Exhibit B: What They Didn't Take to the Grave
From the letters of John Quincy Adams to the presidential papers of JFK, Boston’s archives and libraries offer a treasure trove of history, artifacts that bring our illustrious forebears to life. In certain cases, however, not all of the departed actually…departed—which means our local holdings also include locks of hair, bits of bone, and other faintly macabre relics. "There are some things that make a person today draw back and cringe, because we have a different sensibility," says Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society. "But the connection to the past through them is still very powerful."
The Founding Father’s Hair
From the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society comes this gold ring containing woven strands of John Quincy Adams’s hair. It was a gift from his widow to U.S. House Speaker Robert C. Winthrop, who had offered the use of his office when the former president fell ill in Congress in February 1848; Adams died there two days later.
But there are even more-renowned locks to be found in the Hub: The Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts swears in its leaders using an intricate gold urn that holds a lock of George Washington’s hair, given by Martha Washington after his death in 1799. Though held privately by the lodge, the urn—which was forged by fellow Freemason Paul Revere—is on display at Lexington’s National Heritage Museum this month.
The Anarchists’ Ashes
The typically staid Boston Public Library is the keeper of a metal urn containing a portion of the ashes of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists notoriously executed in Boston in 1927. (Their ashes were mixed and then divided among family members to prevent the public from making the men into martyrs.)
The President’s Blood
After Lincoln was shot, Augustus Clark of Boston helped carry him from Ford’s Theatre. A bit of fabric he’d used to try to stanch Lincoln’s bleeding eventually made its way to the Massachusetts Historical Society; Clark once described it as "saturated with the blood of the best man that ever was president."
The Explorer’s Bone
Stopping on Oahu in 1801, a Salem sea captain named Charles Derby received a curious gift from a local chief: a fish hook made from a bone reputedly belonging to British explorer Captain James Cook, killed by natives two decades earlier. The Massachusetts Historical Society can’t be sure the bone came from Cook—but is positive it’s human.
The Criminal’s Skin
Before imprisoned Massachusetts highwayman James Allen died in 1837, he dictated the story of his life in crime to the warden, requesting that after death it be bound in his own skin and given to John Fenno, the only man to ever fight back against Allen. The result is now held (though not, ahem, displayed) by the Boston Athenaeum.