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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, February 20, 2009

Digging into Jonathan Armitage

Earlier this month the Boston Globe ran a story about an unexpected discovery at the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston, site of monuments to Samuel Adams, James Otis, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Christopher Seider, and the victims of the Boston Massacre.

Here’s how that discovery was made, on 31 Jan 2009:

a woman on a self-guided tour of the hallowed cemetery in downtown Boston took a fateful step. The ground gave way, and the woman fell hip-deep into a hidden granite stairwell leading down into an unmarked brick crypt.

The woman, who was not injured, accidentally discovered a long-forgotten entrance to a tomb in the city's most famous graveyard . . . The woman’s foot did not crash into a coffin or come close to coming in contact with bones in the hole, which opened up to about 3 feet deep and 18 inches across.

She fell into a stairway that leads into the tomb like a basement bulkhead. The 8-feet-by-12-feet brick crypt remains intact and structurally sound, [Kelly] Thomas [of the Historic Burying Grounds Initiative] said. The stairs leading to it had been covered by a slate slab that appears to have broken some time ago, allowing dirt to pile on the upper steps.
The Globe article goes on to say:
Records at the Massachusetts Historical Society indicate that it might be the grave of Jono. Armitage, who appears to have died in 1738. A Jonathan Armitage was elected as a Boston selectman in 1732 and 1733, city records show, and a Captain Jonathan Armitage served on The Committee of Fortification in 1733.
Armitage was indeed a selectman starting in 1732/33. Back before the British Empire adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the new year began with spring in mid-March. Therefore, Armitage was elected in early March 1732 according to the records of the time, in early March 1733 as we’d divide the years.

He didn’t die in 1738, however, but continued serving until what we’d now call 1740. That year’s town meeting re-elected him again, but he and another man begged off serving. The town then elected Middlecott Cooke and Thomas Hancock, uncle of John, in their places.

Capt. Armitage continued to be active in business. On 24 May 1742, the Boston Post-Boy ran an ad naming him as executor of an estate. Then the 6 May 1751 issue of that newspaper carried this brief notice:
On Monday last died very suddenly Captain Jonathan Armitage, of this Town, Merchant.
His estate was still being administered (meaning he died without a will) as late as December 1759, when Thomas Pelham placed yet another ad in the Post-Boy.

In addition to the tomb, Armitage owned a house in Boston, which the town permitted him to build on 20 Oct 1720 under these terms:
To Jonathan Armitage of Boston to Erect with Timber a Building for a Dwelling House of Forty foot Long eighteen foot wide & eighteen foot studd, on his Land which he lately purchased of Capt. Cyprian Southack commonly called Southacks Square, situate between the Land of Samuel Lynde Esqr. and the Land of Mr Benjamin Fitch, nigh unto Cambridge Street in Boston, the which Building will stand one end thereof twelve feet distant from the sd Mr Fitches Dwelling House which is by far the nearest Building there now standing. On Condition that the sd Jonathan Armitage shall carry up each End of the sd Building with Solid Brick walls.
The brick walls were intended to keep fire from spreading.

(Photo from the Granary Burying Ground above by lumierefl, courtesy of Flickr.)


Rob Velella said...

Fascinating! I'm amazed that I missed a story about a fateful discovery of a secret tomb in a historic cemetery! How did I miss this one?!

Anonymous said...

It was just a short article in the Boston Globe.