February 25, 2018

Tales from Granary Burying Ground: James Otis and the Lightning Bolt

I love the term "burying ground," don't you? There's something very raw and primitive about it, but at the same time it's kind of charming because no one really uses the term anymore. Modern people inter their dead in cemeteries, not in burying grounds or even graveyards. I can understand why. Cemetery is a more gracious sounding word that masks what happens to the deceased, while burying ground is quite blunt. Yup, this is where we bury them.

The Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street is one of Boston's oldest cemeteries. It was originally founded in 1660, and got its current name in 1737 from a granary that stood next to it. In the 1830s some Bostonians tried to rename it to Franklin Cemetery, after Benjamin Franklin's family who are buried inside the graveyard. The name didn't catch on, though, and we still know it by it's older, blunter, primitive name.

Many famous people have their final resting places within the Granary Burying Ground: patriots, Puritans, mariners, politicians and poets. Some of them, like lawyer James Otis, have strange stories surrounding their lives and deaths.

James Otis's grave on a stormy evening.
James Otis (b. 1725, d. 1783) is probably best known for coining the phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny." It's a phrase many children learn in school while studying the American Revolution. Otis uttered those words during a five-hour (!) speech he made arguing against the "writs of assistance," which were laws that allowed British troops to search any colonist's home without needing a search warrant or even probable cause. Naturally the writs were extremely unpopular in Massachusetts. Otis lost his case agains the writs of assistance but parts of his epic speech were reprinted as a pamphlet and helped rouse ant-British feeling in the colonies.

Surprisingly, Otis had originally been pro-British. He came from a prominent Loyalist family, but he joined the revolutionary cause when his father was denied a promised appointment as Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Perhaps his abrupt transition from Loyalist to Revolutionary helps explain why the British troops despised him so much. In 1769 he got into an argument with several British officers in a coffeehouse. The fight turned physical, and one of the officers struck Otis on the head with a cudgel.

Here comes the strange part of the story. After the attack Otis's mental capacities declined precipitously and he was unable to work further as a lawyer. Some sources say his mental decline began before the fight, while others claim the blow to his head caused it. Whatever the cause, Otis left the Boston area to live at a friend's home in Andover. His sister came to visit often, and whenever she did Otis told her that he wished God would take him from this world with a lightning bolt. I guess he wanted death his to be fast, painless, and just a little dramatic.

James Otis
He got his wish on May 23, 1783. While standing outside the Andover house with some family members, Otis was struck by a bolt of lightning. He died instantly. No one else was injured, and Otis’s body was not burned or damaged in any visible way. Witnesses say the corpse had an expression of calm repose.

Did God hear his wish? Was it just luck? It's hard to say. In Ancient Greece it was considered a holy act to die by lightning, and Otis's contemporaries in Massachusetts seemed to feel the same way. Many years later, in the 19th century, workers who opened his grave discovered the roots of a mighty elm tree growing from his skull. This too was taken as a good omen, as his brain "had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal Flow.”

The elm tree is long gone but you can still visit Otis's grave, which is prominently located in the front of the burying ground near Tremont Street.

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