Cooke's Body Badly Wanted

The Constitution: Atlanta, GA., Sunday, November 30 1902 

Footnotes by Christopher Richard, Fairhaven, MA, 2018 


Remains of Youngest Member of Pilgrims is Missing
Fisherman Stored It in His Loft and Went on a Cruise—When He Returned It Was Found. Boston Is Now Rejoicing. 
By Russell Hathaway Jr. 
LOST, STRAYED OR STOLEN—The mortal remains of John Cooke, the youngest member of the band of Pilgrims who came to Plymouth on the good ship Mayflower in December, 1620.1 Any one having knowledge of the whereabouts of the above mentioned remains will please notify the Fairhaven Improvement Association and receive a fitting reward. 

Boston, November 27.—The above advertisement might have been inserted in the newspapers of Bristol county, this state, but it was not. The remains of the redoubtable Puritan forefather turned up finally, but not until all of the good people of Fairhaven had worried themselves into a state bordering on nervous prostration. So far as I know the story of John Cooke’s ashes—or, to be exact, his bones—has never been printed2, so I will give it at first hand to the readers of the Constitution. 

Way down on the shores of Buzzard’s bay, directly opposite the city of New Bedford, is situated the little town of Fairhaven. This town is a typical New England Village. Nearly every family lives in the houses where their forefathers dwelt, and nearly every family boasts that Puritan blood flows through the veins of its members. Although very few of the people belong to genealogical or patriotic orders, nearly everyone is eligible. John Cooke was the founder of this town.3 Coming from England when a mere boy, he lingered around Plymouth for several years, finally took to the woods, and, desiring “a lodge in some vast wilderness,” he settled in what is now the town of Dartmouth.4 It was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1640 that Cooke married a woman named Hathaway5—one of my own family, by the way—and sought another “lodge.” This was where Fairhaven now stands, on the east bank of the river called by the Indians Acushnet. 

 Cooke settled in a beautiful spot and in the course of time many other colonists flocked to Fairhaven. Later the town of Bedford was founded, which more than a century afterwards, was incorporated as the city of New Bedford.6 Cooke and his followers were harassed greatly by the Indians, and a block house was built by the Puritan pioneer7 for the protection of the settlement. The key to this block house is still preserved. In the course of time Cooke, like all other mortals, died, and his body was buried on a gentle slope facing the river.8 

Some two hundred years after Cooke had left his earthly abode the Fairhaven people thought it would be a fitting thing to erect a memorial in honor of this founder of the town, especially as he was one of the Mayflower band. Cooke’s grave was located by a local antiquarian9 and the people were horrified to learn that the remains of the sturdy Puritan were reposing in a hen yard. The village improvement association raised enough money to purchase the property and finally, after years of effort, succeeded in getting together a sum sufficient to erect a monument thereon. 

A couple of weeks ago the monument was carried to the henyard-graveyard and the work of digging a trench for the foundation was begun. Either the slope had washed away or John Cooke had not been buried very deep, for a very little way below the surface the pick ax struck his coffin. There was no doubt as to the identity of the man, as the name “John Cooke” was marked on a primitive coffin plate.10 The coffin contained a skeleton in a good state of preservation, but all traces of clothing had long since disappeared. The coffin with its inclosed bones was carried into a nearby shed owned by a fisherman.11 

The news that John Cooke’s remains had been exhumed spread like wildfire and the next morning an expectant, curious crowd were on hand at the fisherman’s shed. The fisherman had sailed before daybreak on a two week’s fishing trip and had left the key to the shed in his wife’s keeping. When the man in charge of the work of erecting the monument appeared on the scene the fisherman’s wife let him have the key to the shed. Turning the key in the lock, he opened the door; the crowd followed him and saw—fishing nets, lobster pots, eel spears, scallop drags, oyster rakes, but no coffin and no bones. An examination of the shed was without result. What was mortal of John Cooke seemed to have joined the immortal. High up on the rafters, just under the peak of the roof, a big bundle of canvas was stored away, but nobody thought of examining it. It was nothing but a bundle of sails, they thought. 

 And then the search began. “What has become of John Cooke?” was the question on every tongue. Had some one, imitating Bulgarian brigands, stolen the bones, and were they holding them for ransom? How could the remains be recovered? These are but a few of the questions. Some proposed to advertise for the bones; other thought a reward should be offered. The wiser, however, suggested that before taking any active steps to get hold of what was left of John Cooke, it would be a good plan to wait until the fisherman’s vessel returned. This counsel prevailed, but until the return of the mariner the mysterious disappearance of the Pilgrim father was discussed by every person, in every place and during every hour. 

