Yesterday I had a chat with Cambridge historical tour guide Donna “Mistress Elizabeth” La Rue about which Boston steeple Paul Revere used to send his lantern signal to Patriots in Charlestown. He told the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society that he’d arranged “if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; and if by Land, one, as a Signal.”
Did “the North Church” mean the Old North Meeting-House in North Square, near Revere’s home, or Christ Church on Salem Street, a couple of blocks away and now called Old North Church? Congregationalist meeting-houses weren’t usually called “churches”—though sometimes they were. Anglican churches weren’t usually designated by geographic location—though sometimes they were. (Earlier discussion on that nomenclature here.)
Revere named the building in 1798, so he probably used the term that prevailed in that decade. If he meant the Old North Meeting-House, it’s notable that he didn’t mention that the British military had pulled it down more than twenty years before. But would Bostonians of that decade have understood the term “North Church” to mean Christ Church? That’s what Donna and I discussed yesterday.
Here’s an advertisement in the 20 May 1794 Salem Gazette:
John Wilson,And a passage from the diary of the Rev. William Bentley of Salem, 3 Nov 1797:
NEXT door to the Rev. Doctor Stillman, opposite to the North Church, Salem Street, Boston—respectfully informs the Ladies of Salem and its vicinity, that he has erected a machine for the Glazing of Linen and Calico Gowns...
We took leave of Mr. Freeman & then passed to the North End. At the head of Hancock’s Wharf we saw the Frigate & received the kind attentions of Col. Claghorn. We then left the town, passing the North Church in Salem Street & over Charlestown & Malden Bridges continued our route towards Salem.Quotes like these show that in the 1790s people were using the term “North Church” to refer to a building on Salem Street—which could only be Christ Church. Old North Meeting-House was not only gone, but it had been a couple of blocks away.
A helpful architectural clue appears in the account of Richard Devens, the Charlestown Patriot to whom Revere arranged to send the signal. As quoted in History of the Siege of Boston, by Richard Frothingham (ironically, the first author to promote the Old North Meeting-House theory), Devens wrote:
Soon afterward, the signal agreed upon was given; this was a lanthorn hung out in the upper window of the tower of the N. Ch., towards Charlestown.Below is part of a northwest-looking image of Boston’s 1768 skyline engraved by none other than Paul Revere from a drawing by Christian Remick. It’s not an exact picture—it’s more like one of those tourist maps that enlarges all the businesses that have sponsored the map and shrinks all the rest. In this case, the town’s places of worship stand out, not just because they were the tallest buildings in town but also because Remick and Revere were making a point about Boston being a godly town.
Fortunately, for this question we simply need to compare the Old North Meeting-House steeple on the left to the Christ Church spire on the right. They were both drawn to stand out. But which has an “upper window”?
We do have to ask why Revere and his confederates would signal from an Anglican church, one whose minister and congregants (by and large) supported the Crown. Again, the picture hints at a likely answer. Christ Church was high on Copp’s Hill and had the tallest spire in Boston. A signal from its tower would be more visible than the same signal from the Old North Meeting-House. Furthermore, once the military authorities spotted those lanterns, it would take a longer time for men to climb up there and snuff them out.