The Sacred Cod in its natural habitat. "Humble the subject and homely the design; yet this painted image bears on its finny front a majesty greater than the dignity that art can lend to graven gold or chiselled marble ..."
|Dimensions||4 ft 11 in (1.50 m) long[A]|
|Weight||80 lb (36 kg)|
|Location||Massachusetts State House, Boston|
The Sacred Cod is a four-foot, eleven-inch carved-wood effigy of an Atlantic codfish, "painted to the life", hanging in the House of Representatives chamber of Boston's Massachusetts State House—"a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth" (i.e. Massachusetts, of which cod is officially the "historic and continuing symbol"). The Sacred Cod has gone through as many as three incarnations over three centuries: the first (if it really existed—the authoritative source calling it a "prehistoric creature of tradition") was lost in a 1747 fire, the second disappeared during the American Revolution, and the third is the one seen in the House today.
Sacred Cod is not a formal name but a nickname which appeared in 1895, soon after the carving was termed "the sacred emblem" by a House committee appointed "to investigate the significance of the emblem [which] has kept its place under all administrations, and has looked upon outgoing and incoming legislative assemblies, for more than one hundred years." Soon sacred cod was being used in reference to actual codfish as well, in recognition of the creature's role in building Massachusetts' prosperity and influence since early colonial times.
In 1933 the Sacred Cod was briefly "Cod-napped" by editors of the Harvard Lampoon, prompting police to drag the Charles River and search an airplane landing in New Jersey. In 1968 it was taken briefly again, this time by students at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Codfishing was the first industry practiced by Europeans in Massachusetts, and it is said that the colony's first export was a cargo of fish.:23 Thus the codfish has been an important New England symbol for centuries, its image appearing on many early coins, stamps, corporate and government seals, and insignia such as the early crest of the Salem Gazette.:34-36
What is now called the Sacred Cod has hung for three centuries—though with interruptions, and in three successive incarnations—in the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (or its predecessor, the House of Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay).
Of the Sacred Cod's first incarnation, the Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish (appointed by the House in 1895) wrote:
There is a dim tradition that in the primitive House of Assembly of the Province there hung a codfish which was the gift of Judge Samuel Sewall [a judge at the Salem witch trials who] died in 1729. [But his] published remains make no mention of this traditional fish, and it is difficult to imagine that a man of his loquacious verbosity would have omitted to chronicle his munificence.:17
Whatever its origin, when the State House burned in 1747 "this prehistoric creature of tradition ... doubtless went up in a whirl of smoke which still clouds its history to the peering vision of the antiquarian." :17
A second Cod appeared sometime between 1748 (when the State House was rebuilt) and 1773 (when Thomas Crafts, Jr. billed the Province of Massachusetts Bay, "To painting Codfish, 15 shillings"). But within a few years, the Committee wrote, the second Cod
disappeared from the State House and was doubtless destroyed, for the closest historical research fails to shed any light upon the time, manner or cause of its disappearance, or to disclose any reference to it whatever. Mayhap some burly British trooper, quartered in the improvised barracks of the old State House [during the Siege of Boston], took umbrage at the spick and span elegance of the newly painted emblem of colonial independence and thrift. Such a one may have torn down the cherished symbol from the wall whence it had offered aid and comfort to the rebel patriots, with its assurance of the material wealth accessible to the embryonic State, and, in spirit of vandalism so prevalent at that age, used it to replenish his evening camp fire.:17-18
The third Sacred Cod was installed in 1784, after Representative John Rowe—namesake of Rowes Wharf, and "a leading spirit in the stirring scenes that led up to the famous 'Boston Tea Party'" :16—asked leave "to hang up the representation of a Cod Fish in the room where the House sit, as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth, as had been usual formerly ... And so the emblem was suspended" in the old State House once again, and this Cod (which Rowe may have underwritten personally) is the one extant today.:20
In 1798 it was moved to the Representatives chamber in the new State House,:12-13 where it originally hung "directly over the Speaker's desk, but in the [1850s] it was shifted to the rear of the chamber".:20[C]
Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish
On January 2, 1895—the House's last day of business before relocating to a new chamber in the same building—
[t]he question of taking with it the "representation of a codfish," which for more than a hundred years had never missed a "roll call," was brought up for consideration. It was, however, deemed wise to investigate the significance of the emblem before its removal ...
