From ill-figured shadows to headless madams, the ghosts of Boston, Massachusetts’ King’s Chapel Burying Ground reside only a few steps beyond its pitch black, wrought iron gates. By day, the cemetery serves as a palpable relic of colonial America, displaying headstones dating back to the early 17th century. By night, the site begins to distort, morphing into a hotspot for strange encounters.
Since its inception, this National Historic Landmark has served as a gateway to the paranormal, floating just above the edge of reality, and blurring the already thin lines between the seen and unseen world.
The oldest graveyard in the city, King’s Chapel Burying Ground, was established in 1630 as the final resting place of early Bay Colony settler Isaac Johnson, the land’s owner. Johnson, who used the land as a vegetable garden, explicitly asked to be buried in his pumpkin patch. Although he was the first interment, the land continued to be used as a gravesite, serving as the only burial ground in the city for 30 years.
Unlike recent funeral practices, the headstones and footstones of early burials were scattered randomly throughout the grounds, creating an unpleasant and uninviting atmosphere. This all changed during the Victorian era (1837-1901), as cemeteries became attractive recreational parks. With this new trend, the grounds were beautified, luscious greenery was incorporated, and footpaths were established, inviting folks to picnic in the field and stroll through the smoothly-paved walkways.
Not too shabby, right? Well, the issue with this visual upgrade is that headstones were rearranged and organized in neat rows, completely ignoring the corresponding remains underneath. It is said that the mixup is what sparked the mysterious happenings in the area. With the disturbance of graves, spirits were left to wander eternally, unable to cross over. Today, only half of the headstones of the over one thousand people buried here remain.
This park cemetery, located on the central Tremont Street, preserves both its antique charm as well as its Victorian-era appearance, making it the ideal place for an immersive historical experience. Among all that this preserved gem has to offer, two gravestones stand out: Joseph Tapping and Elizabeth Pain. Could they be two of the souls who are haunting King's Chapel Burying Grounds?
Near the entrance of the cemetery, unforgettable and beautiful in its own right, stands the Joseph Tapping headstone. The carved stone depicts the constant struggle between life and death, with a skeleton trying to extinguish a lit candle, and Father Time trying to preserve it. The artwork represents the fleeting nature of life, as well as humanity’s imminent end; possibly the most jarring gravestone in the entire cemetery.
This gravestone is significant not for its aesthetic or design, but for its role in inspiring Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. The headstone reads: “Here lies the body of Elizabeth Pain, wife to Samuel Pain…” This short phrase inspired Hawthorne to dream up his main character, Hester Prynne, a 17th-century woman living in Puritan Boston who, after being accused of adultery, is publicly humiliated and forced to wear a scarlet “A”.
King’s Chapel is home to the remains of some of Boston’s most significant pioneers. Among these, we find Mary Chilton, the first European woman to step foot in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor. It is also the final resting place of New World-shaping Puritans and destiny-rewriting Revolutionary War heroes, all of which are said to still haunt the cemetery today.
As the oldest cemetery in the city, it is no surprise that King’s Chapel stands out as one of Boston’s most active paranormal locations. Upon entering the grounds, many experience sudden chills, hearing disembodied voices, and being touched, grabbed, or pushed. Although identifying the perpetrators of these strange occurrences has been impossible, certain entities have been seen - and heard - by visitors time and time again.
Often spotted in the westernmost portion of the cemetery, the headless spirit of an African-American woman roams the grounds. After her death, the carpenter who built her coffin had grossly miscalculated the measurements and made it too short. Instead of ordering the construction of an appropriately-sized coffin, the careless mortician decided to saw her head off and place it in between her legs. He made the body fit of course, but the gruesome act was enough to cripple the woman’s journey to the afterlife, and she has haunted the graveyard ever since.
Locals often tell the story of a man who was buried alive in King’s Chapel during the early-19th century, which, believe it or not, was not that uncommon.
An issue of The Chicago Tribune, published on July 19, 1896, addressed the topic, discussing the slim chance of premature burial, but also acknowledging the plethora of exhumed graves that showed signs of activity - or rather, a struggle - in the casket.
The uncomfortable discussion was prompted by an alarming number of premature burials reported in England within a brief, six-month period. If physicians were incorrectly pronouncing people dead during a peak time of medical advancement - like the 19th century - it makes us wonder how many were buried alive in the centuries prior, especially since King’s Chapel was almost 300 years old by then.
To make us shudder a bit, the newspaper article narrates the story of a woman who was conscious while being prepared for burial. Although she could not move, open her eyes, or speak, she was aware of her family members towering over her, weeping over their loss. While at the funeral home, her internal distress began to show outwardly, producing tiny beads of sweat that alerted her undertaker that she was still alive.
At King’s Chapel, however, the story is a bit more gruesome as it does not describe how a premature burial was averted but rather how a man was purposefully suffocated underground.
Legend has it that a man was buried alive by family members seeking ownership of his property. An old woman, certain of the ghastly deed, led a group of people to the cemetery who collectively demanded the grave be opened. Upon doing so, the body was found to be, indeed, dead, but the fingernail markings proved that the man spent his last moments attempting to claw his way out of the narrow confinement.
Nocturnal visitors often describe hearing muffled screams coming from beneath the earth. What is most spine-chilling is that it sounds like multiple voices, pointing to the possibility of additional premature burials at King’s Chapel.
The old-world cemetery lures both history buffs and ghost hunters through its gates. Skeptics are also welcome, as this charged haunted site is sure to change your mind. Visit King’s Chapel Burying Ground for a one-on-one paranormal experience that will challenge everything you thought you knew about reality.
The King’s Chapel Burying Ground is managed by the Historic Burying Grounds Initiative within Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The burial ground is open to the public from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. free of charge.
58 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108