Historians Study Forgotten Tombs Under Boston's Oldest Church

Boston's Old North Church is best known for the fateful event that ignited the American Revolution. On April 18, 1775, the church sexton climbed the steeple to hold two lanterns as a signal from Paul Revere that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea and not by land. Now the bones hidden away in the church's basement for hundreds of years are drawing new attention.

The Old North Church is best known for the pivotal role it played in the American Revolution. It's the site of the famous "One if by land and two if by sea" warning: On April 18, 1775, after Paul Revere's ride, two lanterns hung in the church steeple signaled the advancement of the British troops to Lexington.

But the church also has a few skeletons in its closet. Deep in the basement of the Old North Church lay the remains of more than 1,100 Bostonians. It's a dark and dusty final resting place that's been mostly forgotten for generations.

Now a funerary archaeologist from Harvard's Peabody Museum is working find out who is buried there and to tell their stories.

Jane Lynden Rousseau has spent hundreds of hours in the old basement studying the crypts -- some dating back to the 1730s.

"This basement is bursting with bones." Rousseau said, as she ducked through the hallway crowded with boiler pipes and relics from the church's 227-year past.

Bones 'Spilling Forth Into the Aisles'

Built in 1723, the Old North Church is Boston's oldest standing church and one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.

Today, the public is free to walk through the church, but few are allowed to see what's underneath the sanctuary.

"The original doors were made of wood and they started to rot away, and the bones were literally spilling forth into the aisles," Rousseau said, examining a crumbling door to one of the church's 37 tombs. "So what the workers did is put the bones back in to the tombs and seal them up with wood, and wire and concrete."

Burial in the church crypt came with a price, and over the years the decision was made to sweep out old vaults and to dump the remains into a single pit, making room for more paying members of the congregation.

Rousseau has been studying the condition of the tombs as well as old church records to learn more about the people who are buried there. Through her work, she has discovered that the basement is the final resting place to all classes of Bostonians -- from those at society's lowest rungs to leaders of the American Revolution.

Even Common Bostonians Played Role in the Revolution

One's location in the crypt was mostly determined by social status.

For instance, there's a single crypt marked for "strangers."

The tomb containing the remains of Timothy Cutler, the founding rector of the church, is located directly under the alter. It was believed the spot would bring him closer to God, Rousseau said.

Ed Pignone, executive director of the Old North Foundation, said Rousseau's work is bringing an honor that's long overdue.

"We understand history in terms of the great names. We understand Boston's role in the revolution," Pignone said. "Paul Revere, John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock.

"But it's easy to forget that this city and this nation, at that time," he added, "was inhabited by real men and women whose names might not have been passed on to us, but who nonetheless played an important role in forging the democratic principles that we all cherish today."

While there are no plans to open the vaults, Pignone said a study is underway to look at the possibility of opening the basement to public tours.