In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn published his book Antiquitates Americanae. In it the Danish historian most known for his work translating Old Norse literature, suggested a location for Vinland. What many scholars assumed to be only a land of legend, Rafn placed in North America. And at least one North American was listening.
In fact, Harvard professor and wealthy inventor of double-acting baking soda, Eben Norton Horsford, became obsessed with the notion. This brilliant chemist turned less brilliant amateur archaeologist confidently declared his discovery of the onetime foundation of a home belonging to Leif Erikson. Conveniently, the foundation stones were discovered along the banks of the Charles River, not far from Horsford’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home.
Other, more established archaeologists, determined that the alleged Viking foundation stone was more likely a pile of relatively insignificant rocks. But that didn’t stop Horsford from producing a great many books about the huge amounts of evidence he found made up of a Viking settlement in the Boston area that predated Christopher Columbus by about five hundred years.
At least a few North Americans listened to him, too. That’s why, since 1887, there has been a statue of a young, thrusting Leif Erikson on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings ever visited Beantown.
Legitimate archaeological evidence did finally surface in Newfoundland in 1960, which places Vikings in North America a good 500 years before Christopher Columbus made the trip. And since 1964, the sitting US President has issued an annual proclamation, calling for the October 10th observation of Leif Erikson Day.
But despite all that, I have to admit, I never knew there was an alleged Viking connection to Boston. That little tidbit of fabricated historical fun I picked up from middle grade author Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson fame. As the mother of two voracious middle grade readers who both gravitate toward the fantasy genre, I have become a big fan of Mr. Riordan’s work, which playfully borrows from the world’s great mythological stories and introduces a new generation of thoroughly modern young heroes.
One of his newest series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is set in Boston, where the hero, who dies at the beginning of the book only to find himself in Valhalla, discovers that Boston is a stronghold of Norse Mythology, which he probably should have always known because of that statue of the man with the leather bra.
This summer, as part of a crazy road trip adventure, my family and I spent about half a day in downtown Boston. The first thing my oldest son wanted to do was to set out to see if we could find the “dude in the metal bra.” And since the request was inspired by literature, what could we do? Of course, we found him!
Then in a moment of pure inspiration, I got famous. I decided to tweet a picture of the statue to Rick Riordan. My buddy Rick (who I happen to know reads my blog whenever he’s not busy writing a gazillion books, which, just to be clear, is never), liked and retweeted my tweet. And soon some of his followers (he has just a few more than me), also liked and retweeted my tweet. Even now, several months later, I get a new notification every week or so that someone else has found and liked my tweet of discovering Leif Erikson discovering Boston in a metal bra. It’s gotten more action than anything else I’ve ever sent out into the Twittersphere, and the activity stats tell me that it’s been seen by around 45,000 tweeps.
So the naysayers may tell you that the Vikings never settled in Boston, but I know better, because I’ve seen the proof. Thanks to the wonders of instant Internet fame, so have nearly 45,000 of my closest friends.
And that’s the almost sort of true story of how Leif Erikson and I became famous discoverers in Boston.