House:

  • The ball that struck the woodwork in the parlor is also the same one that caused the damage to the newel post of the stairs. The trajectory for this strike points to the exterior Massachusetts Avenue facing wall just below the window. It is likely that it burst through the clapboard there first, and there was another hole that was later covered.
  • The new hole in the parlor chamber was also the same ball that struck through the interior wall. A laser light analysis of the trajectory led the team to discover yet another bit of damage hiding in plain sight – where the musket ball had skidded against the ceiling in the upper hall.
  • The known hole in the parlor chamber (room above the parlor) is also the same that struck the reverse side of the stairs leading into the attic. This strike could only be examined from within the “secret compartment” our guides often show to visitors. It is likely that the musket ball rattled down within that compartment. There was some hope that it might still be there but were unable to find it.

All of the research is still being analyzed by the team, with plans to present the research with a scholarly paper and presentation at a conference.

Most recently, over May 14 and 15 surveyors from Feldman Surveyors visited to conduct a 3-D laser scan of the grounds and house. This project was arranged by Bohy and Stephen Wilkes, Vice President and Director of 3-D services. The company does two pro bono Historic Preservation jobs per year to give back to the community and help to record historic structures for perpetuity. We are so thankful to be chosen for this service that would be difficult to otherwise afford.

Feldman Surveyors performing a laser scan, May 2020

Other aspects of this project are in the works – thanks to Dr. Meg Watters Wilkes, Archaeologist with the National Park Service and specialist 3-D visualization and remote sensed archaeology, we will be conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey of the house grounds. The last formalized archaeological excavation done on the site was a 1985 effort of Mark Boulding of Boston University. This limited excavation included a series of test pits, and results were somewhat inconclusive. Ground Penetrating Radar, a technology not available in 1985, can further explore what is under the surface in a more extensive way without disruption.

Cross section of external wall with spruce siding on the outside and paneling on the inside. This will be shot at with replica muskets to visualize the results and also be used as a hands-on component in the new exhibition.

Joel Bohy also planning a fun “experimental archaeology” undertaking to examine how damage is incurred in real time. He had a carpenter make mock-ups of walls with external cladding and interior molding to replicate the features of a structure. He also procured an original 18th century shutter that was removed during the remodeling of a historic home in Concord. The plan is to shoot modern replica muskets at each and compare the results to actual damage at the Jason Russell House and battle-damaged items in the collection.

Stay tuned for more exciting content and scholarship.

Thanks to all who have helped us to learn more about the Jason Russell House and this important day in American History.
Joseph Balicki
Mary Jane Runzer Balicki
Joel Bohy
Joel Dukes
Christopher Fox
Dr. Bill Griswold
Dr. Douglas D. Scott
Stephen Wilkes
Dr. Meg Watters Wilkes

10 thoughts on “Ongoing Studies at the Jason Russell House

  1. Will there be an attempt to virtually “relocate” the house back to its original location in order to further study the trajectories of the musket balls and better determine the positions of the men who fired them?

  2. Thank you for your endeavors, My grand parrents were caretakers for a time. My Uncle was born there. Metonymy’s history is so important to our history.

    Gad Bless,

    Daniel B. Kirkwood

  3. Hi Cortney – We actually don’t know for certain if the house was moved and, if so, from where. But the evidence from this examination seems to at least point to the house being at the same orientation on the road. When the trajectory for many of the holes was marked out it pointed right toward current Massachusetts Avenue.

  4. That is so interesting, Daniel! What were their names and what time period where they caretakers?

  5. Growing up in North Cambridge and Arlington I remember that the Russell House was reorientated from facing Mass Ave to the current location.

  6. I grew up in Arlington and remember reading somewhere that when visitor’s came to see the Jason Russell House it was blocked from view on Mass Ave. by several large homes. It was only until those homes were raised that you could once again see the historic home. To my knowledge it was never moved and sits on it’s original stone foundation.

  7. The house has been in its spot at least since the 1880s – if not before. Yes, there were quite a few late 19th century homes that blocked the view completely from Mass Ave and a lot of Jason Street. The Historical Society purchased and tore them down in the 1950s and 60s.

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