The photo I’m sharing today comes from a postcard dated 1908 and depicts the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. I assume the date is accurate because there is a date written on the card and the New York company that printed the card was in business from 1904-1911.
The picture appears to have been taken from one of the buildings on Snow Hill St which overlook the cemetery. On the bottom right you can see the grave marker of Prince Hall, the founder of Black Freemasonry. In the background is the Old North (Christ) Church. I don’t see the Michelangelo School so the photo must have been taken before it was built. To the left of center is at the granite mausoleum which is the subject of this article.
The fascinating thing about the postcard are the comments written by the person who purchased it perhaps in the gift shop of the church. He may have been a tourist or an amateur historian because he records the grave stones of some prominent Bostonians like the Mathers, Increase, Cotton and Samuel. He also quotes the cheeky epitaph of Ammey Hunt, “and now her soul hath took its flight, and bid her spiteful foes goodnight.” Maybe those Puritans weren’t so pure after all.
The writer makes note that Robert Neuman, the young man who hung the two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church on April 18, 1775 is buried here. Right beneath the Neuman reference is the phrase that caught my eye. The unknown writer states, “ In the center is a large tomb where all un-baptized infants were placed-thought then to be eternally damned.” This attracted my attention because I had never heard of this before and had always wondered who or what was buried in that tomb. The granite mausoleum stands out because it is the largest monument in the cemetery and it doesn’t have any names or dates, which is unusual.
When I was a teenager I hung around with a crowd of twenty or thirty young men and women, all from the North End. We called ourselves the “Cavaliers” and our corner was where Hull and Snow Hill streets meet. Someone was always on the corner, day or night, winter or summer. It was the place where we met before going to the movies at Scollay Square or to dances at the North Bennet Street Industrial School. On hot summer nights we would climb over the fence and lie on the grass in the cemetery looking up at the stars or enjoying the view across the Charles River to the Navy Yard. In the cemetery we would often gather around the granite mausoleum and the rumor was that the iron door led to a pirate’s tunnel which went under the Slide Park down to the river. We imagined there might still be some gold coins lost in the cracks waiting to be found. Another rumor said the tunnel was used by bootleggers to smuggle whisky into the North End during Prohibition.
We wanted to explore the tunnel but the door was secured by a thick, old iron padlock. One night after much effort, we were able to break the lock and open the iron door. The fetid air that came rushing out was cold and dank and smelled of decaying earth. We dared each other to go down the stone steps and explore the chamber. I certainly wouldn’t risk it because the guys I hung around with would probably have locked me in but one of the other guys did volunteer. I forget who it was but it may have been a skinny, strange kid we called “the weasel”. He was a little crazy and went down into the tomb with only a book of matches and a small candle. Five minutes later he came running out, his eyes as big as saucers. “Yes” he said, “there are lots of bones down there lying on shelves built into the walls.” We told him to go back down and bring some bones back to us especially skulls so we could have some souvenirs. “No” he said, “they ain’t human bones, they’re too small. They look like animal bones, maybe rats or cats and I ain’t touching those.” We thought we might try to go back down there another time with flashlights but the Sexton must have noticed the broken lock and soon a new door and lock were installed spoiling our plans. Seeing this postcard made me think those small bones “the weasel” saw were undoubtedly those of the nameless, unbaptized infants.
The Copp’s Hill Burying Ground was always a creepy, mysterious place. Stories abound about strange sightings, disembodied heads and eerie sounds coming from somewhere in the cemetery. The Reverend Cotton Mather who was responsible for sentencing several women to death at the Salem witch trials is buried there. It is said the spirits of the witches return periodically to his grave and torment him for his evil deeds. Old North Enders say his moans can sometimes be heard drifting over he graveyard.
Over the years I’ve noticed that North Enders who pass by the graveyard on Hull, Charter or Snow Hill streets almost invariably choose to walk next to the buildings opposite the cemetery never adjacent to the walls of the graveyard itself. Tourists, of course, are different but those of us who live in the North End have an instinctual reluctance to being drawn close to the cemetery.
On warm summer nights when the air is still and the city noises are muted, people who live near the cemetery often sleep with their windows open. If they listen carefully they might hear what sounds like muffled babies crying. I suppose it could be a feral cat serenading its mate or a radio playing in someones bedroom; or could it be the abandoned infants buried in the nameless mausoleum, crying for their mothers to come rescue them from the cold—dark—crypt?
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.