History of the Sacred Cod

Mass Moments: An electronic Almanac of Massachusetts history

January 11 1798: The “Sacred” Cod Moves to New State House

On this day in 1798, the Massachusetts legislature paraded solemnly from the Old State House to its quarters in a new building at the top of Beacon Hill. Designed by Boston-born architect Charles Bulfinch, the elegant new State House was tangible evidence of the Commonwealth's growing prosperity. The men who governed Massachusetts were thinking of the state's promising future, but they brought with them a symbol of the past. They carried a four-foot, eleven-inch wooden fish wrapped in an American flag. This "Sacred" Cod had hung in the Old State House, and it hangs in the new one to this very day. There is no better symbol of how much Massachusetts owes both its survival and its success to the humble cod fish.

People who visit the House Chambers in the Massachusetts State House may be surprised to find that the place of honor is held by the "Sacred" Cod. This 4' 11" piece of solid pine is a symbol of the debt the state owes to the fish that was the key to its survival and success. It was for cod that mariners first ventured across the Atlantic to Iceland, Canada, and then New England. The coast of North America was literally churning with codfish that were bigger and more plentiful than Europeans had ever seen before. The seemingly inexhaustible cod fishery was a mainstay of the Bay colony's economy from the very beginning. In 1640, Massachusetts fishermen brought 300,000 cod to market.

The demand for cod was strong in both the New World and the Old. The cod trade was an important source of the cash New Englanders needed to buy European products. Shipping dried cod fish to feed slaves in the West Indies was so profitable that a group of Bostonians, known somewhat derisively as the "codfish aristocracy," became rich.

It is no surprise then that the humble codfish became an emblem of civic pride. A carved cod has hung in the seat of Massachusetts government at least since the early 1700s. The one that currently hangs in the State House is most likely the third "Sacred" Cod. The first cod was hanging at the Old State House until it was destroyed in a fire in 1747. It was soon replaced with another, but that one disappeared during the British occupation of Boston early in the Revolution. At the end of the war, the new Massachusetts legislature took up the matter of the missing cod. In 1784, it was moved that "leave might be given to hang up the representation of a Cod Fish in the room where the House sit, as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth, as had been usual formerly." A new fish was duly carved and installed in the House chambers later that year.

After the Revolution, Massachusetts leaders wanted a new, larger seat of government, reflective of the state's growth and prosperity. Boston-born architect Samuel Bulfinch designed the beautiful building that still graces Beacon Hill. On January 11, 1798, a stately procession moved from the Old State House to the recently completed new one. The "Sacred" Cod, wrapped in an American flag, was carried to its new place of honor. When the House outgrew its quarters in 1895, the Cod moved with the House to its new chamber. There it has remained, except for a few days in the spring of 1933.

In April 1933, the Harvard Lampoon staged a prank later known as the "cod-napping." The first step was to distract the Lampoon's arch rival and watchdog, the Harvard Crimson. On April 16, members of the Lampoon abducted a Crimson staffer. With the outraged Crimson men intent on finding their missing colleague, the Lampoon crew turned its attention to the Cod.

The plan was simple. Three members of the Lampoon pretending to be tourists walked into the State House with wire cutters and a flower box. When no one was looking, they snipped the wires from which the fish was hanging, hid it in the flower box, and left the building. When authorities discovered that the fish had disappeared, the city went wild. Rumors and speculation abounded, while the police chased down leads that turned out to be red herrings (a different fish altogether). The newspapers decried the theft, the state police were called in to assist, and the Charles River was dredged. Declaring that they could not legislate without their cod, the members of the House devoted themselves to debating what charges should be brought against the culprits.

Two days later an anonymous tip led the superintendent of the Harvard University Police to follow a car with no license plate on West Roxbury Parkway. After a 20-minute slow-speed chase, the mysterious car pulled over, two men leapt out, handed over the Cod, and sped away. Once returned to the State House, the "Sacred" Cod has remained in the House chambers to the present day. Not to be outdone, the Senate had a brass fish incorporated into the chandelier hanging in its chambers. Known affectionately as the "Holy Mackerel," this little fish lacks the historical importance of the "Sacred" Cod, but it is yet another sign of the critical role the fishing industry has played in the life of the Commonwealth.

Sources
Art in the Massachusetts State House (Massachusetts Art Commission, 1986).
Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky (Walker & Co., 1997).