“Poised high aloft in the old hall of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, riding serenely the sound waves of debate, unperturbed by the ebb and flow of enactment and repeal or the desultory storms that vexed the nether depths of oratory, there has hung through immemorial years an ancient codfish, quaintly wrought in wood and painted to the life.”So begins an 1895 report of a committee appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature to investigate and prepare a history of the Sacred Cod. No artwork in the State House delights and perplexes its visitors as much as this odd but historic emblem. This fish, just short of 5 feet long and carved from pine, hangs in the House of Representatives and such a fish has done so since the early 1700s. But why?
The fishing industry, specifically the fishing of cod, not only sustained the early European settlers but became a staple upon which the colonists built up prosperity. Samuel Adams allegedly stated that codfish “were to us [in Massachusetts] what wool was to England or tobacco to Virginia – the great staple which became the basis of power and wealth.” In order to remember and honor the industry that brought wealth and power to Massachusetts Bay and later the state of Massachusetts, the legislative body has traditionally hung some sort of codfish in their meeting hall. According to the 1895 report, there was a “dim tradition” that an emblem of a codfish, gift of Judge Samuel Sewall, hung in the House of Assembly of the Province before Sewall’s death in 1729. This same fish, then, is also believed to be destroyed when the Old State House was destroyed in a fire in 1747. A second codfish then hung in the newly restored building until at least 1773, when it was ordered to be cleaned and repainted… but seems to have disappeared mysteriously afterward. On March 17, 1784, Mr. John Rowe petitioned the House of Representatives 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.” This codfish was most likely commissioned and paid for by Mr. Rowe and was hung in the Old State House upon completion. On January 11, 1798, when the Massachusetts Legislature moved to the current State House, the Sacred Cod was wrapped in an American flag and carried in a solemn procession in the newly finished building designed by Charles Bulfinch.
However, this third iteration of the Sacred Cod is not without its own scandal. On April 26, 1933, it was stolen from the House of Representatives and later recovered by the Harvard chief of police after an anonymous phone call regarding its location. The scandal was covered by newspapers throughout the United States, with some accounts testifying that the search included car chases and mysterious meetings with the thieves in the woods. The Sacred Cod was recovered about 50 hours after it was found missing, and no one was ever formally held responsible for the theft. While the student editor was detained and questioned and eventually released, police continued to attribute the prank to Harvard students affiliated with the humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon.
Today, the Sacred Cod continues to hang above the House of Representatives, though now about six inches higher to deter would-be Lampooners.
“It typifies to the citizens of the Commonwealth and of the world the founding of a State. It commemorates Democracy. It celebrates the rise of free institutions. It emphasizes progress. It epitomizes Massachusetts.”
- “The Fish Heist That Shocked Massachusetts” from The New England Historical Society
- Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky
- A history of the emblem of the codfish in the hall of the House of Representatives compiled by a Committee of the House
- Exhibit: “Exercised in Fishing: A History of the Fishing, Whaling, and Shellfish Industries in Massachusetts” compiled by the State Library of Massachusetts
- Exhibit: “A Historical View of the Massachusetts State House”