Accordingly, after "nearly two months of painstaking research and investigation" the three-member Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish submitted its report, and after debating "at length" the House ordered "immediate removal of the ancient 'representation of a codfish' from its present position in the chamber recently vacated by the House, and to cause it to be suspended ... in this chamber ..." :4
The Sacred Cod was wrapped in an American flag, placed on a bier, and—escorted by the Sergeant-at-Arms—borne by House messengers to the new House chamber, where the assembled Representatives rose in applause.:7 After repainting by Walter M. Brackett, it was hung where it remains today: "between the two sets of central columns, and under the names 'Motley,' and 'Parkman'," :20 facing left as viewed from the floor of the chamber. (It is sometimes said that the Cod is turned to face the political party currently in power, but no such tradition was mentioned by the Committee.)
"Sacred Cod" nickname
The Committee's report refers at one point to "the sacred emblem",:20 and while it was working an item appeared in the Boston Globe referring to the carving as "the Sacred Cod". Within a few years authors, journalists, and advertisers—even those far from New England—were using the term routinely.
The phrase quickly came to refer not only to the wooden Cod in the State House but to flesh-and-blood cod from the sea as well, especially as an item of commerce. At the 1908 convention of the Retail Grocers of the United States, held in Boston, one delegate recalled
the first organized effort ... for the bettering of conditions in the grocery business. I refer to the Boston tea party. How could we get along without the Boston baked beans or the almost sacred cod?
Two years later the New Hampshire Board of Agriculture, bemoaning the counterfeiting of foodstuffs "famous for their distinctive properties or superior quality", warned that "haddock, hake, pollock, cusk, etc., are substituted indiscriminantly in place of the sacred cod."  In 1912 President William Howard Taft, in Boston, addressed a journalists' banquet in New York City "by long distance telephone from the home of the sacred cod". And in 1922 historian Samuel Eliot Morison, emphasizing fishing's vital role in the colonial economy, wrote that "Puritan Massachusetts derived her ideals from a sacred book; her wealth and power from the sacred cod." [D]
"Cod-napping" and other incidents
In an incident now referred to as "The Cod-napping" even by State House officials, on April 26, 1933 members of the Harvard Lampoon (the Harvard College humor magazine) entered the House of Representatives gallery, cut down the Cod, and carried it away in an unusually large florist's box equipped with protruding decoy lilies.[E]
According to the New York Times, Massachusetts officials were "shocked into a condition bordering on speechlessness" by the theft, "some legislators holding that it would be sacrilege to transact business without the emblem of the Commonwealth looking down on them",[F] while Boston mayor James Michael Curley received a telephone message: "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. Lafayette Mulligan, we are here."  Police went so far as to drag the Charles River and, learning that a Lampoon editor had flown to New Jersey, had the plane searched on landing.
Eventually a mysterious telephone call sent Harvard official Charles R. Apted to West Roxbury where two men, with collars up and hats pulled down, emerged from a car to hand over the Cod (not wrapped in any flag) before speeding away. In the early hours of April 29, after repairs to three damaged fins, the Sacred Cod was re-hung in the House chamber, "six inches higher [than] the reach of any individual. A stepladder will be needed to remove it in the future." [G]
University of Massachusetts
Using a stepladder, on November 14, 1968 students at the new Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts took the Sacred Cod in protest of perceived legislative indifference to their school. It was found days later in a little-used State House hallway.
World War II
When officials of the World War II aluminum-for-defense drive, misinformed that the Cod was aluminum, asked that it be donated to the war effort, House Speaker Christian Herter explained that the Cod had been created decades before aluminum's discovery, and suggested that a metal fish figure (sometimes dubbed the "Holy Mackerel") above the chandelier of the Massachusetts Senate chamber be considered for sacrifice instead.
- Atlantic cod as large as 2 meters (6 ft) in length have been known, but they are "commonly caught or marketed" at about 1 meter.
