Visiting Haunted Boston Pt 1: The Oldest Cemeteries (plus a flood, a treasure and a tiny, tiny house)

Happy 4th of July! To celebrate the holiday, I thought I’d take a look back at a recent trip to Boston and show ya the highlights, starting with its oldest cemeteries and the history and hauntings associated with each. For a person born in the Chicago-area, who then lived in Los Angeles, these are some tremendously old cemeteries compared to what I’m used to. How old? Well, the first cemetery on this list, The Granary Burying Grounds, contains the mortal remains of Ben Franklin’s PARENTS! Also, established in 1660, it isn’t the oldest cemetery in Boston, it’s the THIRD oldest! There will be an accompanying video for this post eventually and there will be more Boston coverage in the near future. Note: You should be able to click on any image for a larger, zoomed-in view.

Granary Burying Ground, est 1660

Let’s start out with one of Boston’s favorite sons.  Though this article will touch on a number of iconic and legendary figures, something about Paul ‘the midnight rider’ Revere’s connection to Boston is major point of civic pride in Boston.  Interred at the Granary Burying Grounds, Revere requested a very modest grave marker, simply reading “Revere’s Tomb,” omitting his birth & death dates (1735-1818) and even his first name.  Perhaps worried that the hero’s modesty would lead to his grave being forgotten, the city also erected a larger monument to him in the cemetery as well.  Something else that would make sure his grave isn’t forgotten: Revere’s ghost is seen in the cemetery, still on horseback.  I would imagine that anyone who saw a phantom horse with one of the Revolution’s most celebrated heroes aboard would forever remember where Paul Revere is buried.

The Granary Burying Grounds, named after a granary building that formerly stood near the cemetery, is virtually a museum to the start of the American Revolution.

As mentioned, Paul Revere is not the only iconic individual buried here.  Among its inhabitants, this cemetery also includes Samuel Adams, Samuel  Sewall (a Salem Witch Trials judge), Mother Goose (actual name Mary Goose, and it’s hotly debated if she actually was the true namesake for the children’s storyteller), the victims of the Botton Massacre (pictured right, with), Christopher Seider, an 11-year-old murder victim, considered to be the first death in the American Revolution and most of John Hancock.

The fact that I said “most” of John Hancock is buried here is also the reason John Hancock is said to haunt these grounds.  It’s not at all uncommon for older tombs to be moved as cemeteries grow or need to be reorganized, however, you’d think such an iconic signer of the Declaration of Independence would be above that.  Not the cast, apparently, as, according to the Ghosts & Graveyards tours we took (we will give a more complete and positive review of this company in a future article), Hancock’s body was moved to accommodate the construction of a building, possibly the bordering Park Street Church, built in 1809.  It was reported that Hancock was buried in so much jewelry that his skeleton would’ve resembled that of One-Eyed Willie from the movie Goonies, complete with a hand full of rings.  An opportunistic grave robber took advantage of Hancock’s tomb being accessible and, either due to finding it difficult to remove the rings, or just trying to do the job quickly, Hancock’s entire skeletal hand was stolen.

A quick note on the attitude of death and funerary art at this time
Americans at this time period did not shy away from death imagery on headstones in the mid 1600s.  Today you might see a tree trunk to represent a life cut short or a weeping willow to express general sadness.  In this headstones you see more skulls and bones than anything else, like the example below.

Oddly details skull and cross bone carving on a Granary headstone.

Part of the reason is that the Puritans were against using religious imagery on headstones (even religious appreciation was too much for them?).  Also, just look at the name of this location.  While we all know that a cemetery is, there’s little left to the imagination when you call a place a “burying ground.”

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, est 1659

Just one year older than Granary and named after a local shoemaker, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is very different than the other sites on this list.  Instead of being sandwiched between buildings in a bustling downtown commercial area of Boston, Copp’s Hill is in a quiet residential area overlooking the Charles River.

On top of Copp’s Hill, looking north, note the Charles River, obscured by the trees on the right.

Below, you’ll see a triple headstone, possibly the only one in Boston.  A single piece of stone, carved to represent three people.  Not only is the stone unique in that aspect, but also in that it belongs to a lighthouse keeper in life and a ghost in the afterlife.  George Worthylake, his wife and daughter all drown when their rowboat capsized on the way to service a lighthouse called the Boston Light (the oldest lighthouse in America).

Strangely enough, the next keeper to oversee that lighthouse also drown and his ghost is reported at the Boston Light still too.  Check out a more in-depth write-up of this story here.

If you ever visit these historic cemeteries, be sure to look for markers like the one above (and also at the Paul Revere tomb), indicating that this person participated in the Boston Tea Party. As of this writing, there are 89 placed markers with the goal to have all 125 participants recognized by the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 2023.

Legend has it that the buildings surrounding Copp’s Hill Burying Grounds utilized old headstones when making their foundations.  Are the encroaching buildings perhaps even buried on top of older, forgotten parts of the cemetery?  If so, it’s surely recipe for hauntings in the cemetery and the buildings surrounding the ‘ol burying ground.

