April 16, 2012
John Hancock's Uneasy Afterlife
It's Patriots' Day here in Massachusetts, which means the Boston Marathon, battle reenactments and a Red Sox game at Fenway. In the spirit of the holiday I'm devoting this week's post to a local patriot: John Hancock.
John Hancock is most famous for his dramatic signature on the Declaration of Independence but his life was notable for many other reasons. Hancock, who was born in Braintree in 1736, was extraordinarily wealthy, hung around with radicals like Sam Adams, and became the first governor of Massachusetts when it became independent from the British.
As befits such an important patriot, Hancock's grave is marked with a large monument in Boston's Granary Burying Ground. There's just one catch though - he might not be in it.
He was definitely interred in the Granary Burying Ground when he died in 1793. The large monument was erected in the 19th century; he was initially buried in a brick tomb marked with a white marble slab.
It's too bad he didn't get the bigger monument right away, though, because it might have deterred the grave robbers. According to legend John Hancock was buried with large rings on both hands. Grave robbers came one night to steal them but had trouble prying them off the corpse's stiff fingers. Afraid of being discovered the robbers quickly cut off his hands and escaped into the night. Poor John Hancock's hands were never found. We can assume the robbers sold the rings.
That's pretty gruesome, but things got even worse for Hancock's body when his tomb was destroyed in 1860s during construction on a Park Street basement. The bricks and marble were carted away with the debris and his coffin, which allegedly was made of lead, was melted down to make pipes. His body simply disappeared.
I wish I could say that John Hancock's ghost haunts Tremont and Park Streets looking for his hands, but it doesn't. He devoted his life to the nation so I guess he doesn't care what happened to his body.
I also wish I could definitively say these stories are true, but I can't. I found references to these stories many places on the web but couldn't find any verification in print. The two Hancock biographies I found at the library end with his death, and don't cover the history of his tomb. A guidebook to the the Granary Burying Ground had disappeared from the reference section. If anyone knows anything about these stories please let me know!
Like so many events associated with our nation's founding I'll have to be satisfied with a mix of legend and history. At least it's interesting!