October-ganza Day 19: Ghoulish Boston, part 2


October 19, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

We conclude our survey of Boston’s most ghoulist spots and anecdotes…

King’s Chapel’s odd enclosure

An oddity often spotted, but rarely explained to visitors, this wrought-iron enclosure in the southwest corner of King’s Chapel Burying Ground.  While the graveyard was established in 1630, the ventilation shaft for the ‘T’ was installed about 1897.  All of the stones here have been moved at some point so it unclear whose remains had to be moved to make way for the shaft that burrows down into the dark earth of Boston.  I cannot say if this intrusion into the burying ground had any influence on passages  like this one from “Pickman’s Model”:

There was a study called “Subway Accident”, in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.

Grave and Gravestones, lost and found

There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, sat the ghoul which was once the artist Richard Upton Pickman.

  • Rev. Daille: This Huguenot minister, who died in 1715 was buried at the Granary Burying Ground. Somehow his tombstone ended up in a basement of the old Emmons estate on Pleasant Street where workmen found it in 1860.  By my calculations (and assuming I have the right general location), that’s over three miles away.
  • A discovery at Granary Burying Ground: In 2009 a visitor to the Granary Burying Ground discovered a long-forgotten crypt here while walking when a buried slate slab that had been used to cover the entrance stairs collapsed. What was revealed was the crypt of a Jonathan Armitage, a prominent Bostonian from the mid 18th century. See here for more information.
  • Copp’s Hill:  Popular tradition states that many of the stones here have been stolen and used for building materials over the years – see here for an example – but I don’t know how much of this is rooted in fact and how much might be a bit of fancy tinged with a disdain for the immigrant communities that predominated North Boston.  This is not to say I don’t think this is not possible or even likely, but I would rather have something stronger than an unsourced assertion.  I’ve seen claims that at least one was reused as a manhole cover on a Boston city street!  We do have a recent story demonstrating gravestone theft from Copp’s Hill in the case of the memorial of Mary Paine.  Here is a fascinating article on the Historic Burying Ground Initiative’s gravestone fragment collection from 2013; there is a follow-up piece as well.

The Spunkers Club

He had slowly tried to perfect a solution which, injected into the veins of the newly deceased, would restore life; a labour demanding an abundance of fresh corpses and therefore involving the most unnatural actions.

In the 18th and 19th centuries there were very strict prohibitions on the dissection of cadavers, save for criminal executions. At Harvard there developed the so-called ‘Spunkers Club‘ (also called ‘the Anatomists Club’) served as both an unofficial forensic pathology society and as procurers of bodies for dissection.

While Massachusetts law permitted the dissection of one human body by a medical school every four years, this prove unsatisfactory to the student and faculty and so, unofficially, students collected remains on their own with the tacit permission of the school.  Student would engaged in the theft of remains from fresh graves, setting up careful procedures for avoiding detection and arrest, including posting a watch.  This club was in operation at least until the middle of the 19th century; though Massachusetts loosened the restrictions on dissections in 1831 – allowing of the wholesale use of the remains of the poor, insane, and criminal in medical schools, the need for ‘healthy’ deceased meant that there was an inclination to view these bodies as imperfect or flawed.

The Holden Chapel

In the summer of 1999 the Holden Chapel, where much of this anatomical study had been conducted in the 19th century, was renovated and a dry well in the building’s interior was uncovered and examined.  The remains (bearing signs of cutting and dissection) of at least eleven subjects were found to have been disposed of within, along with a variety of other scraps of equipment.  (The building, erected in 1744, had long ago ceased to be used for religious services and was exclusively used for anatomical research by the 19th century.)

A special treat for our readers:

Here is “Ye Ancient Burying Grounds of Boston“, an article by the American artist Albert Scott Cox from the New England Magazine (Vol. VII Sept. 1892-Feb. 1893).  This might serve as a handout for your investigators or just an interesting read.  I’ve excerpted this from the Google Books copy of the full issue here.

2 thoughts on “October-ganza Day 19: Ghoulish Boston, part 2

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for the excellent information about the cemeteries. There is a treasure trove of gaming possibilities in this and the previous article.

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