Alternate Perceptions Magazine, February 2023
Dissecting The Grasshopper Abduction of 1974
by: AP Strange
Photo of Faneuil Hall (credit AP Strange)
Millions of people from all over the world visit Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston each year, many of them never looking up to see the giant grasshopper which has been perched, doing its civic duty, atop the cupola for hundreds of years. Still fewer scan the skies for UFOs or phantom helicopters, which is likely for the best; and fewer yet consider the usefulness and history of the weathervane in today’s technological world.
In 1974, researchers such as John Keel, Loren Coleman, and Jerome Clark were writing about phantom helicopters in association with cattle mutilations throughout the United States. The witnessed choppers reportedly could not be accounted for by local law enforcement, the FAA, or the FBI. This is less otherworldly, perhaps, than flying saucers are but at the same time much more sinister seeming. The pilots of the mysterious ‘whirlybirds’ of New England during that era had comparatively less malefic motivations; like something out of a comic book, these helicopters were crewed by bandits who were after antique weathervanes!
In a 1972 Boston Globe article, it was theorized that the bandits would hover over their targets and lower a 50-foot rope furnished with a hook, and upon snagging the rooftop ornament ascend vertically, pulling the ‘vane from its moorings. One such suspected poaching ‘copter was tailed by police to the Mansfield Airport in Massachusetts but was spooked right before landing and eluded law enforcement by turning their lights off and flying away. In another misadventure, a State Police helicopter nearly collided with a military one after the police mistook it for one of the sky bound bandits.
Given the prevalence of rooftop pilfering via helicopter at the time, as insane as that sounds, it seemed only natural to assume such was the case when the 80 lb, 4 foot 4 inch grasshopper weathervane was noticed missing from the highest point on Faneuil Hall. Boston Police Detective Paul R. Carroll doubted that anyone would be capable of climbing to that point and making it back down with such a bulky ornament and discounted the use of a crane as unlikely. As it happened, the mystery was solved in just over a week- the Grasshopper had not left by air, and in fact had never left Faneuil Hall at all. A steeplejack who was in hot water for drug charges had taken the Grasshopper from its perch and hid it in the rafters of the cupola, hoping to leverage its whereabouts for leniency in his pending court case.
As intriguing as this wild caper and the twists and turns of the investigation into it are, of more interest to those who seek only the strangest of strange tales is the weird coincidences and repeating symbolic themes in the history of the locations and items involved. The value of the Grasshopper would be very difficult to gauge, and it would be fair to call it priceless based on its historical significance and provenance. Hammered out of copper by Deacon Shem Drowne in 1742, it indicated the direction of the wind while the founding fathers plotted their revolts in the halls below. At the nearby Old North Church, another weathervane created by Drowne witnessed the true events of Paul Revere’s Ride, as the church was used for the signaling lanterns indicating the approach of British forces. Both weathervanes have seen a lot of history, and both have seen some action in the last few hundred years.
20 years prior to the Grasshopper caper, the other Drowne weathervane came crashing down in the hurricane of 1954. The weathervane itself was found intact, but the lead letters indicating wind directions went temporarily missing. Upon close inspection of the copper plate on which it sat; the name Paul Revere was seen to be stamped on it. This was the second time a hurricane had displaced the ‘vane, as the steeple had also been destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. The steeple fell over onto a neighboring building, and fortunately no one was harmed.
Similarly, the Grasshopper had been displaced in 1755 by an earthquake, in 1868 due to a fire that demolished much of Faneuil Hall, and again in 1889 by a mishap in the lowering of a flag. In the belly of the gilded insect is a time capsule which documents some of these events, in the form of a letter written by Thomas Drowne, the son of Shem:
To my brethren and fellow grasshoppers, Fell in ye year 1753 (1755) Nov. 13, early in ye morning by a great earthquake by my old Master above. Again, like to have met with Utter Ruin by Fire, by hopping Timely from my Public Station, came of the broken bones and much Bruised. Cured and Fixed. Old Master’s son Thomas Drowne June 28, 1768, and Though I will promise to Discharge my office, yet I shall vary as ye wind.
There was a legend, according to the New England Historical Society, that the grasshopper as a symbol came about during a time when Shem Drowne was down on his luck and encountered a child chasing a grasshopper. His introduction to the child’s family was the catalyst that led to his wealth and success. Interestingly, a similar legend exists about the origin of the grasshopper weathervane that sits atop the Royal Exchange in London, on which the Faneuil Hall grasshopper is actually based. The story goes that the founder of the Royal Exchange, Thomas Gresham, was abandoned as a child and the chirping of a grasshopper alerted a family to his whereabouts. The foundling then became wealthy due to his adoption and lifted the grasshopper to prominence as a symbol of God’s Divine Grace.
