District of Columbia County, District of Columbia
March 1, 2005
In most cities, a cemetery would not be a major attraction. But this is Boston, and visitors just seem to be drawn to walking through a graveyard that dates back nearly 400 years and seeing the gravestones for famous historical figures. Visitors will find several such sites, including the Copp’s Hill, Old Granary, Central, and King’s Chapel Burying Grounds.
The second oldest cemetery in Boston, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (or Corpse Hill as it has been nicknamed) is at the summit of a steep incline just up Hull Street from the Old North Church. Founded in 1659, the cemetery is the final resting place of an estimated 10,000 souls, including prominent Bostonians from the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. Here you will find graves for Robert Newman, who hung Paul Revere’s signal lanterns in the tower of the Old North Church, and Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather, members of an influential family of Puritan ministers. There are also graves for hundreds of Boston’s Colonial black slaves and freed men.
The site also played an important role during the American Revolution. During the British occupation, the British military held an artillery position here, using the site to fire cannons across the river to Colonial strongholds in Charlestown. Legend has it that the king’s troops used the slate headstones for target practice, and many of the stones show the resulting damage to this day. Today, the cemetery’s hilltop location offers great views of Charleston and the USS Constitution.
Copp’s Hill is one of the last sites on the Freedom Trail but should not be missed. Interpretive signs throughout the cemetery guide visitors to some of the more famous graves, which can sometimes be difficult to find among the haphazardly placed headstones. Keep in mind that many of the slate stones in the cemetery are over 300 years old and taking rubbings of them is expressly forbidden. Visitors should exercise caution to avoid contact with the stones, as many of them are quite fragile. This is less of an issue in spring and summer, when all of the stones are clearly visible. However, in winter, some stones may be buried by the snow. You should stick to the cleared walking paths in snowy conditions.
Adjacent to Copp’s Hill is an unusual and often overlooked site, the Narrowest House. This quirky little house, which averages a mere 9.5-feet wide, was built around 1800 out of spite. Supposedly, the builder of the house wanted to block light from a neighbor’s house and kill the view of the house behind it. Look for the tiny structure crammed between two much larger houses at 44 Hull Street, directly across the street from the Burying Ground’s Hull Street gate. You’ll notice it has no front door – residents and visitors must use a side door accessed through the narrow alley next to the house to get inside.
From journal Winter Weekend in Boston