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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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Another Robert Newman Story

As a postscript to last week’s discussion of the stories of hanging lanterns in Old North Church, I have to acknowledge yet another version of that tale from Robert Newman.

This version was preserved by Edward Everett—later a governor, senator, Secretary of State, and president of Harvard University—in a footnote to the published edition of the oration he delivered in Concord on 19 Apr 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle there.

Carefully following Paul Revere’s own account of that day, Everett mentioned the signal lanterns hung in the Christ Church spire. His note added this anecdote:
A tradition by private channels has descended, that these lanterns in the North Church were quickly noticed by the officers of the British army, on duty on the evening of the 18th. To prevent the alarm being communicated by these signals into the country, the British officers, who had noticed them, hastened to the church to extinguish them.

Their steps were heard on the stairs in the tower of the church, by the sexton, who had lighted the lanterns. To escape discovery, he himself extinguished the lanterns, and passing by the officers on the stairs, concealed himself in the vaults of the church.

He was, a day or two after, arrested, while discharging the duties of his office at a funeral, tried, and condemned to death; but respited on a threat of retaliation from Gen. Washington, and finally exchanged.

This anecdote was related to me, with many circumstances of particularity, by one who had often heard it from the sexton himself.
That sexton had to be Robert Newman. And that story had to be balderdash.

First, there’s only one way up or down to the upper windows in the steeple, and those stairs are narrow. There’s no way people can “pass” each other unnoticed. Perhaps a man who knew the building well could hide on the second or third level while others climbed past him, but could he go down to the vaults without being sure there weren’t more soldiers waiting on the ground floor? Plus, Newman’s family later stated that he had locked the church doors so British troops couldn’t easily enter. And escaped out a back window.

Second, there’s no evidence from British sources of them catching Newman, let alone trying him and condemning him to death.

Third, George Washington didn’t arrive to take command of the Continental Army until 2 July, more than two months after Newman’s supposed arrest and conviction. And there’s no evidence in the general’s papers that he ever heard of the sexton, much less made “a threat of retaliation” to get him freed.

It seems significant that the outlandish details of this story weren’t part of what Newman’s son told the rector at Christ Church around 1870. If Robert Newman told this hair-raising tale in the early republic, and I rather suspect he did, he reserved it for tourists.

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