Time capsule from 1795 found in Boston statehouse

Massachusetts officials work to remove a time capsule from the cornerstone of a Boston statehouse. The relic is believed to contain items such as old coins and newspapers.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Corrosion, degradation and decay destroy a lot of history, but Massachusetts officials can thank the elements for helping uncover the past.

In a damp ceremony of discovery Thursday, snow-flecked excavators in Boston retrieved a time capsule whose contents are thought to be almost as old as the nation, and even older. It was tucked into a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795.

Founding Fathers Samuel Adams and Paul Revere took part in the original ceremony, when a cowhide capsule was placed as the state moved from its old statehouse to its new one across from the Boston Common.


The contents are thought to include a collection of coins dating from 1652 to 1855, when the cowhide capsule was replaced with a metal box. An engraved silver plate, newspapers, the seal of the Commonwealth, cards and the title page of the Massachusetts Colony Records are also believed to be inside.

The copper or tin box, which measures 5-by-7 inches, was mortared into the cornerstone, which officials recently decided to remove while trying to prevent water from seeping into the aging statehouse. One reporter on the scene for WBZ NewsRadio reported Thursday that several dimes from 1854 fell out of the cornerstone as workers tapped their way inside.

“It’s exciting,” Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin said in an interview. “The history of Massachusetts is the history of America, in many respects.”

After a day of labor, workers removed the box from the cornerstone, with the assistance of a conservator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Officials hope to X-ray it over the weekend and potentially open it next week.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time capsule recovered from a Massachusetts statehouse building this year.

Less than half a mile away stands the Old State House, the oldest surviving public building in Boston, built in 1713. A time capsule was recovered there three months ago. Like the Massachusetts State House, the Old State House’s walls have cradled crucial moments of early American history.

In 1770, just outside the Old State House’s walls, British troops killed five Colonists in what would become known as the Boston Massacre.

Not long after, on July 18, 1776, the first Massachusetts reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred on the Old State House’s balcony, as the public gathered on the street below.

Lion and unicorn statues on the building as a symbol of British rule were torn down and destroyed in a fire, said Heather Leet, director of development at the Bostonian Society, which was founded to restore the Old State House.

The society replaced the statues with wooden ones in 1881.

But the harsh harbor winds whipping down State Street forced officials to replace the replacements in 1901, with a silver-enameled unicorn and a gold-enameled lion, both made of copper, Leet said. Those statues had to be restored after decades of punishment from those same New England winds, Leet said.

A time capsule hidden in the lion had been forgotten until 2011, when a descendant of the artist who created it notified the society of its existence. “Copper Box to be Placed in Head of the King of Beasts,” the Boston Daily Globe announced in a Feb. 24, 1901, article.

The statues were removed on Sept. 14, and with the help of a fiberoptic camera officials discovered a copper shoebox-sized capsule in the head of the lion.

The box contained slightly more modern treasures: a wooden piece of the original lion statue, photographs of public officials and workers, and memorabilia from Boston-area newspapers — including an envelope titled, “A message to posterity from the daily newspapers at City Hall,” which was found to be impishly empty after being carefully opened with steam.

“There was nothing in the envelope — no letter for posterity, which we think was a joke from the city hall journalists,” Leet said.

Found in the box was a hardback book titled “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1896.”

The book is actually part of a U.S. State Department series, still in print, that’s considered to be “the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity,” according to the U.S. Government Printing Office.

The Bostonian Society took suggestions from the city and beyond, then created a new Boston-centric time capsule for 2014. Items included a 2013 Boston Marathon medal, an Apple iPhone 5, Red Sox tickets and a fragment of a 1713 brick from the building.

It also includes the latest available version of “Foreign Relations of the United States,” a contribution from the Government Printing Office, Leet said.

The capsule was then placed back into the head of the king of beasts and returned to the top of the Old State House on Nov. 23, to await its next encounter with history.

Twitter: @mattdpearce