Sound Argument

How a noise complaint made Boston history

hornPhoto: Edison National Historic Site

By Gavin Kleespies


here are some things you never think to wonder about. For example, when was the first audio recording used in an American court? This is an interesting question and one that had never occurred to me before. It has an interesting answer, too, one reached by a circuitous process involving such unlikely topics as mass transportation, and, of course (this is, after all, Boston), politics. Turns out, it was in the Superior Court in Boston in 1905 that the phonograph was first used in an American court case.

I came across this because two different people emailed me questions about what looked like railroad tracks that were uncovered underneath the asphalt of Brookline Street in Cambridge. They were curious about what rail tracks were doing on a fairly small byway, and if there had been a railroad there.

The mystery tracks may seem unusual, but aren’t all that surprising. Cambridge and Boston once were crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of rail lines, most of them laid at the end of the 19th century to accommodate horse-drawn railcars. As automobiles became more common, many of these tracks were paved over, but they occasionally turn up when the streets are resurfaced. With a little bit of looking, I found out that the lines on Brookline Street were laid in 1881 by the Charles River Railway and were a meant to connect Central Square to Boston by traveling over what is toady the BU Bridge and along Commonwealth Avenue. This was a contentious time, however, and while some people supported the construction of railways to improve public mobility, others fiercely opposed them. People objected to the noise, the increased traffic, and the fact that tracks were hard on horses who pulled carriages in the warmer months and plows in the colder.

Cambridge granted the Charles River Company the right to lay tracks along Brookline Street, but, on the other side of the bridge, Boston wouldn’t. The company had to take its case to the legislature. In the end, it was given the right to lay tracks to the Boston and Albany Railroad’s station at Cottage Farm.

The Charles River Railway was absorbed by the Cambridge Railroad in 1886 and the Cambridge Railroad combined with the West End Street Railway in 1887, which updated the rail lines from horse drawn to electric, powered by overhead electric lines. Eventually, in 1897, the West End Street Railway was leased to the Boston Elevated Railway, which was a large regional presence that controlled streetcar lines all over Boston, Cambridge, and surrounding communities.

It was this group that ended up in court, faced for the first time by a phonograph. I just happened on an article in the file that described the December 1905 trial. Augustus Loring and others brought suit against the Boston Elevated Railway Company for damages caused by the noise of the elevated street cars to their building, the Albany.

“The use of a phonograph in a court trial to demonstrate sounds and noises was permitted for the first time in the United States by Judge Wait in the fourth jury session of the Superior Court yesterday,” the Boston Herald reported on December 7, 1905. “The instrument has been allowed in evidence in England, but never before has it figured as a demonstrator of sounds in a court room in this country.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, R. M. Morse, defended the use of the phonograph in the case. It was, he said, “one of the most accurate scientific recorders, and I offer it on the same ground upon which photographs are put in evidence. Originally the photograph was in the position now occupied by the phonograph, and I remember well the strenuous opposition which was raised to the admission of the former at one time. The phonograph, as well all know, is a scientific instrument and to my knowledge it has been put in evidence at least once in the English courts, though never before, I think, in the courts of this country.”

To bolster his argument, Morse called to the stand H. C. Forbes, an MIT grad who described how he had recorded the sounds. The phonograph was then place on the table and the horn turned toward the jury. Forbes played the recording and then described “where he was in the building when the record drank in the sounds and how he managed the instrument at the time.”

There’s no record of how the case turned out, but the Albany is still standing. It takes up an entire city block, not far from South Station. At the time of the case it faced Albany Street and was bordered by Lincoln, Kneeland, and Beech streets, although, ironically, today Albany Street has been replaced by on and off ramps for I-93. The Boston Elevated Railway also survived and eventually built the Red Line extension into Cambridge in 1910.

I had no idea a building just a few blocks from South Station was the subject of the first court case in the United States to use a phonograph. But you find unusual things when you start digging through old files.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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