There’s much more to the Old North Church in Boston than you’re told in passing. Hundreds and hundreds of tourists pass through the doors daily and they’re all told stories of Paul Revere, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the lanterns, and about visits from presidents, dignitaries, and known historic figures.
The church and tour groups shuffle as many bus tours through as they can every day and if you hit during a peak period, the lineups to get in can stretch around the building and towards the Paul Revere House.
But, there’s more to this little church than meets the eye. For example, it’s not even called the Old North Church… its real name is the Christ Church of Boston.
Also, the steeple in which Revere worked as a bell ringer and where the two lanterns were lit isn’t the real one. The steeple was destroyed twice in its long history: once during a snow hurricane in 1804 and again in 1954 during Hurricane Carol.
If you really think about it, this is the oldest church in Boston in a community that’s seen centuries of rebellion, defiance, infighting, poverty, death, life, and disease. There’s something lurking in every nook and cranny and if you’re too busy looking up at the steeple then you’re going to miss it.
There is no cemetery land around the church; and, I struggle with the nuances of the Episcopal religion in this particular case (Is it Puritan? Is it Anglican? Is it Protestant? Is it American or British?), but back in the day the city was not willing to sell the church land for burials; and, members of the church did not want to be buried in other cemeteries because of their ties to Anglicanism (this is the part that gets me — it’s an American Episcopal church with ties to Anglicanism that’s used as a symbol for American defiance). Maybe I’m confused.
Regardless, this church has no cemetery; Copp’s Hill is a separate entity.
So, where are the dead members of the Christ Church going to go when there’s no land to use for burials? The answer: below the church and into a crypt. As an added bonus, by having a crypt within the church building, the church could make some extra cash.
The crypt is a surprisingly small space for the number of people buried behind the walls: 1100. For years, caskets were added to a family crypt in a standing position so more could fit. But as the city grew and the demand for space beneath the church grew, strangers were unceremoniously added to family crypts until once again there was no space left.
The workers then had to resort to putting the disarticulated bodies into charnel pits to make space for new burials. In all, the church opened in 1723 and the first burial in the crypt occurred in 1732. The last crypt burial was in 1860 but the “new” section still accepts cremains. The last burial during my visit was a week earlier.
When you’re in the crypt at the Christ Church in Boston, you can hear everything above: conversations, walking, people dropping things. There is very little between those standing or sitting near the front of the church and the people buried below… just old wooden planks that you can kinda sorta see-through.
This means that historically in the summer, the smell of rotting bodies would have been atrocious. If you look at the outside of the building you’ll see vents coming out of the tombs. These were added to help with the smell.
And, when yet again another smallpox epidemic hit (there were many in the city), residents must have freaked out because they believed in the miasma theory of disease transmission. Basically, bad air from decomposing bodies causes the spread of disease. What would you do? Go to church and risk getting sick? Or avoid going to church and risk going to hell?
Eventually, the city outlawed crypt burials and required that each tomb be sealed by a wooden or slate door and plaster or cement.
This plaster is slowly crumbling off the walls so when you’re in the tomb you’re asked to avoid touching the walls.
Who is Buried Here?
Like mentioned above, there are 1100 people buried in the crypt… and only 37 tombs. That’s an average of 30 people per tomb, which isn’t entirely bad. Most of the bodies are unidentified other than there are small pox victims, soldiers, and parishioners in the crypt.
Let’s take a brief glimpse into the lives of the known people who are buried in the crypt.
Major John Pitcairn
The first person you encounter is Major John Pitcairn, who’s dramatic death in the arms of his son is immortalized in John Trumbull’s The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775) at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Pitcairn was a British soldier so he was temporarily buried in a British church shortly after his death.
Sam Weekes and Elizabeth Wheelwright
Samuel Weekes is the next person you encounter. He was a “vestryman” for the church (1725-39) and according to the inscription the tomb was designed by M. Weekes; I’m assuming this was someone close to him.
A second inscription is for Elizabeth Wheelwright, “consort to the Hon. John Wheelwright Esq” who died Feb 23, 1748. John Wheelwright is the great-grandson of Rev. John Wheelwright (the Puritan clergyman who ruffled quite a few feathers in Boston), grandson of Judge Samuel Wheelwright, son of Col. John Wheelwright, and brother to Esther Wheelwright who had a long rich history in Québec.
John Wheelwright is not buried in the tomb but because two of John’s wives were named Elizabeth, there is some confusion about who exactly is buried here. Wheelwright’s second wife was Elizabeth Green. Some books (read: books and not web sites) say that John’s third wife was Elizabeth Weeks, some say it was Elizabeth Goffe, others say his third wife was Elizabeth Winkley. Some combine the two and say Elizabeth Weeks Winkley Wheelwright.
As such, the date becomes really important in figuring out who is buried here.
1a. John Wheelwright & Mary Allen marry: Oct. 20, 1715
1b. Mary Allen Wheelwright dies: 1718
2a. Eliza Green marries John Wheelwright: 20 Nov 1718
2b. Eliza Green dies
3a. Elizabeth Winkley marries Samuel Weeks (Genealogical and Personal Memoirs by William Richard Cutter)
3b. Samuel Weekes dies: 11 Aug 1740
4a. Eliza Weeks married John Wheelwright: 13 Oct 1741
4b. The tomb gives Feb 23, 1748, as the death for Eliz Wheelwright.
Thus, Wheelwright’s third wife is the “Eliza” in the tomb, which makes sense. She was buried in the Weekes tomb with her first husband.
After all of is said and done… and rather ironically, it’s Major John Pitcairn’s body that is in the Weekes tomb… even though Pitcairn was supposed to go back to England after the war. But, because of a screw-up, the wrong body was sent to England. Oops!?
John Jutau, Peter St. Medard, and George Clark
John Jutau (also shows up in records as Jean Jutau, John Juteau, Jean Juteau) was a Frenchman and an auctioneer/merchant who lived on Oliver Lane (in the last year of his life on Green Street); Oliver Lane could be the current Oliver Street.
When Jutau died in 1820 he left behind a fairly detailed receipt book with names, addresses, and purchases, which gives historians a glimpse into everyday life in Boston in the 18th and early 19th centuries. His widow (Mary) continued to appear in the Boston Directories after John’s death but it lists her as living on Newbury Street. It’s thought that his name is scratched out on the door because he is no longer interred in the tomb.
Peter St. Medard is listed in the 1821 Boston Directory as being a practicing physician and surgeon in the city. He lived at 11 1/2 Back Street, which was very close to where John Jutau’s widow lived in 1821.
There are many George Clarks in Boston. A handful of them lived in Boston during the turn of the 19th Century. This could have been the George Clark who is listed in the 1798 City Directory as being a “Sexton Thatcher’s meeting,” which I think means he was the sexton of the church in which Rev. Thomas Thatcher first presided. This is now known as the Old South Meeting House. In 1807 there is a George Clark who lives on Oliver Street. Perhaps they are the same…?
Captain Thomas Potts, Timothy and Elisa Cutler
Even though this is Captain Potts’ tomb, it is inhabited by Timothy and Elisa Cutler (nee. Elizabeth Milford).
Cutler was the 3rd Rector of Yale University, the 1st Rector of Christ Church, and one of the only early Americans to be venerated. As such, it seems only fitting that he and his wife be buried in a tomb directly under the altar.
It’s likely that Cotton Mather and Timothy Cutler knew each other, Boston was too small of a place for two influential, religious, Yale men to ignore each other. But their religious and political views differed and Cutler would have found himself at odds with the staunch Puritan.
Cutler also knew Paul Revere who was a bell ringer at the church during Cutler’s tenure.
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