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The Fish Heist That Shocked Massachusetts

A brazen theft of the sacred cod in 1933 by Harvard students sent the Commonwealth reeling for a few wild days. State police were called in to find the fish, a manhunt spread to New Jersey, the Charles River was dredged and the Massachusetts Legislature almost came to a halt. The story was national news.

Yes, the sacred cod.

The finny mascot had presided over the seat of Massachusetts government since the early 1700s as a symbol of the cod fishing that fueled the colony’s growth. It had even made some people -- the "codfish aristocracy" -- spectacularly rich.

The stolen cod was the third to preside over the seat of Massachusetts government. The first hung above the Old State House since the early 18th century until a fire destroyed it in 1747. The second disappeared when the British occupied Boston during the Revolutionary War. The third watched over the House Chamber in the Old State House until it Jan. 11, 1798. On that day, state officials wrapped the sacred cod  in an American flag and carried it in a solemn procession to its new place of honor in the new Bulfinch Statehouse .

The 4-foot 11-inch carved wooden cod hangs today over the Massachusetts House of Representatives, an emblem of civic pride.  (It's sometimes mistaken for the Holy Mackerel, but that's in the Senate Chamber and it's another story.) Traditionally it points to the party in power.

frt cod

But on one Wednesday evening in 1933, the fish wasn't pointing anywhere. The sacred cod had gone missing.

Adamg tells us in Universal Hub what happened next:

Late in the evening on April 26, 1933, a call came into the State House press room - the Sacred Cod was gone. The reporter who took the call at first thought it was just a joke, but he alerted security guards, who checked the House of Representatives. And sure enough, the 4'11" pine carving of a cod, which had overseen legislative affairs since 1784, was missing. As the Globe reported at the time:

State detectives, Boston police and State House guards combined in a frenzied but fruitless search for the emblem. Where the emblem hung were two wires, but no replica of the cod.

The next morning, anxious representatives, bereft of their guiding fins, pored over lawbooks looking for the harshest possible sentences for the ne'er-do-wells.

The news gripped Boston and spread throughout the nation. The Boston Transcript devoted two columns of news, hearsay and speculation to the story. Boston mayor James Michael Curley received a taunting telephone message saying the cod would be wrapped in the municipal flag when it was returned.

The New York Times reported that Massachusetts officials were "shocked into a condition bordering on speechlessness."

The Los Angeles Times even printed a poem about the theft:

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.

Members of the House of Representatives were horrified. On the day after the fish disappeared, representatives gathered in the House Chamber. Some lawmakers argued it would be sacrilegious to do business without the sacred cod looking down on them, while others urged sever punishment for the culprits. Then, reported the New York Times,

"...the House came in, Speaker Saltonstall looked mournfully at the vacant place and then banged his gavel.

The first act of the House fitted the occasion. It passed to be engrossed a bill allowing the cold storage of swordfish."

Detectives followed clue after clue. The Charles River was dredged in a futile attempt to recover the fish.The state police interviewed witnesses. Within a day, suspicion fell on a group of notorious pranksters: the staff of The Lampoon, Harvard's monthly humor magazine. Editors at Harvard's daily newspaper, The Crimson, claimed they knew beyond all doubt that their rivals, the Lampooners, had committed the codnapping. The Lampoon staff denied they were responsible for the prank and blamed The Crimson.

According to the Museum of Hoaxes,

Witnesses at the state house at the time of the theft reported seeing a group of young men hanging around decked out in white saddle sport shoes, in the style of Harvard students. In addition, one of the young men was said to have been visibly drunk. Someone else remembered a young man walking away carrying a long box from which lilies protruded — presumably the box containing the Cod. Who else could the culprits be but the staff of The Lampoon, the police figured.

Massachusetts state police detained a Lampoon editor at Newark Airport on a tip that he knew something about the fish. He was questioned for hours until the officers were convinced he knew nothing of the theft.

State Police Lt. Joseph Ferrari was key to the recovery of the cod, hinted The New York Times. The newspaper reported Ferrari had been "haunting" Harvard Square and Harvard College. His queries led him to a Cambridge box factory. The lieutenant returned to the Statehouse Friday night and told reporters he had no news. But he "had a satisfied look on his face," the Times reported, and said he was pretty sure the fish would be returned soon.


Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


That night, Charles Apted, chief of the Harvard Yard police, received a mysterious phone call. Accounts differ as to what actually happened next. Some say he was told to go to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Others say he was told to go to West Roxbury. Some say he chased a car with no license plates, overtook it, and was given the sacred cod by two young men. Others say he was told to look for a car with no license plates. Some accounts have him slowly chasing the car for 20 minutes into a forest, where he was handed the cod by two young men wearing hats down and collars up.

Apted died in 1941, and we will probably never know exactly what happened that night. We do know Apted brought the cod to state police detectives, 50 hours after it had been stolen. The fish was repaired -- three of its six fins were nicked -- and reinstalled in its rightful place. There was one slight difference: workmen hung it six inches higher to make it harder for anyone to try taking it again.

No charges were ever brought against the Lampooners. They went on to commit many more pranks, inspire The National Lampoon magazine and launch quite a few writing careers. In the early '70s, the Lampoon created the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which led to Saturday Night Live. Writers included Chevy Chase, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. Other Lampoon alumni include Sen. Al Franken, comedian Conan O'Brien, John UpdikeGeorge PlimptonGeorge SantayanaJohn Updike, and William Gaddis.

John Updike, Class of ’54, recalled another fish-themed prank in Harvard Magazine:

The great time for pranks was Fool’s week, when the newly elected to the Lampoon board went through a week of trial ordeals. I remember having to borrow an under-the-car coaster from a local garage and pretending in Harvard Yard, over near Widener, to be a blind cripple selling pencils. Some other Fools dressed as priests gathered around me and I set up a howl saying they had cheated me. In response they pelted me with some dead fish they had hidden under their cloaks or cassocks. We can deconstruct this as follows: Friday was still Fish Day in the Roman church, and priests were a fishy bunch.

The theft of the sacred cod was actually the second controversy surrounding the fish in Massachusetts. Adamg reminds us:

In 1928, the Registry of Motor Vehicles released new license plates that, for the first time, featured a symbol: The cod, of course (it beat out a beanpot and, for some reason, a boot ... The registry was forced to take the fish off plates the very next year, however. Today, the Registry admits:

The image, which resembled an oversized guppy more than a codfish, sparked controversy among local fishermen. After suffering one of the worst years in fishing history, the fishermen blamed the RMV for representing the cod swimming away from the word "Massachusetts" which was printed on the plates. The controversial image was removed from passenger plates in 1929 and a more realistic and detailed codfish shown swimming toward Massachusetts appeared on truck plates in that same year.