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Love Letters to Boston: The “Cod-napping” of The Sacred Cod

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at BU chapter.

It’s actually written in Massachusetts state law that the cod is a “historic and continuing symbol of the commonwealth.” In fact, cod fishing was the first major industrial venture of the colonists in the area, so the state as a whole has developed a strange reverence for the fish. 

What is the Sacred Cod? In the House of Representatives chamber in the State House an almost five-foot-long wooden codfish hangs above the room, watching over the state legislators and “riding serenely the sound waves of debate.”

There were two—or possibly three—Sacred Cod carvings that lived in the chamber by 1784 (clearly those early years were quite turbulent for the famous fish). The first incarnation, if it did exist, was rumored to have been given to the House of Assembly as a gift from Judge Samuel Sewell, who played a role in the Salem witch trials. Whether or not the first Sacred Cod really hung there, that early State House succumbed to a fire in 1747, and the Cod definitely would not have survived the blaze. 

The second Sacred Cod was short-lived. It was only a couple of years before someone snatched it up around the time of the American Revolution. The third Cod was the one that stuck. In 1784 one of the Representatives asked to suspend the fishy symbol once again, and that is the carving that hangs above the Massachusetts House of Representatives to this day.

Ohio University The Ridges
Hannah Moskowitz

The House even formed a committee when they moved from the Old State House to the new one in order to determine if it was worth it to move the Cod as well, and they seemed to conclude that the Cod deserved the utmost level of respect. When they transported it, it had quite the procession—they wrapped it in an American flag and transported it on a cart that was escorted by the Sergeant-at-Arms. When the Cod got to the new chamber, the Representatives who were present literally stood and applauded it. Insane. 

So obviously people love this codfish carving. It would be a shame if something were to… happen to it, right? On April 26, 1933, the Cod disappeared. State House officials called it “The Cod-napping.” On this fateful day, members of Harvard’s humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, cut it down and snuck it out of the building concealed in a florist’s box. 

When the Cod was discovered missing that day, the response from state legislators was quite dramatic. The New York Times reported that “some legislators [held] that it would be sacrilege to transact business without the emblem of the Commonwealth looking down upon them.” The authorities went so far as to drag the Charles River looking for the Cod. The Harvard Crimson, the daily paper on campus and a rival of the Lampoon caught wind of the magazine’s involvement of the theft and published the information they had. 

With this revelation, the police discovered that the Lampoon’s editor was flying to New Jersey, and they even had his plane searched upon its arrival. Unfortunately, this lead ended up being a dead end. But can you imagine all of this drama and intrigue for a monetarily worthless carving of a codfish?  The thieves clearly wanted to display a level of fearlessness—soon after the theft, they sent a telephone message to the mayor: “Tell the Mayor that when the Sacred Cod is returned it will be wrapped in the municipal flag, now flying in front of City Hall. Try and catch us when we cop the flag.”

Despite this audacious message, the eventual return of the Cod was not quite as dramatic. Charles R. Apted, an official at Harvard, received a message leading him to West Roxbury, where he followed the thieves into the woods (sounds like a bad idea) and was handed the Cod before the perpetrators sped away. Contrary to their earlier message to the mayor, the municipal flag was not wrapped around the Cod.


American flag
Thomas Kelley/Unsplash

After a few days of turmoil, the Cod was hung once more above the chamber of the House of Representatives—this time they made sure that no one could reach it without a stepladder. Of course, this foolproof plan was foiled in 1968 when UMass Boston students stole it (using a stepladder) as a form of political protest. It was found in the State House a few days later.

Let’s hope that The Sacred Cod is now there to stay.

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Morgan is a senior at Boston University studying public relations with minors in art history and political science. She loves fall, cafés, and exploring Boston. She is a frequent art museum goer and an ardent Bruins fan. Besides writing, Morgan's hobbies include curating Spotify playlists, cheering on the BU Terriers at hockey games, and exploring independent bookstores.
Writers of the Boston University chapter of Her Campus.