In Old Boston Days and Ways (1909), Mary Caroline Crawford published what she called “A brand new and not uninteresting explanation of the celerity with which the news [of the planned British march to Concord] reached [Paul] Revere.”
Crawford’s source was “Mrs. E. Corinna Wheeler, an aged lady still living in Boston,” who had heard the story from her mother. Wheeler’s mother, I’ve found, was Rachel (Ellis) Ayer, said to be born in Boston on 12 Feb 1804. Wheeler said that Ayer in turn had heard the story from her grandmother, Lydia Lewis, born Lydia Ballard about 1760.
And the tale:
It was to her brother, a bright Yankee boy, Sam Ballard by name, that the intelligence of the Committee of Safety was due. . . .This is a classic “grandmother’s tale,” my term for a story told by an older relative (usually female) to entertain and inspire the children in her care, probably not expecting it ever to leave the household. But those children grow up believing the tale is (a) entirely true, and (b) of national importance.
It was a great thing in those times for the boys to hang about the inn doors to pick up a few shillings and sixpences by holding horses, while their owners went inside for a drink. On the week before the eighteenth my great-great-uncle, then a boy of thirteen, overheard in this way the conversation of two British officers. That conversation was important. For they talked of the plan to capture [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams.
Sam went immediately with his news to the landlord of the Green Dragon [Tavern, shown above], and he informed the Committee of Safety which had its meetings in an upper room of that tavern. Acting on this information the committee appointed a spy to hide in the rooms where the British held their councils. The spy learned the rest. Then the committee held another meeting and planned the ride of Paul Revere.
But on the night of the eighteenth the committee was carefully watched, for the British were determined that they should not do the very thing they accomplished,—that is, get news of the march to Lexington and Concord. The committee did not dare to venture out, but somehow they must send word to Revere. It suddenly occurred to Dr. [Joseph] Warren that no suspicion would be aroused to see a boy running up the causeway from the Green Dragon to Revere’s house. So, about ten o’clock, he despatched that same thirteen year old Sam Ballard to carry the message to Paul Revere!
The legend of Sam Ballard is also an example of what I’ve called “memory creep.” It appears to have been inspired by the anecdote of John Ballard that I analyzed yesterday, but it got better with:
- a lot more name-dropping: Hancock! Adams! Green Dragon! Paul Revere! Dr. Warren!
- the listeners’ ancestor put at the center of the action: Sam Ballard not only overhears the British officers, but also brings that news to the Patriots himself, and finally carries Warren’s orders to Revere.
Furthermore, there are a lot of details that reflect a casual late-nineteenth-century understanding of Revolutionary Boston rather than the historical record.
- Gen. Thomas Gage never made a “plan to capture Hancock and Adams”; his mission was entirely aimed at seizing cannon and other matérial in Concord. Any spy who was really in the British council room would have had better intelligence.
- The “Committee of Safety” was part of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and met outside of Boston, never in the upper room of the Green Dragon.
- The “ride of Paul Revere” was improvised, not planned.
- By their own accounts, many Boston Patriots did “dare to venture out” on 18 Apr 1775. We have Revere’s recollection, for example. Dr. Warren’s professional daybook shows two transactions on that date. William Dawes rode out of town. Col. Percy reported hearing local men discuss the march on the Common at night, so somebody must have been up and about.
For a brief time authors accepted the tale of Sam Ballard—it was featured in the New York Times review of Crawford’s book. But historians found this legend not to be credible and stopped incorporating it into their recreations of events. It survives today only on the placemats of today’s Green Dragon Tavern, which has no connection to the establishment that existed in 1775.