On the day scheduled for the fisherman’s return a good sized crowd waited eagerly on the wharf for a possible solution of the mystery. At last the much wanted man stepped ashore, only to be besieged with volleys of questions. As soon as he was permitted to answer, he said: 

“Wal, thought yer’d lost him, did yer? Hum! That’s a good ‘un. I wuz afeard thet some o’ them durn boys would steal him, jest out of deviltry. So I wrapped him up in a piece of sail cloth an’ put him up under my shed roof; kind er laid laid him out acrost the beams. Didn’t none o’ yer look thar?” 

A deep silence fell upon the crowd. It lasted about a minute, when a voice rudely broke it, saying: “I’ll be darned! That’s the only thing in the shed we didn’t examine. We thought it was nothing but some old sails.”12 

John Cooke now rests on the gentle slope facing the river. Above his grave is a massive monument weighing many tons. With exception of an earthquake, nothing but hydraulic jackscrews or dynamite can ever move the remains of the founder of Fairhaven.13 

Skeletons Unearthed  Fairhaven Star, November 13, 1902  


1 John Cooke was not the youngest Mayflower passenger. There were several children younger than Cooke aboard, including three Allerton children, two Brewster children, Mary Chilton, Samuel Eaton and others. 

A factual, unembellished version of the news was published two weeks earlier in the Fairhaven Star, November 13, 1902. "Skeletons Unearthed"

3 John Cooke was not the founder of Fairhaven or its earliest predecessor Dartmouth. Cooke and his father were among 36 Plymouth residents who purchased the “Old Dartmouth” territory from Chief Massasoit in 1652, but a number of settlers moved to the territory before he did. He was not one of the first three Selectmen to be elected when Dartmouth was incorporated in 1664. 

4 This is not an accurate chronology. In about 1662, when he was in his mid-50s, Cooke moved from Plymouth, most likely to the section of Dartmouth that is now Acushnet, then established his homestead further south in what’s now Fairhaven. 

5 This is incorrect. In Plymouth, on March 28, 1634, John Cooke married Sarah Warren, the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Warren. Here the author, Russell Hathaway Jr. has his own family genealogy wrong. 

6 Fairhaven as a town did not exist before Bedford or the city of New Bedford, of which it was originally a part. It is likely that the name “Fairhaven” did not even exist during Cooke’s lifetime. It was still Dartmouth until almost a century after Cooke died. 

7 Cooke was not a Puritan. He had been expelled from the Plymouth church and was a Baptist, which was one of the reasons he moved out of Plymouth. He served as a Baptist minister and helped establish a church in Tiverton. 

8 There is no record from Cooke’s time as to where he was buried. His death on November 23, 1695, was duly recorded in Dartmouth. 

9 This refers to Franklin B. Dexter, who, in a lecture on early Fairhaven history given to the Fairhaven Improvement Association in 1888, said of Cooke, “He died in 1695, having become the last male survivor of the passengers of the Mayflower, some seventy-five years before, and his bones doubtless rest in the neglected if not forgotten burying-ground on this side of Oxford Village.” Dexter provided no evidence to support this statement. It is the first recorded instance of anyone proposing that Cooke may have been buried at Oxford Village. 

10 This account does not match the news article published in the Fairhaven Star on November 13, 1902. The Star article names the project supervisor and the three laborers who uncovered the remains of four unidentified people, two adults and two children. They were in badly decayed wooden boxes fastened with copper nails. There is no mention of a coffin plate identifying anyone and there is no speculation as to the identities of the four bodies. Hathaway’s article in the Atlanta Constitution is the only known mention of a coffin plate. No other records, descriptions, drawings or photographs of it are known to exist. 

11 The Fairhaven Star article identifies the fisherman as Marcellus P. Whitfield, and it states he “boxed up” the remains, indicating there was not any intact coffin. 

12 This entire account is a fabrication. The Star article states that Whitfield had stored the bones in the shed behind the house of Mrs. Coombs, next door to the work site, not in his own shed a block away. One of the workers, identified as Thomas Nye, could not find the bones the morning following their discovery, but that same evening E. G. Spooner saw Whitfield and “learned that the latter had placed the box on the rafters overhead and had covered it with a carpet. . . .” There is no mention of a two-week fishing trip or of a crowd of any kind. The two-week fishing trip could not have happened at all, because the Star, published on a Saturday, said the bones were dug up on Tuesday and were lost and recovered on Wednesday-Thursday. (It should be noted the article seems to confuse days of the week a bit, but the whole incident did take place during a two to three day period.)

13 No known news account or record states clearly if the four sets of human remains discovered at Cooke Memorial Park were reburied there or if they were moved elsewhere.