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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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where Did Jonathan Harrington, Jr., Die?

In 1775 this house facing Lexington common, shown courtesy of the Along the King’s Highway blog, was the home of Jonathan Harrington. There were three Jonathan Harringtons among the Lexington militiamen who turned out on 19 Apr 1775, and this is the one who was shot dead.

The plaque on the right side of the house façade explains the standard story of Harrington’s death: “Wounded on the common April 19 1775 [he] dragged himself to the door and died at his wife’s feet.” That story played a role in the discussion over preserving the house, as James M. Lindgren’s Preserving Historic New England describes.

That story took a while to get into print, however. Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington (1825) quotes from a deposition of John Munroe dated 28 Dec 1824:
Isaac Muzzy, Jonathan Harrington, and my father, Robert Munroe, were found dead near the place where our line was formed. Samuel Hadley and John Brown were killed after they had gotten off the common.
Munroe’s recollection suggest Harrington died on the common close to where he had been standing in the ranks. The separate sentence about those “killed after they had gotten off the common” reinforces that impression. None of the eyewitnesses quoted in that book described Harrington dragging himself home.

In 1835, the famed orator Edward Everett came to Lexington to speak on the battle’s anniversary. Using Phinney and other, unspecified sources, Everett recounted the events of the day, including:
Robert Munroe was killed with Parker, Muzzy, and Jonathan Harrington, on or near the line, where the company was formed. . . .

Harrington’s was a cruel fate. He fell in front of his own house, on the north of the common. His wife, at the window, saw him fall, and then start up, the blood gushing from his breast. He stretched out his hands towards her, as if for assistance, and fell again. Rising once more on his hands and knees, he crawled across the road towards his dwelling. She ran to meet him at the door, but it was to see him expire at her feet.
So far as I can tell, this is the earliest description of Harrington crawling toward his wife and home. In February 1777, Ruth (Fiske) Harrington remarried a Boston man unhelpfully named John Smith, and I can’t trace her further. It’s possible that Everett heard this story somehow from her, or people who knew her. Note that he didn’t say Harrington actually got to his house: the wounded man “crawled across the road towards his dwelling.”

Frank Coburn’s The Battle of April 19, 1775 (1912) states that Harrington “fell near the barn, then standing in what is now Bedford Street.” For that statement, Coburn cited a manuscript setting down what Levi Harrington, an eyewitness to the battle, told his son in March 1846.

But nine years later, in The Battle on Lexington Common, April 19, 1775, Coburn spoke about Harrington thusly in the historical present:
He is mortally wounded on the northerly end of the Common. Across the road is his home. He struggles to reach it, falls, but with renewed effort rises and staggers to his own door-stone. His wife meets him there, and he dies in her arms.
So for that audience Ruth Harrington doesn’t just see her husband dying, but she holds him “in her arms” on their “own door-stone.” No citations this time.

In Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer reported that the Levi Harrington manuscript is at the Lexington Historical Society. That book repeats the details of Coburn’s second telling, however, and adds another figure, saying Harrington’s death was witnessed not just by his wife but by his young son. It’s a very affecting story, one that stuck with me since I first read that book, but it seems to be one of those stories that keeps getting better with each retelling.


G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

On a related note, I am curious as to what the house Jonathan Harrington may or may not have crawled towards actually looked like in 1775. We now see a five- bay hipped roof dwelling painted white. The slightly asymmetrical arrangement of the windows suggests to me that the house was added onto at some point. Before or after the battle? Was it whitewashed? Was the roof under which the Harringtons lived in 1775 hipped, gabled, or gambrelled? I gave never seen information on the history of the structure. As someone who is building a large model of Lexington Green in 1775, I would love to know.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Jonathan Harrington house has clearly been modernized, but I don't know if there's solid information about its original shape. One of the books I mentioned, Preserving Historic New England, talks about objections to how it was being "restored" in the early 1900s, but those objections came from someone who didn't own the house, and there were no preservation laws, so they had no effect.

Hugh Harrington said...

Fascinating to see the story develop over time. When I was a kid - about 1957 - my parents took me to Lexington-Concord. Being seven I was very struck by the Jonathan Harrington story - dying at his wife's feet,etc. This along with other such inducements have led me to a lifelong love of history...even though I know now that my Harringtons were from NC not Mass. Thanks!