J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Where Was Paul Revere's "North Church"?

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,
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...
And a passage from the diary of the Rev. William Bentley of Salem, 3 Nov 1797:
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.


NJDave said...

I was being an internet junkie earlier this week and following one of your links (possibly to The City Record etc.), found myself reading a very similar article (sans picture).

Their arguement was that the Old North meeting house had NO steeple at all & was situated behind the hill so as to not be exposed to a Charlestown view.

Not like this is even an important issue to counter Frothingham's arguement, but how do you know the smaller steeple in the picture was related to the meeting house and not another church lost to time?

J. L. Bell said...

There's a map of Boston from 1769, within a year of the Remick/Revere skyline print, that labels the Old North Meeting-House and situates it at that place in the peninsula, with no other place of worship nearby. Given the importance of churchgoing in that society, there's no chance that a major place of worship in the town would have gone unrecorded.

Some of the early arguments against Frothingham's theory did say that the Old North Meeting-House steeple was too short and too far down the hill to be even seen from Charlestown. Donna La Rue told me that can't be true because there are reports of people watching Charlestown burn on 17 June 1775 (part of the Battle of Bunker Hill) from the Old North Meeting-House roof or steeple.

At least according to a period print, however, that conflagration was huge, with flames and smoke high in the air. Abigail and John Quincy Adams recalled seeing the destruction from Braintree, meaning they saw the smoke rising. So how much did the people on the meeting-house roof see?

Were folks on Old North Meeting-House able to see the spot on the opposite shore where Richard Devens and his Charlestown colleagues stood? Because they would have had to for the lantern signals to work. I'm not sure of the answer, or any way to test it, now that the building's gone and the shoreline has changed.

In any event, even if all three steeples in the North End were visible from Charlestown, Revere would have chosen the tallest as long as he could find inside men to hang the lanterns.

And in the 1870s two families claimed to descend from such men: John Pulling and Robert Newman, as this page from the 1877 New England Historical & Genealogical Register shows. Both those men and those family traditions involve lanterns in Christ Church/Old North Church, not Old North Meeting-House. Also, that Register article cites someone growing up in Boston after the Revolution who recalled being told that the lanterns hung in Old North Church.

Even after Frothingham wrote, so far as I can tell, no one came forward to claim that an ancestor had hung lanterns in Old North Meeting-House, or that they'd been told that the lanterns had hung in that building before the British army tore it down.

Ironically, like a lot of other Patriot preparation that night, the signal from Old North Church turned out to have virtually no effect at all on the major events that followed.