Ghosts and Gravestones: The Macabre Side of Boston

Paul Revere was a busy man, and not just in professional terms. In addition to his work as a silversmith, iron caster, bell maker, naval ship sheather, and part-time dentist, he had two wives, sixteen kids, and a swarm of admirers to attend to. The man must have been surrounded by people every second of every day of his life. But there was one who stood out amid the throng: Dr Joseph Warren.

Dr Joseph Warren

Bromance incoming.

Warren was, by all accounts, Paul Revere’s BFF. The last and greatest testament to this fact was set down after Warren’s death at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Dr Warren was buried in a mass grave. It wasn’t a slight against his character: The American rebels who lost their lives in the sortie were simply too numerous to permit beleaguered Boston to bury them properly. Most of the newly bereaved accepted this and moved on. Most of them–but not Paul Revere.

Chaffing at the ignominious treatment of his bestie, Revere grabbed a shovel, marched out to Bunker Hill, and started digging. Hours slipped by as he sank deeper and deeper into a heap of muck and rotting corpses. Finally, he spotted a shirt that resembled one Warren had owned and pulled that body from the tangle, only to find that it was missing the top half of its head, rendering it impossible to identify.

But all was not lost! It transpired that, a few weeks prior to the battle, Revere had outfitted his friend with a porcelain tooth. In what Wikipedia calls “[maybe] the first recorded instance of post-mortem identification by forensic odontology,” Revere was able to make a positive identification based on said tooth. Lovingly, he carted Warren home and laid him to rest in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.

So, yeah. What have you done for your friends lately?

Ghosts and Gravestones
The tale of Revere and Warren was just one of many macabre offerings from Ghosts and Gravestones, a horror-themed trolley tour of Boston. Some people think ghost tours are dorky. I am an absolute sucker for them. And this one was particularly entertaining.

Here are just a few of the unsettling things Ghosts and Gravestones taught me about my new hometown.

Copp’s Hill
Founded in 1659, Copp’s Hill is the second oldest cemetery in Boston. It shelters the remains of some fairly important figures: patriots, abolitionists, and Cotton Mather himself (who was, I kid you not, banished from the city of Boston for perving on teenage girls). Two-thousand three-hundred headstones stand in jagged rows along the sacred grounds, but that number doesn’t even come close to representing the actual body count. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, when the North End was redeveloped in the 16th century, developers weren’t keen on trekking all the way out to Quincy to get their building permits. Instead of jumping through a lot of tedious legal hoops, they slapped up their buildings wherever they pleased–and appropriated whatever materials they could find. That’s how seven hundred tombstones were uprooted and incorporated into the foundations of nearby shops and apartment buildings.

Copp's Hill

Walk into any building bordering Copp’s Hill, and it’s guaranteed to be at least partially constructed with gravestones. Spooky stuff!

So, 2300 extant markers, plus 700 used as building materials. That must mean there are 3000 graves at Copp’s Hill, right?

Not even close. You see, at one point in time, “tomb speculation” was a booming business. Folks wandered into Copp’s Hill and became enamored of some of the more ornately carved stones. Locating a grave digger, they would offer a bribe in exchange for his word that he would bury them beneath whichever marker had caught their fancy. That’s why, today, virtually every grave in Copp’s Hill contains multiple bodies.

How many bodies, you ask? Enough that a piece of land that started out level with the surrounding streets now stands seven feet above them. Copp’s Hill is literally a seven-foot-high mound of stacked corpses. Good luck trying not to walk over anybody’s grave.

The Boston Strangler
In the early 1960’s, the women of Boston were terrorized by an anonymous psychopath dubbed the Boston Strangler. The Strangler’s M.O. fluctuated, but the gist of it was this: he would find a home occupied by a lone woman, knock on the door, say something to convince her to admit him, strangle her with an item of her own clothing, and leave her posed for her loved ones to find.

In 1964, a woman who had been tied to her bed and raped by an intruder identified Albert DeSalvo as her attacker. When his photograph was published in the papers, other women came forward to announce that he had assaulted them as well. DeSalvo was indicted as a rapist and all-around cad. He was not indicted for murder. As far as the authorities knew, he had always stopped short of killing his victims. The authorities were in for a big surprise.

DeSalvo not only admitted to being the Boston Strangler, he described several of the homes of the Strangler victims in perfect detail. When he spoke of killing the Strangler’s final victim, nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan, he noted that the taps in her bathroom were reversed: The cold tap ran hot, and the hot tap ran cold. This was enough to convince the police that they had their man. Unfortunately, because DeSalvo had already been tried and sentenced for unrelated crimes, they couldn’t do anything about it. To this day, no one has been put on trial for the crimes perpetrated by the Boston Strangler.

But wait: It gets weirder. At one point, DeSalvo recanted his confession and promised to tell the press who the Strangler really was if they’d come talk to him the next day. The next day rolled around, and DeSalvo was found stabbed to death in the prison infirmary. His killer has never been identified.

Almost fifty years later, both DeSalvo and Mary Sullivan were exhumed and subjected to DNA tests, which revealed that the former was indeed present at the death of the latter–along with three other people. Three other people who are, presumably, still at large. Sleep tight, Boston!

The Gibbeting of Mark Codman
Mark Codman was, understandably, fed up with being a slave. His master, John Codman, was a real asshole, even by slave-owner standards. When Mark came into a tidy supply of arsenic, he decided to poison John’s food repeatedly until the man finally snuffed it. Snuff it he did–alas, Mark was immediately apprehended, tried, and subjected to a practice known as gibbeting.

During a classic gibbeting, the victim is covered in hot tar, thrown in a metal cage, and suspended high above the ground to serve as a warning to all who might contemplate flouting the law of the land. Mark Codman lived for a few days after the procedure was carried out, hanging helplessly twenty feet in the air, grievously injured and lacking food and water. When he finally expired, the people of Boston left him there.

They left him there for twenty years.


(Visitor’s guide to Salem, Salem, Essex Institute, 1916, p. 77)

Mark Codman was gibbeted in 1755. In 1775, Paul Revere rode past him during his famous Midnight Ride. Revere considered the sight a bad omen. Since he was eventually apprehended by the British, I can only assume that he was right.


2 thoughts on “Ghosts and Gravestones: The Macabre Side of Boston

  1. Pingback: Dreams in the Witch House: Five Things I Learned in Salem’s Oldest Home | Joanna Lesher

  2. Pingback: Tales from the Charnel House: A Return to King’s Burying Ground | Joanna Lesher

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