Neither legend is true, it seems that the name “Gresham” is derived from words meaning “grassy field”, and that the grasshopper was a natural play on words. It’s featured in the heraldry for Thomas Gresham’s family, and it came to symbolize the prosperity and stature of the Royal Exchange as a center of trading. This is the reason that Drowne chose it as a design to give as a gift to Peter Faneuil in 1742.
The London Grasshopper has also been quite the survivor of disaster, having weathered the Great Fire of 1666 and another fire in 1838, both of which destroyed the original buildings the gilded ornament called home. Miraculously it also dodged bombs in the air raids of World War II.
Symbols are funny things, as are the legends developed to explain them. If anything, it’s clear that the grasshopper should be a symbol of endurance. So often the hidden history and occulted connections between events and things are obscured by fictions that get retold or are simply forgotten as the winds of time erode our memory of events. Such is the case in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, which he admits in the first stanza in the line “Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year.” During his time, Revere was known as a silversmith and businessman, and Longfellow’s dramatic presentation of the events of April 18, 1775 were intentionally fictionalized. There is truth there, of course, but historians would consider it to be largely apocryphal. The signal of lanterns- “One, if by land, Two, if by sea” was likely sent by Revere himself in the North Church tower and meant as a signal to other riders.
Now we can get to the weird coincidences around weathervanes, Revere, and Drowne. The Grasshopper was noticed missing on January 3rd, which is two days after Paul Revere’s birthday. It was recovered two days before the 200th anniversary of Shem Drowne’s death at age 90. The Old North Church weathervane had fallen 20 years earlier, which had been created by Drowne and stamped by Revere and fell from the same tower from which he signaled in 1775. It seems that the number 2 and powers of 2 figure prominently here, which makes sense when you consider that the British came by sea- and Revere signaled as much by lighting two lanterns.
The detective who recovered the Grasshopper was named Paul Revere Carroll, and some sources claim he was a direct descendant of Paul Revere. He earned the nickname “Grasshopper” after solving the case and joked that he’d perhaps have one made out of wood to display on his house.
Oddly enough, getting back to poetic license and legends, Nathaniel Hawthorne cast Shem Drowne as a woodcarver in his 1844 retelling of the Pygmalion myth. In the story he’s commissioned to carve a figurehead of a maiden for a ship’s bow. The nautical links get weirder when you consider that Drowne’s father was a shipbuilder, although how anyone named Drowne could have success in that industry is a mystery in itself. Drowne’s son followed in this tradition and helped design the frame for the Grasshopper.
Getting back to Gresham and the Royal Exchange, the Maiden is a figure that appears along with the Grasshopper there, although it’s more commonly associated with the ancient dragon weathervane on the steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow church. Both are included in a prophecy by Mother Shipton: “When the dragon on Bow shall kiss the grasshopper on ‘change calamity shall fall on England.” This apparently did happen, when both were taken down to be regilded in 1983 after the grasshopper was struck by lightning. Unless she was referring to the term of Margaret Thatcher, it seems old Ma Shipton was wrong. But then again, perhaps a similar event happened nearer to the end of the British Empire as it once existed…
The synchromystic connections don’t end there, and since we’ve now waded out far enough to tread the weird water we may as well swim around a bit. The third Drowne weathervane was a rooster, or weathercock, the origin of which is thought to have begun with the story of Saint Peter’s Felix Culpa in the New Testament. He denies Christ three times before the rooster crows twice. “Felix Culpa” translates to “fortunate fall”, the idea that negative circumstances can beget positive outcomes. For the grasshopper, that might be taken more literally. Peter, it should be noted, is also the patron saint of shipbuilders.
Finally, going back to the oldest known weathervane in Athens, which sat atop the Tower of Winds, the nautical theme comes full circle as Triton was cast in the role of winds watcher.
Even if you’re pretty sure that your sky will be devoid of phantom helicopters or flying saucers, it does sometimes pay to look up. Taking in all the symbols around us can lead down the most fascinating avenues of myth, coincidences, and connections. Nothing is ever truly boring, and what’s “normal” depends on how you define it. We’d all do well to do as the Grasshopper does- stand tall and resilient, but “Vary as ye winds”...
“Cattle Mutilations”, Keel, John. Anomaly #11, April 1974
“More weathervanes stolen, helicopters elude police” Burns, Robert. The Boston Globe, 14 Jun 1972, Wed • Page 3
“The Grasshopper saga ends, and Paul Revere’s a hero again” Larkin, Al. Boston Sunday Globe 13 January, 1974
“Grasshopper vane weathers the times in excellent form” Parker, James D. Dayton Daily News, 23 July 1978, Sun • Page 74
“Kiss of Death” Daily Telegraph, July 16, 1983, pg. 12