Excavating the Old North Church – Looking Back

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Christ Church—better known as Boston’s Old North Church—has played a role in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, literally since the very first scene. When we were doing character planning, we needed a project for Dr. Matt Lowell to work on in his role as an active researcher within the field of forensic anthropology at Boston University. We knew about the Old North’s historic crypts and thought this would be a great place to set Matt’s project.

In September 2009, when I travelled to Boston for my first research trip, I met with Reverend Stephen Ayers who not only took me on a personal tour of the crypts (which at the time were closed to the public), but shared with me all current research on the site. It was then that I learned about the charnel house in the corner of the basement that contained approximately one thousand sets of the church’s oldest remains.

The first of the burials in the basement crypts of Christ Church took place in 1723. However, by 1836, the existing 34 crypts were insufficient to handle incoming burials. A small wing was constructed attached to the back corner of the church, and three new tombs—numbers 35, 36, and 37—were planned. However, it was decided concurrently to clear out the older crypts, allowing them to be reused. In 1845, they took advantage of the construction of tomb 37 to create a charnel house below it. It is the same dimensions as tomb 37, but is sunk eight feet beneath the current tomb floor. They transferred all the oldest remains into this pit, and then sealed the charnel house, later filling tomb 37 above it.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

The church recognized the desire by Bostonians to be interred within the walls of the Old North, even though the crypts were closed in 1860 due to health concerns about burying the dead within the populated city limits of the north end. To meet this need, they constructed a modern columbarium in 1992 to accept the ashes of those wishing to be buried in the Old North crypts. However, so do so, they built around the three last tombs, enclosing tombs 35, 36, and 37, including the charnel house. In her paper, Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead: An Historical and Archaeological Study of the Burial Crypts of Boston's Old North Church, Jane Lyden Rousseau outlines the history of the crypts and the sealing of the columbarium. Reverend Ayers discussed the possibility of obtaining the funds to excavate the charnel house, but this would have to be done around the existing columbarium and without disturbing the modern remains. Given the extra complexity of such an excavation now, whether this will be possible someday remains to be seen.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

But we saw the charnel house as an opportunity to give Matt the perfect project in his field in the city he loves. So we changed the layout of the columbarium slightly, eliminating one wall of niches, allowing Matt and his team of grad students—Kiko, Paul and Juka—access to the remains. And when Trooper Leigh Abbott meets Matt for the first time, this is where she finds him.

Leigh stopped at the bottom of the stairs, the large area under the church sanctuary spreading before her. Through the doorway opposite, a long corridor stretched away into the gloom that shaded the far reaches of the space, dimly lit by the few exposed light bulbs that hung from the ceiling. There, long held safe in the quiet darkness and forgotten by all but a scarce few, were the oldest crypts in Boston.

Standing in the nearly silent basement, with only the creaks from the floorboards overhead betraying the presence of the funeral mourners, the centuries of history entombed in this building surrounded her, just like the dead sleeping inside the aged brick walls.

The vicar’s words rang in her head. You’ll find him if you go down the stairs and turn right into the columbarium.

The atmosphere changed the moment she stepped over the threshold. The basement and the crypts were cold and damp, but even surrounded by walls of modern burial niches, the columbarium seemed warm and inviting. A space where the living could feel closer to the dead who had gone before them.

Mournful music filtered through the floorboards into this quiet room of remembrance.

It felt . . . peaceful.

The peace was abruptly shattered by the clatter of something solid falling to the floor followed by a soft curse.

There he is.

On the far side of the room, a door opened into a small chamber. A doorway was cut into one of the whitewashed chamber walls, bright russet clay revealed at the entrance. Moving to stand in the gap, she looked into the tomb, staring in shock at the chaos within while breathing air musty with centuries of undisturbed stillness.

Rotting wooden boxes of different shapes and sizes were stacked haphazardly along the walls. Many of the boxes had collapsed, their lids loosened and their contents spilled out over other boxes and across the floor. Bones of every size and description lay in tangled piles, mixed with funeral ornaments and remnants of moldering cloth. A solitary skull grinned up at her from where it lay tipped against the cracked side of a crumpled box.

A movement to her left drew her attention and her gaze shifted to the man kneeling with his back partially turned to her. He bent over the pile of debris, freeing a single bone before transferring it carefully in his gloved hands to a clear plastic tub on the floor beside him.

We wrote the charnel house based on similar ossuaries found in Britain and described by Ms. Rousseau in Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead. Someday, if Reverend Ayers and interested archeologists get their wish, they may find out exactly what treasures are contained within the charnel house.

But, on the short term, a real-life excavation has just begun in the basement of the Old North, in the main block of crypts under the church sanctuary. Next week, we’ll be back to talk about the exciting dig Boston’s City Archeology Program recently launched.

Photo credit: Jane Rousseau and Jen Danna

A Return Trip to Salem and Boston

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled The Kindness of Strangers When Researching Your Novel that I’d like to expand on. In that post, I talked about the how the contacts I made while researching my first novel (prior to actually writing it) made all the difference in how that manuscript turned out.

I learned my lesson well from that trip and planned this summer’s family vacation around a second trip to Massachusetts, this time with my daughters in tow (my poor husband got stuck at home...). It was a real pleasure to be able to show them an area that I’ve loved since I was their age, but, more than that, it was great to be able to involve them in my novel planning. Writing takes a huge amount of my time, so if they can be involved in the process, it makes it a more enjoyable experience for all of us. There’s nothing better than being boots-on-the-ground in the places I’m writing about to achieve that.

But this trip ended up being about more than just my work-in-progress. Through the kindness of my contact at Boston University, Dr. Tara Moore, I was able to get into their forensic anthropology labs to talk to the researchers and instructors there about their current research, their body farm program that is just getting off the ground, and the trials and tribulations of being involved with law enforcement.


