Archeologist studies 37 tombs under Old North Church

The Old North Church in Boston, where two lanterns signaled the departure of British regulars to Lexington, has been immortalized for what happened atop its 277-year-old Medford bricks. But far below, in a dark and dusty crypt where the public rarely visits, the stories of hundreds of early Bostonians have long lay dormant and forgotten.

But now, thanks to the Old North Foundation and the groundbreaking work of a funerary archeologist, those stories are beginning to be resurrected along with a new appreciation of the daily life of young Boston's bustling North End.

Armed with a flashlight, a notebook, and a determination to ignore the shadows and eerie creaking around her, Jane Lyden Rousseau is spending hundreds of hours analyzing the condition and configuration of the crypt. Above ground, she pores over centuries-old ledgers to determine who is buried beneath Boston's oldest standing church, why they were interred there, and what can be learned about early American burial rites.

"It's amazing to see how much you can learn about life by studying death," said Rousseau, who is a curatorial assistant at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

What she has learned is providing a new snapshot of the pecking order and priorities of a busy, burgeoning port. African-Americans are buried here, along with heroes of the Revolution. A barrel-vaulted tomb installed eternal status on its occupants, but church leaders were not loath to sweep out the bones after a few decades and replace them with fresh ones - all in the name of cash flow in a fast-changing society.

Rousseau also found that those "sweepings" were tossed in a charnel house, where the remains were mingled in a large pit beneath the crypt floor. The pit, a remnant habit of medieval Europe, where urban burial space was severely limited, might have been the only one of its kind in New England, Rousseau said.

Until Rousseau uncovered its existence in church documents, the pit had been forgotten for generations. For an archeologist who specializes in the dead, the discovery produced a thrilling eureka moment.

"It's a one-of-a-kind find," Rousseau said of the charnel house. "It's a fascinating aspect of our history."

Currently, just a few members of the public are allowed in the crypt as part of an admission-only "behind the scenes" tour of the church, which also allows them into the bell-room of the famous steeple. Ed Pignone, executive director of the Old North Foundation, said that a master plan expected by the end of the year will study the feasibility of opening the crypt to general viewing.

"We'd like to make it more accessible," Pignone said, "but there are some real structural challenges."

The crypt today is a crowded warren of pipes, sprinklers, boilers, and bric-a-brac squeezed into a low-ceiling basement where tombs have been built against the walls. A narrow walkway leads past vaults that line all four sides, and around a collection of tombs that occupy the middle of the room and serve as a support for the church floor.

Plaster has fallen from the entrances to some vaults, exposing a crumbling latticework of metal mesh and wooden slats beneath. Iron hinges rest rusted on old tomb locks, an ancient key sometimes visible on an adjacent wall.

In all, 37 tombs are in the crypt, where the first vault was constructed in 1732. The inhabitants of the crypt include the Rev. Timothy Cutler, first rector of the church; Captain Samuel Nicholson, first commander of the USS Constitution; and Pierre St. Medard, first head naval surgeon on the famous frigate.

The tombs also are thought to include the remains of Major John Pitcairn, who commanded the British marines at Bunker Hill and later died from his wounds there; and a vault for "strangers," where anyone, regardless of social status, could be interred through the intercession of a benefactor. More than 1,100 bodies of Bostonians, residents who walked the same streets that surround the church today, are believed to have been brought to the crypt.

The vaults have been sealed, for decades at a minimum, and no new bodies are being stacked beside the long-ago worshipers at this Episcopal sanctuary, the formal name of which is Christ Church. However, a large, modern columbarium has been built to hold the cremated remains of present-day parishioners.

The church has no plans to open the vaults, although such work could yield a treasure trove of historical artifacts. "It's a delicate issue," Rousseau said.

The archeologist's work began a few years ago when the church transferred its records to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where Rousseau has conducted painstaking detective work - to pinpoint, among other things, who was buried in each tomb, the year of interment, and a cause of death. With this data, Rousseau said, she is hoping to construct a demographic profile of the North End that will show such patterns as life expectancy, mortality rates by gender, and outbreaks of fatal disease.

Pignone is excited about the potential of Rousseau's research.

"We're trying to bring to life the members of the congregation," Pignone said. "We want to give them names and give them faces and try to tell their stories."

Until now, the Old North Church has been a cherished relic from the beginning of the war for independence, a place that the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow brought lasting notoriety with "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Through this unprecedented study, the bones underneath the wooden floor of the Old North Church might reacquire some of the recognition that vanished with their lives.

"The Old North has a very special place in the history of our region and our nation," Pignone said. "The more we can learn about the people who worshiped here on the eve of the Revolution and afterward, the more we can appreciate the decisions that they made."




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Web Page Created:

12 April 2009


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12 April 2009