WORCESTER — Isaiah Thomas rests in peace in a big tomb at the Worcester Rural Cemetery. with a plaque and a single American flag fluttering in the breeze.
“It’s probably our most famous tomb,” says Monika Andersson, the cemetery’s secretary-treasurer. “It’s No. 1 on our walking tour.”
History buffs come here looking for the American patriot, printer, and publisher who died in 1831. He was the first person to read the Declaration of Independence aloud in New England and is not to be confused with the Celtics point guard who is very much alive.
“I’m a Celtic fan,” says Andersson. “How crazy is it that it’s the exact same spelling?”
She knows all about the other Isiah Thomas, too — the Hall of Fame guard for the Detroit Pistons. He gained infamy in these parts for once proclaiming that if Larry Bird were black, he would be regarded as “just another good guy’’ in the NBA.
The story of how the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas got his name is well known. Isaiah’s father was a huge Lakers fan and bet a friend that Los Angeles would defeat the Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals, pledging to name his son after the Detroit star if he lost. Isaiah was born before the Finals, but James had already decided that he liked the name anyway. Isaiah’s mother, however, insisted on the biblical spelling.
But few sports fans have any idea who the original Isaiah Thomas was. No one comes to the cemetery wearing green No. 4 Celtic jerseys. Not yet anyway.
“Nobody has really made the connection,” says Andersson. “Nobody has ever left any Celtics stuff here. Maybe if we were in Boston it would be different.”
At the granite tomb, there’s a slate entrance with a rusted handle and an oxidized bronze-covered keyhole. The present-day Isaiah Thomas has been the key to the Celtics’ success this season and was their only All-Star. But the other Isaiah Thomas made news — literally — more than 240 years ago.
Thomas published the Massachusetts Spy, the largest newspaper in the colonies. Its masthead was decorated with a lot of swirling ink. It looks a lot like the current Celtic guard’s tattooed arms.
The newspaper, published in Boston at the site of the Union Oyster House, advocated freedom from British tyranny. And it got Thomas in trouble. John Hancock told him he needed to get out of town.
“There was a price on his head,” says S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloger at the American Antiquarian Society, which Thomas founded in Worcester in 1812. “He was fomenting revolution with Sam Adams.”
Thomas took his press and made a fast break in the dead of night on April 16, 1775, from Boston by boat to Charlestown and then on to Worcester. He penned an eyewitness account of the battle of Lexington three days later, which was eventually published in the Spy. He said the British troops there had a “design of murder and robbery.”
He scored a huge scoop when he met a dispatch rider who had been sent by General George Washington to Boston with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The messenger had stopped for refreshments at the King’s Arms Tavern in Worcester, and Thomas introduced himself.
Impressed with the “fearless ardent patriot,” the messenger allowed Thomas to gather the locals at the Worcester Meetinghouse. There he read the Declaration aloud on July 14, 1776. Thomas was just 26, a year younger than the basketball star is now. He got everyone pumped up, even more than when Thomas makes one of his dipsy-doodle layups past much taller defenders.
The Boston-born Thomas lived to be 82 and made a fortune with his publishing empire.
Today, the Antiquarian Society has more than 4 million books and written materials, including the largest collection of pre-1820 imprints in the world. At its main entrance in Worcester, Isaiah Thomas’s portrait hangs over the stairwell of the stately historical resource.
Thomas looks like your typical 18th century guy with a white wig. He’s described as a “tall, handsome, charming, vain, and somewhat hotheaded young man,” according to James David Moran, AAS director of outreach.
Moran thinks he was taller than the 5-foot-9-inch Celtic dynamo.
“Our Thomas was tall, although I don’t know his exact height,” says Moran. “I am guessing, as the average height of an 18th century man was 5-8, Thomas was likely about 6 feet.”
The AAS has hired an actor to bring Isaiah Thomas, white wig and all, to every fifth grade classroom in Worcester.
“Sometimes we do get kids that think it is the basketball Isaiah Thomas coming to their school,” says Moran. “I wouldn’t be disappointed, but they could be.”
He says the patriot and the Celtic have a lot in common.
“Both men,” he says, “in their own time and in their own way, rallied their compatriots to victory.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.