On the highest point in Boston’s North End sits a cemetery. Late in the afternoon, after the Freedom Trail pilgrims have gone back to their hotels and dinner time pursuits, you’ll find a little piece of old Boston with lots of stories to tell and few around to break the silence required to hear them.
Copp’s Hill is named for the seventeenth century shoemaker who once called it home. These days the cemetery is about three acres, but it started out much smaller in 1659. Over time it grew as Boston grew, and today there are almost ten thousand people buried here with about two thousand visible markers. Of those markers, about six in ten date prior to the American Revolution – it is safe to say that Copp’s Hill has secured its place in the history of Boston and in the history of America.
Walking around, you get the sense that those buried here represent a slice of Boston history that feels more real than legendary. There are no Paul Reveres or John Hancocks buried here, but there are revolutionary heroes – those that fought the good fight, but that time seems to have forgotten. Their names don’t roll off our tongues, dripping with lists of famous deeds, but they were there and they contributed, just as much as the Sam Adamses of the world. One in particular stands out in my mind because I didn’t know of him prior to visiting Copp’s Hill. His grave stands on the left side of the cemetery and is marked by a tombstone covered with stirring words. His life was best commemorated by Oliver Wendall Holmes when he wrote:
“Oh fire away, ye villains and earn King George’s shillin’s, but ye’ll waste a ton of powder afore a rebel falls; you may bang the dirt and welcome, they’re as safe as Daniel Malcolm, ten foot beneath the gravestone that you’ve splintered with your balls!”
– Oliver Wendall Holmes
To know his story, you have to dig through the lesser known works of history – back to the days of pre-revolutionary Boston. In those days Fleet Street, like today, was just another narrow street lined with shops and houses. Walking down this street now you would never know that one of the cornerstones of the Bill of Rights was inspired by something that happened here a very long time ago.
1766 was a volatile time in Boston. The Boston Massacre had occurred just three short years before and the detested Stamp Act had been in place for about a year. Times were tense between the Bostonians and the British army. As a result, anyone out in the darkness of night was up to no good.
One of the homes on Fleet Street was the residence of an Irishman, Captain Daniel Malcom, brother to custom agent John Malcom who had been tarred and feathered some two years prior. Unlike his brother, Daniel was anything but a king’s man. He was a known as many things – a smuggler, a merchant, but most importantly, a known friend to the patriot cause.
Under order of the Crown, during this time items entering port could only legally get into the city once import duties were paid. However, due to the simmering of the revolutionary cauldron in Boston, there was a blatant disregard for paying any tax. The goal was to get items into the city in secret, thereby going around the required tax. As you can imagine, this was dangerous work and work best done at night, when customs agents slept.
In the early morning of September 23, men were on the move. Recently arrived casks of wine, were being moved into Daniel Malcom’s cellar under cover of darkness. By the time dawn arrived, a customs comptroller and deputy tax collector, along with several others, were standing at Malcom’s door. Someone had caught wind of Malcom’s activities and turned him in.
Malcom initially allowed the men to search his outbuildings and kitchen, hoping they would be satisfied. However, when they demanded to see inside the cellar, he refused. The customs agents began discussing the possibility of forcing their way into the cellar and Malcom informed them that this was his private dwelling and they had no authority to do so. As a result, he strapped on his sword and with a brace of pistols in hand, threatened to “blow the brains” out of anyone who tried.
This went on for two hours before the customs agents left, intent on retrieving a search warrant. By the time they returned later that afternoon, Malcom had shuttered and barred his home and a rather large, less than hospitable, crowd of 200 had gathered. With the crowd growing steadily into an angry mob, the agents fled, afraid for their safety. It was later ruled that the writ of assistance that the customs agents initially tried to use to access the cellar didn’t apply in the colonies. As a result, the customs agents were unauthorized to enter Malcom’s dwelling and conduct a search. The “Malcom Incident” became another nail in the coffin of British rule in the colonies and would later help inspire the fourth amendment.
Daniel Malcom died a few years after this incident and was buried at Copp’s Hill. When war finally broke out between the colonies and England, the British used Copp’s Hill as a staging ground for firing on Bunker Hill and Charlestown. Legend says that they considered it good luck to spit on Malcom’s grave before using it for target practice. He was reviled for his stand against British authority, even in death. To this day his tombstone is scarred with deep holes made when muskets were fired at close range. Despite the blemishes, you can still make out the following:
Here lies buried in a stone grave 10 feet deep, Capt. Daniel Malcolm, Merchant who departed this life October 23rd, 1769 age 44 years. A true Son of liberty. An enemy to oppression and one of the foremost in opposing the revenue acts on America.
Malcom and hundreds of others like him stood up to oppression and demanded the rights they felt were God given to all men. Sure, the John Hancocks, Sam Adames, and Paul Reveres of the Revolution were important, as leaders are always needed – but it was the everyday person, living and working under the yoke of British rule, that made independence possible.
Here’s lookin’ at you Captain Daniel Malcom….may you forever rest in peace.
All photos by the author.