Bones Abroad: Boston

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

Last week, I attended ComSciCon– a three day conference for graduate students to learn about how to communicate science. We had the opportunity to meet representatives from NPR, YouTube, Alan Alda Center; writers for Discovery, Scientific American, NOVA; and scientists working on a diverse range of projects including TV shows, various magazines and societies, and more. The conference was incredible for a number of reasons, but one of them was that it took place in Boston, MA. Boston was founded in 1630, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Not only is it a great city to visit today- it has a deep past that can sometimes be a little dark. If you are looking for a great weekend trip to learn more about your country’s history, both the glorious and morbid, Boston is perfect for you.

Granary Burying Ground

Grave marker from the Granary Burial Ground, via Flickr user David Ohmer

Grave marker from the Granary Burial Ground, via Flickr user David Ohmer

This cemetery was one of the first established in Boston, back in 1660, and is the final resting place for some of the city’s most famous residents. While the cemetery has only 2,300 grave markers, it is estimated that around 5,000 Bostonians are buried there. The burying ground was named after a 12,000 bushel grain storage building that used to reside next to the cemetery. The cemetery is renowned for two reasons: 1) the famous residents, and 2) the morbid imagery on the markers. The famous residents include Samuel Adams, the victims of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin’s family. There is also an infant tomb containing the bones of as many as 200 bodies. The imagery on the grave markers reflects the puritan beliefs of the 17th century. The Puritan community emphasized piety, hard work, education, and a morally upright, ascetic lifestyle. The grave markers feature skulls and crossed bones, winged death’s heads, and hourglasses. One marker states: “Stay! thou this tomb that passeth by, And think how soon that thou may’st die…”. The images and words emphasize the shortness of life and the certainty of death. The goal of these morbid reminders is that life is short and fleeting. One of the interesting facts about this cemetery is that the markers were rearranged in the 21st century to allow for easier mowing, which meant that the markers may not actually mark the specific burial location.

If you decide you would like to visit, there are a number of ways to do this. You can walk over to the site yourself. It is located on Tremont Street and is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Or, you can catch one of the many Haunted Boston tours and be let in by a tour guide after dark. But watch your step- in 2009, a tourist fell into a previously unknown crypt!

Harvard Medical School

Harvard’s medical school is famous for its high quality educational system, history of innovative practices, and body-snatching. It is the latter of these that Bones Don’t Lie fans will appreciate. During the early 19th century, Massachusetts permitted medical schools to dissect bodies that were donated, or those of criminals, the poor, and the insane. But this wasn’t enough to match the demand of the medical school, so Harvard decided to procure their own specimens. They were known as the resurrection men, and for a price, they would ‘harvest’ bodies from graves. Others took the matter in their own hands, and a group of students known as the Spunker Club was started with the purpose of retrieving more corpses for dissection. For a fantastic history of other morbid stories about Harvard’s medical school, see this article by Dolly Stolze at Strange Remains.

Boston Athenaeum and the Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est

Image of the "Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est" from Atlas Obscura

Image of the “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est” from Atlas Obscura

The Boston Athenaeum is a gorgeous library located on Beacon Street, and it has a particularly interesting book titled Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est, meaning Narrative of the life of James Allen. James Allen, also known as George Walton, Jonas Pierce, James H. York, and Burley Grove, was a notorious highwayman, bank robber, and sneak thief who operated during the early 19th century. His autobiographical memoir was on his deathbed in the Massachusetts State Prison. Following his death, the book was bound in his skin. This practice isn’t actually that unique- anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the practice of binding texts in human skin, dates to the Middle Ages, and during the 19th century, the practice was more common. Criminals like James Johnson, William Burke (a famous Edinburgh resurrection man), and William Corder, were hung, flayed, and then bound into books that cataloged their misdeeds. What is unique about James Allen’s book is that he requested it be bound in his skin, whereas the other criminals had this done without consent.

If you want, for a fee, you can check out this skin-bound volume at the Boston Athenaeum. It can be easily found in their library catalog, and it even describes the cover of the book. It cannot leave the library, but you can make an appointment to read its pages and learn more about James Allen’s life. The library is open most days, but you can check out their website to learn more about visiting and making an appointment.

Two Cold Sam Adams

If you’re looking for a good place to grab a pint of Sam Adams beer after your day of wandering Boston, check out the Bean Town Pub- a bar that is located across the street from the Granary Burying Ground. You can grab a glass of cold Sam Adams while looking at a cold Sam Adams (Get it! Cause Sam Adams is buried in the Granary Burying Ground! Thanks to Laura for that awesomely morbid joke).

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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