J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Samuel Adams and the Massacre Victims’ Grave

Here’s another myth about the Boston Massacre that seems to have arisen recently.

Did Samuel Adams have the Massacre victims’ bodies placed in his family tomb?

The monuments in the Granary Burying-Ground to Samuel Adams and to the victims of the Boston Massacre (and Christopher Seider) are near each other. That seems to have given rise to the idea that they mark the same tomb. The Encyclopedia of the Veteran in America (2009) says that “the five victims of the Boston Massacre are buried (in a circle around Adams).” Boston’s Freedom Trail (2011), by Cindi D. Pietrzyk, states that Adams asked for the Massacre victims to be buried in his tomb, as does this webpage from the Freedom Trail.

I don’t think there’s any contemporaneous evidence for either story. In its report on the funeral for the first four Massacre victims to die, the Boston Gazette of 12 Mar 1770 stated that “The Bodies were deposited in one Vault in the middle Burying-Ground.” The Massachusetts Spy for 7 Mar 1771 described a commemoration of the Massacre at Paul Revere’s house in the North End, including a picture of:
the bust of young Seider; and on the front of the pedestal, the names of the five persons murdered by the soldiery on the fifth of March, and all interred in the same grave with him.
There was no mention of Adams in such accounts, nor a mention of the Massacre victims’ bodies when Adams died in 1803.

Many of us like to imagine bodies lying in peace forever, but in fact there’s been a lot of activity in the city burying-grounds. All seven bodies in question have been moved at least once. In 1856 James S. Loring read a paper to the New England Historic Genealogical Society about Adams’s remains, later quoted in the Historical Magazine:
We have the authority of Samuel Adams Wells, his grandson—recorded among the notes to “Consolations of Solicitude,” a collection of poems written by John W. Randall, Esq., for stating that his remains are buried in the Checkley tomb. His first wife was of this family. His bones have been gathered by his grandson into a box, and deposited in a corner of the vault. It is a singular coincidence that this tomb fronts the tomb where it is supposed lie the remains of the victims of the Boston massacre. . . . It appears that the patriotic Samuel Adams was so absorbed in the mighty interests of his country, that he never provided an inch of earth for the interment of his own remains when he should come to die.
Richard Checkley bought that tomb for his family in 1737, five years before his death. It had the Checkley name on the front, providing a landmark for researchers; it was never marked with Adams’s name.

Loring had more to say in The Hundred Boston Orators, a collection of biographical detail and lore reprinted many times in the mid-1800s:
In regard to the location of the site where the victims of the Boston massacre were deposited, the editor has the evidence of the venerable Col. Joseph May, a warden of King’s Chapel, possessing great integrity and a tenacious memory, stated previous to his decease in 1841, and who witnessed their interment, being then ten years of age, and a scholar in the public Latin school. Pointing to the spot which is the site of a tomb once owned by the city, in the rear of the tomb of Deacon Richard Checkley, an apothecary, Col. May stated that was the place where he saw them interred. A beautiful larch-tree flourishes at the side of the city tomb, which is opposite Montgomery-place.

When, during the mayoralty of Jonathan Chapman, an iron fence was erected on the Granary cemetery, in the month of June, 1840, an excavation was made over this spot, for the erection of this city tomb, human bones, and a skull with a bullet-hole perforated through it, were discovered, which probably were remains of these victims; and we have the evidence of the late Martin Smith, sexton of King’s Chapel church, that he assisted in throwing the skull and other bones into the earth near the larch-tree.
One could read the phrase “in the rear of the tomb of Deacon Richard Checkley” to mean the Massacre victims were put in the rear of that vault. But the first quote from Loring shows that he was referring to two adjoining tombs, one behind the other.

Furthermore, the Checkley tomb was opened again in 1898, as reported by the Sons of the American Revolution. It was found to be “perfectly intact,” which could not have been the case if the Massacre victims’ bodies had been excavated from it almost sixty years earlier.

It was around that turn of the century that the Sons of the American Revolution installed the large stones that mark the two burial sites today. The fact that they’re so close to each other is probably just coincidence. As to whether anything of the seven men and boys is left at those spots, that’s another question.

[The photograph above, via TripAdvisor, shows the two stone markers today.]

1 comment:

Charles Bahne said...

The Checkley tomb marker was still there in 1984, when I photographed it, but it has since disappeared. Like the other tomb markers along Tremont Street, it was flush in the ground, adjacent to the granite retaining wall that was erected in the early 1800s. The city widened the nearby path a couple of years ago, and I was hoping that they would find the Checkley marker buried under a few inches of dirt; but there was no sign of it when the area was excavated.