- The Committee discussed at length whether the Cod sculpted by Welch was the second in the series, or the third: "There seems good reason to believe that this missing fish, or its successor, which has come down to us, was carved by one John Welch, a Boston patriot. Welch was born Aug. 11, 1711. He was a well-known citizen, and lived on Green Lane in West Boston. In 1756 he was a captain in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. He, [like John Rowe], was one of the signers of the famous petition or memorial, charging the officers of the Crown with appropriating to their own use money belonging to the Province. The descendants of John Welch have always insisted that he carved the State House codfish of today. His great-great-grandson, Capt. Francis Welch, is now living in Brookline, at the age of eight-six, and he has recently stated that the truth of this assertion has always been recognized among the family traditions. It has been handed down from father to son uncontradicted for at least three generations. Captain Welch's father repeatedly told him that he heard the story from the lips of his grandfather, and never expressed the least doubt in regard to it.
"Conceding the authenticity of this tradition, a question remains as to which of the two codfishes was the handiwork of John Welch. Welch died Feb. 9, 1789; so that, if he carved the fish now in the State House, he must have been in his seventy-fourth year. This seems unlikely, whereas he might easily have wrought the codfish Thomas Crafts painted; and it is quite probable that, in the growing vagueness of domestic tradition, the identity of the two may have been confounded. In that chaotic revolutionary period which left us no record of the loss or destruction of the object of Thomas Crafts' artistic attention, the Welch family may easily have lost trace of it, and have taken it for granted that the older emblem is the actual symbol of today."
- The Committee elaborated: "In 1867, for a brief space, the fish was missing from its accustomed haunt; but it soon returned, brighter than before, in a new coat of submarine motley. Again, in 1874, while the chamber was being renovated, the codfish was taken down to be repainted; and at the time [the House's 'venerable doorkeeper'] Captain Tucker measured it, finding its length to be four feet and eleven inches. He also noted that it was carved from a solid piece of wood. Since that time, a period of twenty-one years, the sacred emblem has not been profaned by mortal touch."
- The famous doggerel poking fun at Boston's Brahmins—
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.
—paraphrases an earlier poem now little remembered:
Here's to old Massachusetts / The home of the sacred cod,
Where the Adamses vote for Douglas, / And the Cabots walk with God.
- According to the Harvard Crimson (the campus daily, and the Lampoon's longtime rival) editors of the Lampoon, to distract their Crimson competitors from interfering with the planned "Cod-napping", first "laid siege to the Crimson building at 5:15 o'clock in the morning and commenced a futile search for the morning's papers which they intended to stamp 'Compliments of the Lampoon.' Disappointed and infuriated by their failure to find the sheets which had previously been hidden ... the invaders took their revenge by binding and gagging J. M. Boyd '35, Crimson editor, who was at the time working in the building. In spite of the gallant attempt at rescue made by R. P. Buch '34, and the effective defense afforded by the shovel of Adolph, veteran janitor, who was subsequently imprisoned in the boiler room, the visitors succeeded in driving Buch out of the building and into the inner sanctuary of the Catholic church [i.e. nearby St. Paul Church]. They immediately removed Boyd from the premises, and drove away to Wellesley Hills." 
In Cambridge, meanwhile, an arranged fracas between Lampoon and Crimson men was staged for the benefit of invited journalists. After sundry other hijinx, "Boyd was taken from Wellesley to Boston, where he and his captors ... were entertained at tea by friends of the kidnaped editor." 
The next day, inferring the Lampoon was behind the Cod theft, Crimson editors issued an ultimatum: either the Lampoon hand the Cod over by midnight (allowing the Crimson to take credit for its return), or its deeds would be exposed. The next morning's New York Times reported that the Crimson had accused the Lampoon of taking the Cod.
- "But the House came in, Speaker Saltonstall looked mournfully at the vacant place and then banged the gavel.The first act of the House fitted the occasion. It passed to be engrossed a bill allowing the cold storage of swordfish." 
- A month later the Los Angeles Times published a poem by James J. Montague, "The Pilfered Cod":
From Winthrop Beach to Bunker Hill, / From Cambridge to Revere,
The voice of happiness was still, / One heard no note of cheer.
A pallor whitened every face. / All eyes were red and swollen;
A dreadful crime had taken place – / The Codfish had been stolen.
The Fish that symbolized a trade / Which, in the days of old,
The shores of old New England made / A strand of shining gold,
The Fish that millions came to view / With ardent admiration,
The Fish whose fame has echoed to / The corners of the nation.
