Living in an area as rich in history as New England comes with a unique challenge: sorting through a multitude of oversimplifications, half-truths, and outright myths about the things that happened here all those years ago.

"We like a story that's easy to follow,” said public historian Rachel Hoyle, programs coordinator at the historic Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury. “We can tell our kids about it. We can pass it on. It's easier. And in some cases, it's more convenient to just tell these smaller stories that connect to a broader theme."

And the challenge of separating what really happened from what is said to have happened can be especially difficult when it comes to something as clandestine as the Underground Railroad.

John Goldthwait lives in a historic house in Hanover, Massachusetts, and he has long wondered whether a story he's been told about his unique chimney is true. And he reached out the Curiosty Desk for help.

"We've heard that our chimneys, which are painted white with a black top, were a signal that this was part of the Underground Railroad. Our house dates from 1815," he wrote in an email. "Is this true or urban legend?"

"I've been to historic houses. They'll say, 'Oh, we have a lot of secret passages. That was so enslaved people could hide or so that enslaved people could keep their personal belongings or stay out of sight,'" said Hoyle. "And in some cases, we do have documented evidence of that. In a lot of cases, we don’t."

Is Goldthwait’s white chimney a tangible connection to a deeply consequential chapter of American history, or just an interesting architectural feature that has inspired a tall tale? To help answer that, I met up with independent historian L'Merchie Frazier in Boston’s Beacon Hill.

"Beacon Hill ... is actually one of the places in the country that has the most Underground Railroad spots and sites in it because of its architecture and its strategic location," said Frazier.

The Underground Railroad is a term used to refer to the individuals who sought freedom from enslavement, known as freedom seekers, and those who assisted along the way, utilizing a network of routes and safehouses. It was most active in the early- to mid-19th century, when Beacon Hill was home to a large, thriving, free Black community.

"Beacon Hill becomes this very strategic community," said Frazier. "There are alleyways where people could be protected. There are floors and basements where you cannot see from the street level what's going on."

While slavery had, by then, been outlawed here in Massachusetts, action by the U.S. Congress meant that even this free state was not always so free for Black people.

"The first Fugitive Slave Act does not guarantee the safety of anyone who has been formally enslaved. In fact, they can be returned if they're found out to be in a free state," explained Frazier.

Frazier said all kinds of current mythology exist around the Underground Railroad. But most stories about hiding places or secret codes — like maps sewn into quilts — are almostly certainly untrue.

"The lore of what we see today gives us many chances to think about it in very mythical ways and fantasize or romanticize this. But it was a very serious undertaking," she said. "We have to really look at the very instrumental places and methods and strategies that were utilized."

And many of those real and instrumental places still exist thoughout the Beacon Hill neighborhood today. At 66 Phillips St. stands the former home of businesman and community leader Lewis Hayden.

"As a formerly enslaved man from Kentucky who was born around 1811, he himself had witnessed the horrors of slavery and was so determined to help and assist those who had experienced slavery and needed their freedom," said Frazier.

Here, Hayden and his wife, Harriet, ran a boarding house that, whatever its chimney looked like, also served as an important safe house where scores of freedom seekers that we know of took refuge at some point.

"Harriet Beecher Stowe [author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'] came here to interview people who were actually housed in Hayden's home. And at that time, she reports in that book that there were 13 people who were being housed here at once," Frazier said.

Just a few blocks away, on the corner of Phillips and Irving streets stands a reminder that, as Frazier put it, "freedom wasn't free."

A small plaque is the only hint that this building was once a popular gaming house owned by entrepreneur John Coburn, one of the many Black leaders who provided crucial funds to finance the work of the Underground Railroad.

"There were those who were seeking entertainment, gameplay, and saw an opportunity to be together and have camaraderie," said Frazier. "At the same time, those funds were being collected as they played these games, as they enjoyed themselves, there were funds set aside from that money for abolition, for the cause of abolition and the care of others."

On Pickney Street is the former home of John J. Smith, whose barber shop was a critical meeting place for community organizers and abolitionists. You can still walk some of the inconspicuous pathways, like Holmes Alley, which once allowed self-liberated individuals to travel discreetly, out of view from so-called slave catchers. And on Joy Street is the African Meeting House, considered today the oldest extant Black church in America. At the time, this was an indepsensible community gathering space, where luminaries including Maria Stewart and Frederick Douglass once spoke eloquently in favor of abolition.

But in this neighborhood so rich in 19th century history, there is one thing that is actually pretty hard to see from street level: a chimney. And while they would certainly be more visible at homes in places like Hanover, where Goldthwiat lives, Frazier says the idea that a white chimney was a signal is almost certainly just another Underground Railroad myth.

"We have no evidence that that was a code for seeking refuge in a particular home," said Frazier.

In fact, Rachel Hoyle at the Shirley-Eustis House explained that the notion that these white chimneys are connected to the Underground Railroad isn't the only myth they've been associated with.

"Sometimes those types of white chimneys with the little black on the top are called 'loyalist chimneys,' because it was also thought that, in the 18th century, that that denoted a home where a loyalist lived," she said.

To clarify, that's loyal to England during the Revolutionary War-era, and it is also untrue.

In reality, Hoyle said the historical record offers a much more mundane explanation. These chimneys were white thanks to a particular kind of paint that prevented moisture. As for the black trimming, there isn't the same kind of documentation, but Hoyle says it was most likely an aesthetic choice.

"The black top is because you have a lot of soot and other smoke and stuff coming out of the top of the chimney," she said. "So if you painted the whole thing white, it's going to look horrible in a few months."

Hoyle says that, in general, historical myths can range from harmless to dangerous. But they also offer us an opportunity.

"Just fact check some of these myths before you share them with a ton of people," she said. "In some cases, you know, you may have to get a little deeper into it ... which I know is a bit daunting, but if you do this deeper research ... the probability you're going to find something very enlightening and enriching is very high."

Especially in an area as steeped in history — and myth — as ours.

"I think that there is something about actually encountering the authentic sites of what leads to American freedom, said Frazier. "Trace the abolitionist steps in a place like Beacon Hill. Take a map, be courageous about looking at the spots as they're delineated and learn more, even do your own research. As long as we continue the quest of understanding more about what has passed, we can understand more about where we're going."