In several of his stories H.P. Lovecraft mentions Bolton, Massachusetts, a small town located about twelve miles west of Boston. Bolton was then remote, and had not yet become a commuter dormitory for Boston. Here are the instances of Lovecraft’s uses of Bolton:
“The manager of a circus at the neighbouring town of Bolton was questioned, but he swore that no beast had at any time escaped…” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”). This mention of a circus later prompted the game-story “Freakshow” in the Call of Cthulhu RPG game book Tales of the Miskatonic Valley (1991) in which… “investigators follow the trail of a B-grade circus and its new helpless but monstrous recruit”.
“In college, and during our early practice together in the factory town of Bolton, my attitude toward him had been largely one of fascinated…” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”).
“It was not easy to find a good opening for two doctors in company, but finally the influence of the university secured us a practice in Bolton — a factory town near Arkham, the seat of the college. The Bolton Worsted Mills are the largest in the Miskatonic Valley” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”).
“In Bolton the prevailing spirit of Puritanism had outlawed the sport of boxing — with the usual result. Surreptitious and ill-conducted bouts among the mill-workers were common” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”).
“Bolton had a surprisingly good police force for so small a town” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”).
“Familiarity had dulled them, and what they could not see was glimpsed by a timid woodmill salesman from Bolton who drove by one night in ignorance of the country legends.” (“The Colour out of Space”).
“My eldest cat, “Nigger-Man”, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts” (“The Rats in the Walls”).
Yet there appears to be no known biographical connection of the small town with Lovecraft’s life. My perusal of the book History of Bolton 1738-1938 suggests that it was not a factory town, and also that it probably had no great claims on the attentions of an antiquarian tourist like Lovecraft. It did have many woodmills and a few rare minerals, the latter perhaps making it a place known to Morton of the Lovecraft circle. But previous scholars have been stumped…
“Lovecraft mentions the town of Bolton, Massachusetts, in several of his stories; the reason, if any, is something of a mystery” (Donald R. Burleson, 1983)
“What prompted Lovecraft’s use of Bolton remains unknown.” (Peter H. Cannon, 1989)
There appear to be three faint possibilities, other than the minerals:
1) The astronomer Samuel Stearns (1741-1810) was born at Bolton, Mass….
“He was a physician and astronomer of Worcester, New York City, and of Brattleboro [Vermont]. He was the author of Tour to London and Paris; Mystery of Animal Magnetism; The American Oracle; and The American Herbal or Materia Medica“.
Stearns issued an annual The North-American’s almanack, and Lovecraft was a collector of early almanacs. Stearns was a British patriot, like Lovecraft (and was framed for several crimes as a result, and forced to flee to Britain). He returned to America and died in Brattleboro, Vermont, a place which Lovecraft knew well. Stearns’s Tour to London and Paris is an account of visiting Paris in the 18th century (the book has little to say on London) and might have interested Lovecraft, although it was not found in Lovecraft’s library at his death.
2) The town of Bolton was the boyhood town of William Ellery Leonard (1876-1944), a poet and author who taught at the University of Wisconsin’s Dept. of English, and who… “struggled to stave off madness through art”. He wrote eloquently about the town of Bolton in his major psychological autobiography The Locomotive-God (written summer of 1926, published 1928). This book was, however, published well after the use of Bolton by Lovecraft (in “Herbert West” written 1921-22; “Rats” 1923; and “Colour” 1927).
Could Lovecraft and Leonard have corresponded before 1928? There is no evidence that they did. But, like Lovecraft, Leonard wrote antiquated classic poetry, and had a number of bizarre phobias and psychological ailments. Leonard is known to have written a praising review of Frank Belknap Long’s obscure first collection A Man from Genoa and Other Poems (1926), but other than that I can find no linkage between Leonard and the Lovecraft circle. (He did graduate from Harvard 1899, but that probably wouldn’t have given him a connection to Morton — who graduated there in 1892).
Is there a very slim chance that Leonard’s remarkable autobiography (1) might have been one of the inspirations for the character of the English literature professor Albert N. Wilmarth in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)? For more on Leonard, see the just-published biography by Neale Reinitz, William Ellery Leonard: The Professor and the Locomotive-God, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
3) Five miles to the west of Bolton lies the enormous Wachusett Reservoir (1895-1908). A history of this reservoir is to be found in: Eamon McCarthy Earls, Wachusett: How Boston’s 19th Century Quest for Water Changed Four Towns and a Way of Life, Via Appia Press.
“one of the largest civil engineering feats in New England history” … “The $11 million project drew more than 4,000 immigrant workers from Italy, Hungary and Finland, and a group of African-Americans from Virginia” … “the unskilled workers settled here” … “Building the reservoir meant removing 3,816 bodies from a cemetery on the site in Clinton.”
This last fact may have meant that Bolton suggested itself as a setting for its early use by Lovecraft, in “Herbert West”, where the theme is of course grave-robbing and corpse stealing. But then, why not use Clinton itself?
Note 1: “Jim Stephens, in The Journey Home: Wisconsin Literature Through Four Centuries (1989, North Country Press), likens the events in The Locomotive-God to “the feeling of The Fall of the House of Usher brought to life.” — from James P. Roberts, Famous Wisconsin Authors.