Back in 1814, Matt Boire's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, a decisive repulsion of British forces toward the end of the War of 1812. Boire himself has lived in Plattsburgh all his life, part of the eighth generation of his family to do so. His roots there are deep.
As the founder, sole full-time employee and chief tour guide of the Greater Adirondack Ghost and Tour Company, Boire, 32, has found an ideal outlet for his passion for his city's history. Dressed in a period costume that includes a stovepipe hat and some impressive sideburns, Boire leads tours through his town's historic sites, with an emphasis on the grisly and ostensibly supernatural.
When the occasion calls for it, he tells his customers about his own family history, which is in many ways inseparable from that of his hometown. "People find it really interesting to be on a tour with somebody whose ancestor was right there," Boire says. "It makes it come alive, like a living connection to that past. It's one thing to read about events, but they're kind of static. But when you bring people out to a place [and tell them], 'My ancestor was here 200 years ago,' you can see their expression change. It makes it real."
For Boire — who pronounces his name "Bware," reflecting the area's French Canadian heritage — researching and promoting Plattsburgh history is "a lifelong project." He says that, as a kid, he'd routinely pick up old books and postcards at tag sales, not really knowing why he was drawn to them. Now, years later, he's found a way to share those treasures, posting a new historical photo every day on his popular Facebook page.
The tour company, which Boire runs with his girlfriend, Wendy Cribb, offers the photos as a kind of free historical outreach program. It's easy to discern Boire's enthusiasm for the subject of local history by reading his exclamation-point-peppered posts, but he's even more spirited when leading his ghost tours.
Curious tourists can take "haunted" tours of cities all over the country, from sites steeped in bloody history and the occult (e.g., New Orleans) to places that wouldn't seem to have much of an affiliation with the supernatural, such as sunny San Diego. Depending on the location and proclivities of the guides, these tours can tend toward the drily historical or the spooky and macabre.
Boire has been leading historical-supernatural tours around Plattsburgh since 2011, after having enjoyed similar attractions in both Gettysburg and St. Augustine, Fla. "I didn't see any reason why it couldn't be done [in Plattsburgh]," he says. His first tour, which occurred close to Halloween, was such a success that Boire soon added more events.
The company now offers four regular tours from April through November, as well as private tours. Each tour, whether of Plattsburgh's former Air Force base or of the State University of New York's Plattsburgh campus, emphasizes both local history and supernatural lore. "You can't have one without the other," says Boire, who admits to a belief in ghosts.
Aptly, he calls his tours "haunted history." "They incorporate the paranormal," he says, "but also the kind of slightly dark aspects of the area's history: murders and hangings and the sinister people who have lived here from time to time."
One such sinister fellow was Dr. William Beaumont, a surgeon whose research into digestion earned him the moniker "Father of Gastric Physiology." More ignominiously, he's the namesake of Dr. Beaumont's Tour of Terror, one of the company's regular events.
Beaumont, who performed surgery for the U.S. Army in Plattsburgh during and after the War of 1812, earned his macabre reputation for his experiments with an unfortunate soldier named Alexis St. Martin. Accidentally shot in the abdomen, St. Martin managed to survive, but lived the rest of his life with an incompletely healed hole connecting his stomach with the outside world. Beaumont, knowing a medically unethical opportunity when he saw one, used St. Martin as a living opportunity to research human digestion. While his findings are still central to that field, Beaumont's research methods were questionable at best.
In a recent phone conversation with Seven Days, Boire can barely contain his enthusiasm when recounting the story of Beaumont. More interesting to him than the doctor's own story, though, is his significance to the history of Plattsburgh, a town in which a downtown street and a college research facility, among other things, are named for Beaumont.
Learning about the doctor's shady experiments "is definitely an eye-opener for people, even people who've lived in Plattsburgh all their lives ... who think maybe nothing ever really happened in little old Plattsburgh," says Boire. "I always enjoy seeing people light up when they make those connections."
Indeed, he says, "One of the things we play up on the tour is 'hidden history,' history hidden in plain sight."
Boire makes good on that claim. As he leads a group of about a dozen (including two Seven Days reporters) through downtown Plattsburgh on a recent evening, he proves himself an enthusiastic and professional showman. Clad not only in the stovepipe hat but a checked vest and double-breasted tailcoat, Boire brandishes a lantern in one hand and a walking stick in the other, attracting delighted stares from passersby.
When he recounts tales of the Battle of Plattsburgh, the walking stick becomes a rifle. When he relates the story of a serial killer who, according to legend, once lurked in the city's alleys, his voice gets low and wavery as he waggles his fingers in the mock-menacing manner of 1960s TV horror-show hosts. He earns many an admiring "wow" with his tales.
On the hour-and-a-half tour, which winds through downtown and a few nearby neighborhoods, stories about Beaumont's medical exploits serve as a running theme. Here is the site of "the good doctor's" former office, where he conducted his grisly experiments; these are the very streets on which he walked. Though Boire makes mention of one or two allegedly haunted houses, the tour is much more concerned with real history than with supernatural tales. Boire is nothing so much as a performer of public history and an ambassador ofPlattsburgh's past. He has a real talent and an evident love for his subject.
On one occasion, that keenness for history got Boire into fairly serious trouble. Six years ago, he served 90 days in prison for stealing from New York's Clinton County Historical Association several Civil War-era military artifacts, which he then either sold or attempted to sell.
Boire now prefers not to speak of the incident, for which he has duly served time, done community service work, and paid both restitution and a fine. In a Plattsburgh Press Republican article from 2008, Boire remarks — somewhat uncannily, given his current profession — that the incident "haunts [him] every day."
Boire acknowledges the incident today with a discomfort that suggests he no longer sees himself as the kind of person who would commit such an act. And his tours certainly affirm his commitment to "giving back" to his community by sharing his love for local history. He is ebullient and sincere about bringing his city's history to life.
Jim Kobak, from nearby Peru, N.Y., who's all smiles during the evening tour, can attest to that. Kobak says that, though he's been to Plattsburgh "many, many times" before, this is his first historical tour of the city — and he's eagerly soaking up the information. "I had no idea of the old buildings' involvement in the War of 1812," Kobak says, "so [the tour] was very informative. It gave me a whole new perspective on the history of this city ... Plattsburgh is a beautiful town, and this enhances it."