Boston’s history is full of Revolutionary War heroes. Sam Adams and Paul Revere both lived here and their graves in the Old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street are popular tourist attractions.
John Hancock, who is best known for his elaborate signature on the Declaration of Independence, also rests in the Old Granary. Or, at least, he might. Hancock led an exciting life and that excitement may have continued after his death.
While he was alive, Hancock was wealthy, counted George Washington as a friend and helped create our nation. He was also Massachusetts’ first governor after the colonies became independent. It’s good that he packed so much into his life, because he died in 1793 at the relatively young age of 56.
Now, about that wealth he had. According to a local legend, when Hancock died he was buried wearing two large and very expensive rings. Word spread around Boston about the rings and, a few nights after he was buried, a grave robber unearthed Hancock’s body to steal them. He tried several times to remove the rings but, unfortunately, rigor mortis had set in. Frustrated and afraid of being discovered, the thief finally cut off the founding father’s hands and took them (and the rings) with him. When the crime was discovered the next day, Hancock was quickly reburied. His hands and rings were never found.
It’s a grisly story. I’m not sure if it’s true, but for some reason Hancock’s grave seems to attract strange legends. Another rumor states that it’s not just his hands but his entire body that’s missing.
When Hancock died in 1793, he was interred in a small tomb built into the wall of the Old Granary. He rested there (except maybe for his hands) for many years, but in the mid-1800s workmen renovating a basement on Park Street accidentally broke through into several of the tombs. Bricks, stones and skeletons (including Hancock’s) came cascading into the basement. Being enterprising and frugal Bostonians, the workmen used the bricks and stones to complete their renovation. Hancock’s coffin, which was made of lead, was sold and melted down into pipes. The skeletons? They were ignominiously tossed in the trash. This story first appeared in Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston in 1886, and since then, many people have believed that Hancock’s grave is empty.
Is this story true? Maybe, but maybe not, as the following indicates.
The current funerary monument to Hancock (a large obelisk) was erected in Old Granary in 1896. In the summer of 1895, the daily newspaper printed an article claiming that men working on the obelisk had discovered Hancock’s coffin in a tomb. The metal coffin was securely sealed and clearly marked with the founding father’s name and death date.
The article seems written specifically to deny the rumors about Hancock’s post-mortem misadventures. “Be assured Boston,” it seems to say, “that John Hancock is safe!” But all these stories, true or not, just confirm the important role this founding father played in our city’s history and continues to play in our minds.