This is the second in a series of posts on Boston’s animal statues — the city’s bronze menagerie
“. . . Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.”
Herman Melville – “Moby Dick”
Boston does not, to my knowledge, have a statue of the clam. Despite its contribution to filling the stomachs of early New Englanders, the lowly clam is not cute or charming, not heroic or inspiring, neither beautiful nor elegant. But the codfish is a different story. In the choice between clam or cod for animal statues, we have come down squarely on the side of fish, particularly codfish.
Why codfish? For several reasons, the Atlantic Codfish (Gadhus morhua) was important to the history, the economy and the well-being of New England. Codfish swarmed by the millions in the ocean, within easy reach.
They fed the Native Americans and the Puritan colonists, as well as the Jewish, Irish, French-Canadian, and Italian immigrants who came to the city in the following centuries. Cod was often the Fish on Friday for Catholic Boston. The fishing industry, along with the export of salt cod to feed slaves in the West Indies, built the fortunes of Beacon Hill’s “codfish aristocracy.”
The fishing industry supported and fed thousands of people for centuries, until overfishing crashed stocks in the 1990s. The codfish was both the top predator in the North Atlantic and the top selection of diners at New England’s seafood restaurants. Whether baked, broiled, fried or put in a “chowdah,” cod was the fish of choice.
Here are four finny contributions to Boston’s bronze menagerie of animal statues – although not all of them are made of bronze.
The Sacred Cod
This acknowledgement of the critical part codfish has played and a symbol of a bygone prosperity.hangs in the House of Representatives Hall of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.
Carved in pine, the effigy is five feet, eleven inches long and painted to resemble a live Atlantic Cod. It is suspended the visitors’ gallery over the entrance to the hall. That means the Speaker of the House faces the Sacred Cod during meetings. Over 200 years old, the wooden fish was originally known as the “sacred emblem” until nicknamed the Sacred Cod in 1895 by the Boston Globe.
As with so many things in Boston, this is the Sacred Cod’s third incarnation: the first disappeared when the old State House, then known as the Town House, burned in 1747.
The second version was carved by John Welch at some point between the rebuilding of the State House in 1748 and 1773 when Thomas Crafts Jr. billed the Province of Massachusetts Bay for painting a codfish. Codfish Number Two disappeared during the American Revolution, when British troops occupied Boston.
The third figure was commissioned by John Rowe and raised in 1784, although no one knows who actually carved it. Fourteen years later it was moved with great ceremony to the new State House on Beacon Hill, designed by Charles Bulfinch, There it hung over the Speaker’s desk until relocated to the rear of the chamber in the 1950s.
The Traveling Fish
As sometimes happens with symbols, the Sacred Cod has occasionally been the target of pranks, which are common in a city with so many college students. On April 26, 1933, members of the Harvard Lampoon entered the House gallery and snipped the wires, cutting down the effigy. They carried it away in a long florist’s box with lilies hanging out and held onto it for a few weeks. After some misdirection, the codnappers returned the fish to the chief of the Harvard College Police. It was re-hung in the gallery but higher than before, to put the fish out of reach and temptation.
That was a good idea but it didn’t work. On November 14, 1968, students from the University of Massachusetts protested what they considered legislative indifference to their school by once again abducting the fish. They used a stepladder to take down the Sacred Cod but left it in a seldom-used corridor of the State House.
The Massachusetts Senate needed its own piscine totem, of course, and they have it in the Holy Mackerel. This brass representation of the Atlantic Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) decorates the chandelier in the chamber. It is part of the large, heavy lighting fixture and thus has never been removed, kidnapped, or otherwise abused.
Codfish in Charlestown
Meanwhile, a whole school of bronze codfish swims just across the Charlestown Bridge in City Square Park. This beautiful green space features a two-tier fountain in the central plaza that’s surrounded by curved granite walls and seating.
Created by Halvorson Design of Boston in 1996, the fountain has bronze codfish spouting water from the central column into the top basin while more cod swim and leap on either side of the walkways. These dramatic fish were sculpted by David Phillips.
Winner of multiple awards, Mr. Phillips grounds his work in nature. He also created “Megaliths” the giant sculpture of whale-like forms that dip and rise so hypnotically outside the MBTA station in Porter Square.
“ And this is good old Boston, /
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.”
Information and Directions
The Massachusetts State House
24 Beacon St
Boston, MA 02133
Tours of the State House are given on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. They last approximately 30 to 45 minutes and are free of charge. The tours include overviews of the history and architecture of the State Capitol. Visitors can see the House and Senate Chambers so you can see both the Sacred Cod and the Holy Mackerel.
Just over the Charlestown Bridge from Boston, City Square Park is located at the intersection of North Washington Street and Chelsea Street in Charlestown. On the Freedom Trail it is open to the public and free. You can’t miss the fountain, which is the tallest structure in the park.
After 55 years as a commercial fisherman I say to you PSHASW, and SHAME on whomever said that the depicted “Holy Mackerel” is anything but a poorly painted Codfish. Refer to thousands of photos of both cod and mackerel, and notice the differences obvious in fin sizes and numbers, as well as body markings and colors.