John Hancock's Jamaica Plain Home

Portrait by John Singleton Copley, c. 1770–72

Portrait by John Singleton Copley, c. 1770–72

One of the most frequently asked questions of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society concerns the location of John Hancock's house in our area. Given knowledge of the steps from the John Hancock Mansion leading up to Pinebank's western side from the shore of Jamaica Pond, people who haven't read the stair's inscription carefully, go falsely on to make Pinebank Mr. Hancock's house.

The matter of Hancock's house here is easily set to rest. John Hancock, first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, rightly deserves recognition as a Founding Father and is forever immortalized in current Boston like Sam Adams, since his name and signature are featured by a leading insurance company, which has carved his head above the main entrance to its building on Clarendon St. and features a larger-than-life statue of him in its lobby. A modern monument on the left side of the Old Granary Burying Ground downtown prominently marks his burial place, and a bust of him exists in the State House's Doric Hall.

The inscription below the bust in Doric Hall mentions Hancock's presidencies of the Provincial and Continental Congresses and the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention as well as his signing the Declaration of Independence first and his position as governor twice. A wealthy merchant before the Revolution and essential to the American cause, he was the reason that Revere and colleagues were sent riding to Lexington on April 18, 1775. Rich and fussy, Hancock was not always easy to work with, as a reading of his biography by Northeastern's Professor William Fowler, The Baron of Beacon Hill, shows.

Hancock's connection with JP began like that of so many others in the 18th century. The Pond offered a delightful oasis from downtown Boston - even Beacon Hill, of which Hancock was chief owner. Thus in 1784 after leaving Congress, he purchased a lot with a house bordering on Centre St. beyond the Third Parish (the church at the Monument). This cottage was a story and a half tall in the West Indian style like the Penney-Hallet House at the corner of Orchard St.

Although generous to the Third Parish, Hancock did not escape the fierce eyes of ardent Whig parson, Rev. William Gordon (see March 1989 column). The old Scot, an Overseer of Harvard College, asked Hancock what he was doing about his handling of the finances of Harvard College as its treasurer - something never successfully unraveled - and Hancock left JP in a typical huff. This did not deter his nephew Thomas from residing in JP. He stayed on to demolish his uncle's place and build a grander house on the site in 1800.

Later, Thomas Hancock sold the house to the eminent Boston merchant, Nathaniel Curtis, of the ancient family in our area. When Drake wrote his Town of Roxbury in 1878, Mrs. Curtis still lived there (see map). A JP native thus described Hancock during his stay here: "Though only 45, he had the appearance of old age. He was severely afflicted with gout and was nearly six feet in height but of thin person. His manner was very gracious, and his face had been very handsome.

"His equipage was splendid - and such as is not customary at this day. His apparel was handsomely embroidered with gold and silver lace and other decorations fashionable among men of fortune at that period, and he rode on public occasions with six beautiful bay horses, attended by servants in livery. He wore a scarlet coat with ruffles on his sleeves, which soon became the prevailing fashion." All this quite agrees with John Singleton Copley's portrait of him in the Museum of Fine Arts.

by Walter Marx

November 8, 1990

Photograph of painting at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.