In a marathon four-hour session, we met with the retired FBI agent who teaches their crime scene courses at Boston University, the neurobiologist who now works as a forensic anthropologist/osteologist, the Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services lab in Boston, and the State Police liaison with the Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s Office. The information I learned applies to the entire series and was pure gold in terms of writing their world correctly. To top it off, my youngest daughter (those are her hands, above, holding the skull) was offered a position next summer sorting bones for a week, which she would love to do. Lucky kid... what an offer for a grade nine student!

We met with the Salem Fire Department, laying the ground work for much of the fire investigation in our work-in-progress. Ann and I are already working with our California fire contact, Captain Lisa Giblin, however, we wanted to make sure that our protocols were firmly east coast vs. west coast ― getting into the fire department ensured that. We met with many members of the department; everyone was very friendly and willing to share their own personal knowledge.



We toured the sites in Salem that will be used for scenes in the book as well. As a visual writer, getting pictures of places I want to write about is absolutely crucial. Google Earth is great, but this is the kind of detail that I really need.

Our biggest adventure was when we attempted to cross the salt marsh on the Essex coast. This site plays a major role in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, but when I visited two years ago, I didn’t actually enter the marsh as I was on my own and was worried I might get into trouble. Well, this was an eye opener. The marsh looks so pretty, but try to cross it and you can get into some major trouble very quickly. Both myself and my older daughter had to be pulled free from the very deep, sucking mud in the Essex River channels, and when we finally admitted defeat after over a half hour later, it was to emerge bloody from marsh saw grasses, covered with greenhead fly bites and literally covered up to our knees in mud. It's a beautiful and tranquil area... and is incredibly treacherous!



It was a great trip and I made some fantastic new contacts that will really go a long way in writing this new manuscript. There are a few things I’d like to tweak with the currently submitted manuscript, but it’s all good and just adds richness to the detail already there. A big thanks to both of my daughters for being the best traveling companions a gal could ask for, and as well to my oldest daughter, Jess, who was my official photographer on the trip.

Next week, I’d like to talk about Salem, specifically about the new memorial they’ve built there in memory of the 20 innocent victims killed in the 1692 witch trials. They did a really wonderful job, so much so that I think it deserves its own blog post. So, more to come next week...

Photo credit Jess Newton

I Can See London From My Saddle

There's been some great debate this past week over Kristen Lamb’s post Sacred Cow-Tipping–Why Writers Blogging About Writing is Bad. It certainly made me think about what I blog about here on Skeleton Keys. From the beginning, this blog has had a split focus because I’ve posted about both writing and forensics/forensic anthropology. But Kristen made me think about expanding my focus a bit to include other interests that apply directly to my current crime fiction series: architecture, science in general, and the history of Boston, Salem and Essex County, Massachusetts in particular. Combine that with Sarah Palin’s recent faux pas in Boston, and this blog post was born.

Mrs. Palin recently said about Paul Revere: “He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.”

That’s not quite how it happened.

The Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston

The Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston

Revere, a member of the Sons of Liberty, spent the winter and spring of 1775 staying one step ahead of the British, riding from town to town to alert the townsfolk about the movements of the local British troops. Those troops mached through the countryside under orders to confiscate any and all armaments for their own use. But they found that each town they approached had already hidden away all their arms thanks to the tenacious Sons of Liberty, leaving the Redcoats humiliated and empty-handed. In an effort to circumvent the Sons of Liberty, General Gage, leader of the British troops, concocted a secret plan ― on the night of April 18, 1775, the British would move under the cover of darkness and conduct a surprise raid on Lexington and Concord at dawn when the patriots were unprepared. History suggests that either Gage’s wife or maid betrayed him to the Sons of Liberty, sharing the secret of the dawn raid. But on the night of April 18th, there was still some question about how the troops would move.

Revere intended to ride himself to warn local patriots, but he arranged for Robert Newman, caretaker of the Old North Church in Boston, to broadcast important information concerning troop movements by lighting either one or two lanterns in the church steeple. One lantern meant the troops were moving by land; two lanterns implied the British were crossing the Charles River by boat. A former bell-ringer himself, Revere knew that the signal would be clearly visible across the harbour, alerting his countrymen even if he was caught.

At 10 p.m. on the night of April 18, 1775, Newman climbed the steeple to hold aloft two lanterns for less than a minute. The light was seen across the harbour by patriot eyes, but the British in Boston also spotted it and the chase was on. Newman managed to flee the church by leaping through the sanctuary window (now known as the ‘Newman Window’) even as the British were trying to come through the front door. Today, hanging in front of that window is a replica of the lanterns that were used that night.

The Newman Window

The Newman Window

Revere rode out that night, first crossing by boat from Boston to Charleston and then riding through Medford and on to Lexington. He didn’t ring bells or shout ‘The British are coming! The British are coming!’ ― this was a time of subtlety and espionage; secrecy was paramount because many colonists were still loyal to the British. But his ride set in motion a chain of fellow riders; it is estimated that there were over forty messengers riding that night, warning fellow patriots of the oncoming army.

Captured and questioned at gunpoint by the British, Revere did warn them of the size of the force they were about to confront in Lexington, recommending they abandon the attempt. Nevertheless, his captors continued towards Lexington. But after seeing the militia gathered there, they released Revere, confiscating his horse to ride east to warn the approaching army. As the sun rose, Revere helped John Hancock and his family escape Lexington, even as the opening shots of the American Revolution sounded as the Battle of Lexington began.

One of the best known versions of the events of that night was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a native of Cambridge. I’ve included a small excerpt from it here:

He said to his friend, "If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm."