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!


Burberry Sac said...
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Anonymous said...

“A few years ago, when the building on Park Street now occupied by Messrs. Doll & Richards was altered from a dwelling-house into a store, etc., a portion of the south wall of the burying-ground was pulled down, and another one built deeper for the purpose of giving light into the basement floor of that building. Built into the wall that was removed were several tombstones, that of John Hancock among the number. These were taken out and reverently placed where they could be carted away with old bricks or other rubbish, or scattered about the burying-ground, where some of them can still be seen, broken and defaced, lying flat in the dirt. John Hancock’s may be there somewhere, but not anywhere near his tomb: perhaps it was carted away with the old bricks, etc., or (placed flatwise) used as a part of the foundation of the new wall. In tearing down the old wall, the tomb of John Hancock must have been broken into, as the wall formed one side of it, so there is no proof that even his body remains there. The body was inclosed in a lead coffin: who knows but this may have been converted into water pipes, or used up in various plumbing operations?” (Source: Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, by Edwin M. Bacon, published 1886.)

Anonymous said...

According to the August 4th, 1895 edition of the Boston Globe, the coffin of John Hancock was discovered while getting the site ready for Hancock Memorial Shaft.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the sources! Very helpful.