While I did already mention that a judge from the Salem Witch Trials is buried at Granary Burying Grounds, it’s perhaps the most iconic judge from that event who is buried here.  A year after the witch trials, and perhaps already starting to feel some backlash against the proceedings, Cotton Mather wrote a pamphlet titled “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” which served to justify the actions he and other participated in, in Salem.  It was deemed controversial even it its day.  Oddly enough, within 15 years Mather was fascinated by the new era of science and discovery (while still holding his Puritanical beliefs, of course – he was instrumental in the founding of Yale because Harvard was too liberal in his family’s opinion).  His interest in science lead to creating early smallpox vaccines. I do have to wonder if his flawed reasoning in Salem lead to his desire to take science more seriously.

In the vast history of his site, it was also used as a campground for British Troops during the Revolutionary War.  One headstone in particular was used as target practice.  That grave belonged to Capt. Daniel Malcolm, who enjoyed smuggling in order to avoid paying a tax to the British on goods.  Its epitaph reads, “A true son of Liberty, A friend of the Publick, An enemy to oppression, And one of the foremost in opposing the Revenue Acts on America.  True, the scars on his headstone live on, but Mr. Malcolm seems to be resting easy as there is no more tax paid to King George.

Detail of some of the marks left by British gunfire on Capt. Daniel Malcolm’s gravestone in Copp’s Hill.

PS: Treasure Hunt and a strange flood

Just down the hill, between the Charles River and the cemetery is this nice, new ball field, but, wow, there’s a lot of history here.  First, if you are a fan of Josh Gates and Expedition Unknown, you’ll know that three of their episodes revolve around a 1982 nation-wide treasure hunt book called “The Secret.”  In this treasure hunt, people are given a dozen poems and paintings that point you in the direction to a dozen keys that will unlock boxes that hold a precious stone.  It’s not a given which poem is associated with which painting and what cities any of them belong to.  To add to the intrigue, the only person who knows the answers to the puzzle, the author, Byron Preiss, died in a car accident in 2005.  So, we’re all on our own now.  While it seems people may be getting closer to solving puzzles in Milwaukee and San Francisco, the only found items so far have been in Chicago and Cleveland.

Until Boston’s hidden treasure was found right here while this area was being excavated!  The treasure hunters had their eye on this area and, fortunately, the construction crew already hard at work on the park agreed to lend a hand.  Expedition Unknown was on hand for the discovery.

Other than the fact the are is beautiful and scenic, why might the author have picked this exact location for the Boston treasure?  One thing that oddly never gets mentioned when telling this story is that this was ground zero for the famous Boston molasses tragedy.  In the days leading up to prohibition, the writing was on the wall that all types of booze would become illegal.  So, those in the business were doing everything they could to produce and sell the stuff while they could.  If you want to make rum, you’ll be using molasses, but molasses can also ferment to create ethanol, which can be used in any number of hard liquors.

On January 15, 1919 a 50 foot tall molasses tank containing 2.3 million gallons of hot molasses ruptured, sending a thick 25 foot wave into the surrounding neighborhood at 35 miles per hour.

“So what? A big wave hits, knocks some people over and you get on with your day,” one might think.  Well, the density of molasses is 1.4 times that of water, so the impact of that wave is much greater than you’d experience with water.  Add to that the heat and stickiness and you do have a recipe for a much bigger disaster.  People that were in proximity suffered what must have been an agonizing death, as if they were caught in a human-sized glue trap.  21 people were killed, buildings were flattened and more sturdy structures were knocked from their foundations, the elevated train tracks nearby totally destroyed.

It’s said that just about all of Boston eventually had a sticky surface for years after and the smell of molasses continued in Boston’s North End on hot summer days for decades.  One would think that a residual haunting of the sound of the tank explosion or any number of hauntings associated with the victims would plague this neighborhood, but I have so far not heard of any hauntings connected to the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.

King’s Chapel Burial Ground, est 1630

Before anything else, just check out this info posted at the front gates of the cemetery:

Yes, 1630 – This cemetery was around for a full 146 years before America was its own entity. And yes, an actual passenger from the Mayflower (and the first European woman to set foot on American soil) is buried here – truly the birth of America includes this cemetery.

Back to overt death symbolism in gravestones. Today we may see a tree trunk to symbolize a life “cut shot” or a weeping willow to conjure a solemn feeling. In both of the headstones from King’s Chapel below, an hour glass (being out of time) is evident. To the right it’s an hour glass with wings (hey, time does fly, right?), while to the left, we literally see a winged angel of death, its sickle propped up in the background, holding an hour glass in its lefthand while using its right hand to snuff out the light or flame of life. There was no sugar-coating death in this era.

There is something else interesting going on in Elizabeth Pain‘s headstone to the right. Within a shield or family crest, you see two lions on the left side, but on the right side you see half of a large letter A. Is is believed that Elizabeth Pain’s life was a large inspiration for the 1850 book “The Scarlet Letter.” In life, she had a child out of wedlock who died. While she was found not guilty of murder, she was found guilty of negligence.

King’s Chapel doesn’t have any overt ghost stories, however, of the ~1,000 burials here, there are fewer than 600 remaining gravestones, which could be part of the reason for the common uneasy feelings of being watched or shadowy figures and ghost lights seen here (the same is true of the Granary Burial Grounds.

On a Lighter Note…

The Thinest House in Boston! This crazy ‘Spite House’ (Yup, a spite house, right out of Larry David/Curb Your Enthusiasm’s playbook) is located just across the street from Copp’s Burying Ground.

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