A brazen theft of the sacred cod in 1933 by Harvard students sent the Commonwealth reeling for a few wild days. State police investigated, a manhunt spread to New Jersey and the Massachusetts Legislature almost came to a halt. The story made national news.
Yes, the sacred cod.
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 sacred cod watched over the House Chamber in the Old State House until Jan. 11, 1798. On that day, state officials wrapped the fish 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 pine codfish hangs today over the Massachusetts House of Representatives, an emblem of civic pride. People sometimes mistake it for the Holy Mackerel, but that’s in the Senate Chamber and it’s another story. Traditionally the sacred cod points to the party in power.
But on one Wednesday evening in 1933, the fish didn’t point 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 municipal flag would enclose the sacred cod upon its return.
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.
The theft of the sacred cod horrified the House of Representatives. The stunned state reps gathered in the House chamber the day after the fish disappeared. Some argued it would be sacrilegious to do business without the sacred cod looking down on them. Others urged severe 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. Police dredged the Charles River 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 had anything to do with 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. They questioned him for hours until he convinced them he knew nothing of the theft.
Recovery of the Sacred Cod
State Police Lt. Joseph Ferrari was key to the recovery of the cod, hinted The New York Times. The newspaper reported Ferrari had been haunted 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.
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 and overtook it, then two young men gave him the sacred cod. 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 two men with hats down and collars up handed him the fish.
6 Inches Higher
Apted died in 1941, and we will probably never know exactly what happened that night. We do know Apted brought the sacred cod to state police detectives 50 hours after its theft. The fish was repaired — three of its six fins were nicked — and reinstalled in its rightful place. Workmen hung it six inches higherthan before to make it harder for anyone to try taking it again.
But another controversy had surrounded the sacred cod. 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).
Angry fishermen, however, forced the Registry to take the fish off plates the very next year. 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 Registry removed the controversial image from passenger plates in 1929. A more realistic and detailed codfish shown swimming toward Massachusetts appeared on truck plates in that same year.
This story about the sacred cod was updated in 2022.