The North End’s mysterious tunnels hold secrets of the past. PHOTO COURTESY MASSACHUSETTS OFFICE OF TRAVEL AND TOURISM

By Caitlin Fisher

“Can you turn my wheel?”

This was the question a wizened elderly woman, sitting in front of a complicated instrument I later learned was the glass armonica, asked me early Saturday morning. My friends and I were looking for a fun Family and Friends Weekend activity and had decided to search for the rumored North End tunnels. Thus, there we were, stopped in front of Old North Church, a geriatric woman singing in German and spinning small glass disks on an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that required a turning wheel, waiting to see where this week’s ghost story would lead us.

For the subject of a H.P. Lovecraft short story, it was surprisingly difficult to locate an entrance to the rumored tunnels of the North End. As the oldest neighborhood in Boston, it makes perfect sense that Lovecraft would choose the North End as the setting for his story “Pickman’s Model,” a tale about the life of an ostracized Boston artist whose work depicts terrifying, man-eating supernatural creatures that dwell in the shadows of mysterious tunnels in Boston’s Italian neighborhood.

Lovecraft’s narrative is rendered all the more chilling once you learn that he based his story on a real tunnel that supposedly connects Old North Church, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, and several homes along Salem Street.

How did these tunnels get here, you ask? A pirate built them. Legend claims that Thomas Gruchy, an eighteenth-century privateer, used these tunnels to smuggle his bounty into the city without paying taxes. Gruchy was an involved congregational member of Old North Church, and is credited with smuggling the four plaster angels that are still on display in the church through his tunnel system after stealing them from a boat bound for Québec. Gruchy remained an enigmatic figure until his sudden disappearance, leaving his mansion and wealth behind. It is suspected that Gruchy either made his escape from Boston through the tunnels, or else was somehow lost in the city’s subterranean underpass.

Gruchy’s story, unfortunately, seems to end here; all entrances to his tunnels are purportedly sealed, and, with it, the secrets of his Gatsby-esque life of lavish parties and mysteries. Much of his life — including his tunnels — seem to have been forgotten.

His connection to the Old North Church, however, was well-documented — which is how we found ourselves there, talking to two tour guides about mystery tunnels and the ghosts that might lurk in them. One guide confirmed the existence of the Gruchy tunnels in the crypt of the church, declaring that the entrance had been bricked up for years. When I inquired about any paranormal activity in or around the tunnel, she seemed slightly taken aback — because, as it turns out, she had seen an apparition just the night before. She told us how, the previous week, a woman, while on tour of the crypt, had fled upstairs because she had seen a tall, sandy-haired man who “didn’t belong down there.” The tour guide had dismissed this as the ravings of a superstitious old woman — until the previous night, when she and a co-worker had been closing everything down for the night. Alone, down in the crypt, she had turned down the hallway to see a tall, sandy-haired man knock over janitorial supplies before vanishing before her eyes.

Could this have been the spirit of Thomas Gruchy? Maybe. A visit down to the crypt is simultaneously unsettling and confusing, as it resembles more the basement of an old hotel or school than a church crypt, an eclectic mix of cleaning supplies and graves built into the walls. And the supposed entrance to the Gruchy tunnels was as innocuous and vaguely sinister as the rest of the crypt: a bricked-over half-circle, just big enough for a grown man to crouch in.

Did our new tour guide friend believe the ghost of the Old North Church to be Gruchy? She found it as likely as any of the many other congregationalists buried on site. A visit to the Clough House, which sits kitty-corner to the church and which houses a recreated print shop, lended the theory that the sandy-haired man was Ebenezer Clough, a bricklayer whose ghost is said to haunt the Clough House, which he built in the late seventeenth century. Clough also laid the foundation for the Old North Church, which means that he, too, could have been the apparition in the crypt.

There definitely is something devilishly Lovecraftian in the spirit of a roguish privateer haunting one of Boston’s biggest tourist traps.