Walking Boston Lets You Hold History In Your Hands
Ben’s Collection of Rare Documents and Historic Newspapers
Ben’s Collection of Rare Documents and Historic Newspapers
The tale of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, the State House cornerstone, and the oldest time capsule in America
On January 6, 2015, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, before members of the press, dignitaries, and other invited guests, a time capsule connected to Samuel Adams and Paul Revere—the oldest in America was opened. This is the story behind that time capsule.
Samuel Adams (1722-1803) An organizer of Boston’s Sons of Liberty; a political writer; a delegate to the Continental Congress; signer of the Declaration of Independence; third lieutenant governor and fourth governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
On July 4, 1795, the Columbian Centinel newspaper contained an article with the headline “The Day” mentioning the celebrations in honor of the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America. It noted that on this day “a new scene will be presented — the laying of the Corner Stone of the new State House, by His Excellency The Governor, assisted by the Grand Lodge.” A notice from the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts appeared in this same newspaper announcing their involvement in the ceremony. Two days later, on July 6, 1795, the following article appeared in the Federal Orrery:
The Anniversary of American independence has, this year, been celebrated, with unusual festivity, from one extremity of our republic to the other. In this town, the civic hilarity, which prevailed through all classes of citizens, has not been equaled by any celebration of the day within our recollection.
The auspicious morning was announced by the firing of cannon, and the ringing of bells. The pleasure-sparkling eye, the cordial congratulation, and the universal glee of municipal unanimity, ranked highly among other demonstrations of joy.
At 10 o’clock, the grand lodge of this commonwealth convened at the representative’s chamber, and formed a very numerous and respectable procession, accompanied by the reverend clergy. At half past 11, the procession reached the Old South Meeting House, where an elegant, nervous, and independent oration was delivered by Mr. George Blake, amid the loud and repeated plaudits of a crowded and brilliant audience.
During the delivery of the oration, Capt. Bradlee’s artillery performed a sham fight in State street, in which they displayed a perfection of discipline, and knowledge of tactics, which would have reflected honor on veteran engineers.
At one o’clock, the masonic procession, attended by his excellency Samuel Adams, after having moved through the principal streets of the town, arrived at the spot, destined for the corner stone of the new State House. The stone was drawn thither by 15 white horses, and decorated with federal emblems. The number of spectators, who crowded the hill and adjacent ground, was so great, that it was impossible to attend to the minutiae of the ceremony. His excellency, however, pronounced a pertinent address on the occasion, and the stone was laid over a silver plate, engraved with the names of its depositors, amid the shouts of the citizens, and the peals of the artillery.
Paul Revere (1734-1818) A talented silversmith; a member of the Sons of Liberty; a participant in the Boston Tea Party at age 38; courier and express rider for the Boston Committee of Correspondence and Massachusetts Committee of Safety; Revolutionary War veteran; and industrialist.
Paul Revere also served as Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts. On July 4, 1795, the time capsule was placed as part of a Masonic cornerstone laying ceremony with the assistance of Paul Revere, William Scollay, and their fellow Freemasons of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts at the request of Governor Samuel Adams. The time capsule consisted of an engraved silver plate (likely produced by Revere himself) between two sheets of lead along with some coins and other items. On July 8, 1795 the Columbian Centinel printed a full account of the events of July 4, including details of the Masonic procession and the text on the engraved silver plate.
Some sixty years after the July 4, 1795 ceremony, on August 7, 1855, workmen building an addition onto the Massachusetts State House and doing repair work on its foundation located the time capsule while removing some earth at the southeast corner of the building. It was replaced just four days later on August 11, this time in a brass container that measured 5.5” wide x 7.5” high x 1.5” deep. Items added to the original contents included silver coins of United States currency from 1855; copper cents and half cents of the last four years; an impression of the State seal; the title page of the first volume of the newly printed Massachusetts Colony Records; and morning papers of the day. More details about the events of 1855 can be found in The Freemasons’ Monthly Magazine, Volume XIV.
At that point, the time capsule went undisturbed for over a century and a half until May 2014 when a water leak near its resting place in the cornerstone drew attention to it. Concerned that the water infiltration might have damaged the time capsule, officials decided to attempt to locate it and see if it was still intact. On Thursday, December 11, 2014, Pamela Hatchfield, the head of object conservation at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, spent seven hours chiseling and drilling the plaster in a depression on the underside of the cornerstone in an effort to remove the 10-pound box. It was X-rayed a few days later and eventually Pamela spent another five hours slowly removing the screws and loosening the top of the box. At that point, a ceremony could be arranged at the museum during which the box could be carefully opened and its contents revealed.
On the evening of January 6, 2015, that ceremony took place. Private tour guide Ben Edwards, a Revere relative, was honored to be on the invitation list for the opening of the time capsule at the Museum of Fine Arts. He attended the event with the Executive Director of the Paul Revere House and 4th and 5th generation direct descendants of Paul Revere.
Ben felt a special connection to his Edwards ancestors during the event. When the cornerstone laying ceremony was held on July 4, 1795, Ben’s fourth great grandfather Benjamin Edwards was a 30-year-old cooper living in the North End of Boston. It is likely that he watched the Masonic procession and ceremonies that day along with thousands of other Bostonians — perhaps in the company of his sister Sally Edwards and brother-in-law Paul Revere Jr. On August 7, 1855, when the time capsule was located and removed during construction and repair work to the foundation of the State House, Ben’s great great grandfather, also named Benjamin Edwards, was 19 years old and employed as a jeweller on Court Street according to the Boston City Directory for that year. And here it was, nearly 160 years later, when a modern day Ben Edwards would have his own connection to those same treasured objects his ancestors would have known about.
Two very special items removed from the time capsule that day included a Pine Tree Shilling dated 1652, and a medal struck in England in 1794 honoring George Washington. A link to the full contents of the time capsule appears further below.
The last item removed from the brass container was the most wonderful of all—the engraved silver plate. One could vividly imagine both Paul Revere and Samuel Adams holding this object over 200 years ago! The text engraved on the plate was as follows:
This Corner Stone of a building intended for the use of the Legislative and Executive Branches of Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by His Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq., Governor of said Commonwealth assisted by the Most Worshipful Paul Revere, Grand Master, and the Right Worshipful William Scollay, Deputy Grand Master, The Grand Wardens and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, on the 4th day of July, An. Dom. 1795 A.L. 5795. Being the 20th Anniversary of American Independence.
The contents of the time capsule were put on public display at the Museum of Fine Arts from March 11 to April 22, 2015. This Inside the Box Exhibition page from the museum’s website includes more details and a video of the entire ceremony held on January 6, 2015. The time capsule was reinstalled in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House on June 17, 2015. It included a few modern items.
Next page: Original press coverage of the Inauguration of the Benjamin Franklin Statue in Boston on September 17, 1856.