Old State House, Boston; Massachusetts, USA
Is there really a time capsule in the lion atop the Old State House?
Juan Silva

The gold lion and silver unicorn statues adorning the top of Boston’s Old State House are coming down for repairs, and the time capsule hidden inside the lion is coming down with it. Well, if there really is a time capsule there.

Boston Magazine first reported the possibility of the time capsule inside the golden lion after a conversation with Bostonian Society executive director Brian LeMay, who said that the capsule was a “longtime rumor.” The statues will be taken down sometime after September 8 for basic maintenance, and LeMay said he was looking forward to peering inside the lion to explore the possibility of the time capsule’s existence.

Boston-10/8/2008- Josh Rudy from Braintree is a Freedom Trail tour guide and plays Capt. Daniel Malcom,as he stands on the spot of the Boston Massacre in front of the old state house.. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro) Dave Fillipov reporter SLUG: 28NEresolution / OUTTAKe 1019 30tops
The Old State House is a staple of Boston tour groups along The Freedom Trail.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe

But historians at the Freedom Trail hadn’t heard of that longtime rumor. Several staffers there said LeMay was likely confusing the lion’s time capsule with the time capsule in the grasshopper weather vane atop Faneuil Hall. That capsule, full of letters, coins, and documents, was originally placed in the grasshopper in 1761 and has been updated during periodic refurbishments.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Sam Jones, Freedom Trail Foundation’s creative director, likened LeMay’s hypothesis to the children’s game of telephone. Because of the many “shiny animals above the Freedom Trail,” rumors like this periodically come up, he said.

“But as far as anything being in the lion and unicorn, I have absolutely no knowledge of that,” Jones said.

When told of the Freedom Trail’s doubters, LeMay pointed to this February 24, 1901 article in The Boston Globe: “Lion and Unicorn: Copper Box to be Placed in Head of the King of Beasts,” the headline reads.

Here’s the relevant second paragraph:

“The work of the coppersmith is completed, and one of the last things he did was to seal a copper box, which is placed in the head of the lion, and which contains contributions from state and city officials, the Boston daily newspapers, the name of the maker of the lion and unicorn, and others, which will prove interesting when the box is opened many years hence.

Those newspapers, photos of important people of the day, and letters certainly will prove interesting to historians, if indeed their existence proves true. To bolster his argument, LeMay added that a letter from the ancestor of a contractor hired to work on the lion and unicorn made some of the same descriptions of the time capsule. Still, the relative lack of sources on the subject means that even LeMay isn’t totally convinced of the time capsule’s existence.

“I think it’s pretty likely,” he said, although he admitted that “the evidence is somewhat ambiguous.”

Freedom Trail Foundation’s executive director Suzanne Taylor said that the tour company was previously unaware of the time capsule, but was hopeful the story would prove true.

“The potential of finding a time capsule during the Old State House’s upcoming preservation project is exciting,” she wrote in an email to Boston.com. “Visiting historic sites along the Freedom Trail brings history to life and finding items in time capsules at these treasured sites provides us with an extra glimpse of our great city’s past.”

The lion and unicorn statues were originally built atop the Old State House in 1713, but were torn down and burnt in a symbolic bonfire in 1776. Replica statues made of wood were then placed back on the building’s east façade in 1882. After that wood rotted through by the beginning of the 20th century, they were refurbished again in shinier, sturdier form.

Update: Twitter’s Angie in Boston provides the movie poster for this story.