Even the Sacred Cod has to pass through security.
In a festive march to fifes and drums, a replica of the wooden Sacred Cod that hangs above the Massachusetts House of Representatives was borne to Beacon Hill from the Old State House in a re-creation of its move there 225 years ago Wednesday.
Gawking pedestrians asked, “What is that?” The stand-in cod, wrapped in a Revolutionary era flag, stopped at traffic lights. And Matthew Wilding, who carried the 5-foot carving in outstretched arms, carefully weaved his way through queues of cars on crowded downtown streets.
“You do a decade of tour guiding, and you get to read traffic pretty well,” said Wilding, director of visitor experience at Revolutionary Spaces, an organization created by the merger of the Old State House and Old South Meeting House.
Once at the (new) State House, where the Sacred Cod found a second home in 1798, Wilding had to sidestep his way through a metal detector while holding the swaddled replica.
“It hurt after a while,” Wilding said with a laugh about carrying the cod.
About 250 people followed the cod on its short upstream walk, some chanting, “Cod Fish! Cod Fish!” to help Wilding, a cadre of lawmakers, and assorted history buffs maintain a brisk pace.
“How often do you get to march behind a cod,” said Lisa Rosenfeld of Newton, counsel for the Legislature’s joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.
Once at the State House, the throng viewed the real thing, suspended from the ceiling above the rear of the House chamber. Cellphones were pressed into action, photographing the regal, rigid symbol of a once-ubiquitous fish that helped bring power and prosperity to Massachusetts.
“The success of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was no sure thing,” said state Representative Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat. “We honor the industry, resolve, and vision of those who came before us.”
The current codfish is believed to be the third iteration to hang over Massachusetts legislators since their Colonial gatherings at the Old State House, then called the Town House and located near today’s City Hall.
Historians speculate that the first was destroyed in a 1747 fire that swept through the Town House, and that the second was pilfered by British redcoats during the Revolution.
“Mayhap some burly British trooper, quartered in the improvised barracks of the Old State House, took umbrage at the spic-and-span elegance of the newly painted emblem of Colonial independence and thrift,” mused a Massachusetts legislative committee in 1895, charged with probing the misty genealogy of the iconic carving.
The current fish, nicknamed the Sacred Cod by that committee, was donated to the new state’s government in 1784 by wealthy Boston merchant John Rowe, for whom Rowes Wharf is named, “as a memorial of the importance of the cod fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth.”
Tim Corbett, 73, of Melrose, who held a small “Follow the Cod” flag on Wednesday, had more than passing interest in the procession.
“I played John Rowe in a 30-minute standup,” said Corbett, who used to perform as a historical interpreter.
The New York Times in 1933 estimated the Sacred Cod’s value to be “something less than nothing,” and sniffed that “as an object of art, it is worthless.”
That year also marked the cod’s nighttime theft by Harvard Lampoon staff, who hid the fish in a florist’s box with protruding lilies before exiting the building. Police dredged the Charles River and, running down a tip, even searched an arriving plane in New Jersey.
The cod was returned three days later, with damaged fins, when a Harvard official met clandestinely with two young men, their identities cloaked in darkness, in the woods of West Roxbury. The cod was handed over, and the duo sped away in an automobile.
In 1968, the cod was stolen again, this time by University of Massachusetts Boston students who wanted more legislative attention for the institution. The carving was discovered later in an obscure State House hallway.
In 1895, state legislators praised the Sacred Cod in near-reverential terms.
“Humble the subject and homely the design, yet this painted image bears on its finny front a majesty greater than the dignity that art can lend to graven gold or chiseled marble,” the lawmakers wrote. “The lessons that may be learned of it are nobler than any to be drawn from what is beautiful, for this sedate and solitary fish is instinct with memories and prophecy, like an oracle.”
“It typifies to the citizens of the Commonwealth and of the world the founding of a state,” the panel added. “It commemorates democracy. It celebrates the rise of free institutions. It emphasizes progress. It epitomizes Massachusetts.”
In the 21st century, the cod continues to draw applause.
“It was fun, and it was cool,” said Lidyani Vega, 14, an eighth-grader from the Patrick Lyndon Pilot School in West Roxbury. “Follow the cod!”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.