Harrison Gray Otis Fleeces John Singleton Copley (He Thinks)

Harrison Gray Otis was an up-and-coming real estate developer when he spotted a potential gold mine: the grassy pastures of Beacon Hill.

Harrison Gray Otis, by Gilbert Stuart

Harrison Gray Otis, by Gilbert Stuart

In 1795, Otis, a lawyer not yet 30, served on a committee to select a location for a new statehouse. He knew it would be built on Beacon Hill, and he realized the building would add prestige to the neighborhood.

Two properties stood in the way of turning Beacon Hill into a fashionable residential district: Hancock Manor and the Copley Pasture.

The rich merchant Thomas Hancock (John Hancock’s uncle) had built his manor house on top of Beacon Hill in 1737. It was the only house west of the summit until 1768, when the artist John Singleton Copley built a house down the slope.

John Hancock had inherited his uncle’s estate, but died two years earlier. His heirs were willing to sell to Otis and his real estate syndicate, Mt. Vernon Proprietors. The syndicate, the first in America, included Jonathan Mason, Charles Ward Apthorp, Joseph Woodward and later Charles Bulfinch.

Harrison Gray Otis

John Singleton Copley, detail from self portrait

John Singleton Copley, detail from self portrait

Copley was the premiere artist in colonial America. He had painted portraits of many of the most important people of his era. Many are now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (He didn’t paint Otis; Gilbert Stuart did.)

Copley had married into a wealthy Loyalist family, though he was politically neutral. His success allowed him to build a grand mansion near Hancock. But in 1774, Copley moved to London, where he would spend the rest of his life. He put his American affairs in the hands of an agent.

Otis pounced. He bought Copley’s property for a thousand dollars an acre.

Massachusetts Statehouse at night

Copley was outraged to learn of the plan to build the Statehouse. When the deed was sent to him, he wouldn’t sign it.

He sent his son to Boston to get what he thought was full value for his property. His son, who later became Britain’s lord chancellor, wrote in 1796, “The business cannot come on till May. If you can make yourself a subject of the United States you are clear. If otherwise I am not yet sufficiently informed to say what may be the result.”

One of Harrison Gray Otis’ three houses.

After years of litigation, Otis got his hands on Copley’s property. He made a fortune developing Beacon Hill, from Beacon Street to Walnut Street to Louisburg Square, Pinckney Street and the Charles River. He later became Boston’s third mayor.

Other Beacon Hill properties developed by Mt. Vernon Proprietors include 29A Chestnut Street, 70, 71, 72, 73, 75 and 74 Beacon Street.

This story last updated in 2022. 

The second Harrison Gray Otis House CC BY-SA 3.0, Statehouse at night By Kevin Rutherford, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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