The oldest cemetery in Boston is the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, established in the year Boston was founded, 1630.
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More About King’s Chapel Burying Ground
King’s Chapel Burying Ground, originally called the Burying Place, was the only cemetery in Boston for close to thirty years. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground was established in 1659, followed by the Granary Burying Ground in 1660. The first cemetery was then called the Old Burying Ground until the mid-1750s, when it was re-named King’s Chapel Burying Ground, after the adjacent church.
The cemetery pre-dates the King’s Chapel Church and is not affiliated with it or any other church. It was Royal Governor Andros who seized part of the land in 1668 to establish the first Anglican Church in the colonies. The first church building was wood, erected in 1688. The present stone building dates to 1754, and was completed in 1789 when George Washington came to speak.
Tradition says the cemetery was laid out on land owned by early settler Isaac Johnson, and that he was the first interred here. Over one thousand people are buried in this small area of less than half an acre. Approximately 500 headstones and 50 footstones remain, and approximately 36 of 78 tombs are marked. The placement of the stones does not correspond with the remains underneath: markers were moved in the early nineteenth century to create walking paths.
Among those interred here are:
Major General Wait Still Winthrop, the grandson of the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Wait Still was commander-in-chief of the provincial forces. He was one of the nine magistrates who sat on the Court of Oyer and Terminer during the witchcraft trials of 1692, and he also sat on the Superior Court which tried the remaining cases in 1693. He died in 1717.
Thomas Brattle (1658-1713) was one of the most outspoken critics of the procedures used during the witchcraft trials in 1692. A wealthy Boston merchant, liberal in his religious thinking and an opponent of Puritan theocracy, Brattle wrote a letter on October 8, 1692, arguing against the use of spectral evidence to convict those accused of witchcraft. Although the document remained unpublished until after his death, it is thought to have circulated in Boston and helped bring about the end of the trials.
Born into a wealthy family in Boston, Brattle graduated from Harvard College in 1676, prior to which he attended Boston Latin School with Cotton Mather. He became a respected mathematician and astronomer, a member of the London Royal Society, and the treasurer of Harvard from 1693 until his death. In 1698, Brattle donated land to build a fourth church in Boston, one that was less rigid than Puritan orthodoxy demanded. The Brattle Street Church meeting house was erected in 1699 and demolished in 1872. The church continued in a new building in the Back Bay, until it became extinct in 1876.
Brattle is buried beneath a black table stone with a brick foundation in the northeast portion of the cemetery. In David C. Brown’s A Guide to the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692, he says, “The inscription on the stone can barely be discerned. It reads: HERE LYES THE BODY OF THOMAS BRATTLE ESQR ONE OF HER MAJESTYES JUSTICES FOR THE COUNTY OF SUFFOLK & TREASURER OF HARVARD COLLEGE WHO DYED MAY THE 18th 1713 ANNO AETATIS 55.”
One of the wealthiest people to be accused of witchcraft in 1692 was Widow Margaret Thacher (alternate spelling Thatcher) (1625-1694), the mother-in-law of Salem magistrate Jonathan Corwin, who was married to her daughter, Elizabeth. Although named as a witch, Thacher was never arrested and jailed.
Widow Thacher was known to have property disputes and, in February of 1692, she accused her servant, Bridget Denmark, of stealing £5 worth of goods from her home, a crime for which Denmark went to jail. By May, Thacher was accused of tormenting the afflicted. Denmark confessed to witchcraft and is likely the one who accused her employer. Yet no arrest warrant was ever issued. Was it her wealth or was it her relationship to Corwin that protected her? We can only speculate.
Margaret was born an only child. She married the very wealthy Jacob Sheaf (alternate spellings Sheafe, Sheaffe) around 1642 and the couple had eight children. When Sheaf died in 1659, his estate was valued at over £8,000. (He is also buried in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground.) The following year, both of Margaret’s parents died. She received another £500 plus numerous Boston properties. At 35, she was extremely wealthy. In 1664, Margaret married widower Reverend Thomas Thacher. She died in 1694 at the age of 68.
Also buried here are: John Cotton, Puritan theologian and Cotton Mather’s grandfather; John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony; William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and Elizabeth Pain, whose gravestone may have inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (“After many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built … On this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon.”).
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An illustration of the cemetery and King's Chapel from A History of King's Chapel in Boston: The First Episcopal Church in New England (1833) by Francis Greenwood.