When first I set my roving feet / Upon Bostonian sod,
I hastened blithely up the street / To view the Sacred Cod,
And in its dull and glassy eyes, / The instant of our meeting,
I fancied that I saw arise / A glance of cordial greeting.
Today there is an end of grief; / No more the skies loom black;
A chastened and repentant thief / Has brought the Codfish back.
No Stygian gloom now broods around, / No heart with woe is freighted;
Bostonian pulses leap and bound – / The Cod is reinstated.
In 1937, after Representative John B. Wenzler offered a facetious proposal "that the sacred cod be immediately removed [from the House chamber], and a greyhound substituted in its place, as the 1937 Legislature has shown itself to be completely under the power of the dog track operators", Apted (whom the Boston Globe called "the superintendent of caretakers at Harvard and Harvard Cop No. 1") wrote to Wenzler: "As one who is, and was, very much interested in preserving [the Cod's] dignity, and furthermore having held it in my arms ... I most respectfully ask a favor, that is: If the greyhound be substituted, that I be presented with the cod in order that it may be preserved for the future of young Americans." 
- Froese, R. and D. Pauly (ed.). "Gadus morhua". Fishbase. (citing Cohen, D.M., T. Inada, T. Iwamoto and N. Scialabba (1990). "Gadiform fishes of the world (Order Gadiformes). An annotated and illustrated catalogue of cods, hakes, grenadiers and other gadiform fishes known to date". FAO species catalogue. Vol. 10. FAO Fish. Synop. 125(10) (Rome: FAO): 442.)
- General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Ch. 2 §13". Massachusetts General Law. General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved January 15, 2013. [better source needed]
- Citizen Information Service. "The Massachusetts State House Today". Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth. Retrieved April 8, 2009.
Massachusetts. General Court. House of Representatives. Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish. (1895). A History of the Emblem of the Codfish in the Hall of the House of Representatives. Compiled by a Committee of the House.. Boston: Wright and Potter.
- Healy, Mary Lou (September 11, 1982). "State Symbols Are Many and Varried". The Lewiston Journal. p. 5A.
- "Taft Talks to Publishers Over Wire". Pittsburgh Post Gazette. April 26, 1912. p. 9.
- "The Sacred Cod Again". Daily Boston Globe. January 20, 1895. p. 31.
- "National Retail Grocers Convention". The American Food Journal 3 (5): 20. May 15, 1908.
- "Annual Winter Meeting at Exeter, 1910". State of New Hampshire. Reports, 1909–1910. Volume IV.—Biennial. Report of the Board of Agriculture from September 1, 1908 to September 1, 1910. 1911. p. 186.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot (1922). The Maritime History of Massachusetts , 1783–1869. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 14.
- McPhee, John. Giving Good Weight. p. 163.
- "House of Representatives". State House Tours. Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth. Retrieved April 8, 2009.
- "Canny Crimson Captive Claimed From Crass Commercialized Comic Cut-ups". The Harvard Crimson. April 27, 1933.
- "Sacred Cod theft laid to Lampoon". The New York Times. April 28, 1933. p. 19.
- "Sacred Cod Gone". Lewiston Morning Tribune. April 28, 1933.
- " 'Sacred Cod' back in Honored Place". The New York Times. April 29, 1933.
- "State Police Says They'll Get Purloiners of Cod". Daily Boston Globe. April 29, 1933. p. A22.
- Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1933:
- "PROPOSES RACING DOG REPLACE SACRED COD". Daily Boston Globe. June 5, 1937. p. 13.
- "Apted Puts in Bid For Sacred Cod If Greyhound Really Replaces It". Daily Boston Globe. June 5, 1937. p. 4.
- "Our Opinion: Sacred Cod and not so Sacred Students". Mass Media (Boston). November 19, 1968. p. 2.
- Harting, William (November 18, 1968). "Sacred Cod Fish Found—in State House". Boston Globe.
- Fripp, William (November 16, 1968). "Sacred Cod Gone from House Perch". Boston Globe.
- "Sacred Cod Escapes Defense Melting Pot". The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL). July 16, 1941.
- Boston Public Library. News photo (Leslie Jones, Boston Herald-Traveler) of Sacred Cod post "Codnapping", 1933