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, April 19, 2018

Shedding Light on the Lanterns Debate

There are two big reasons I think the late-1870s debate over whether sexton Robert Newman or vestryman John Pulling hung the lanterns in the Old North Church steeple on 18 Apr 1775 didn’t amount to much.

The first is that the two family traditions which finally saw print in that decade weren’t really contradictory. Of course each set of children born after the Revolution grew up hearing about how their own daddy or granddaddy had done something very important in the war, paying little attention to other people in the story. But two traditions actually fit together.

Here’s the Newman lore, as expressed in 1873:
That evening the sexton of Christ Church, Robert Newman, sat quietly in his house on Salem street, opposite Bennett street, assuming an unconcerned look and manner to avert the suspicion of the English officers who were quartered upon him, but impatiently expecting the arrival of a friend, a sea captain, who was watching the movement of the regulars. 
Newman’s son recalled him awaiting “a sea captain,” and Pulling was a mariner whom everyone called “Captain.” Significantly, the Newmans didn’t recall the sexton hearing news directly from Paul Revere.

Meanwhile, Pulling’s relatives were clear that the first thing he did after learning about the British plans from Revere was to go to Newman:
As soon as he received his notice, he left his house, and, watching his time, went over to the sexton’s, in the same street, and asked for the keys of the church, which, as he was a vestryman, the sexton could not refuse to give him.
In sum, the two accounts are complementary. The only contradiction between these stories is that each family felt that their relative alone took two lanterns to Christ Church.

But it makes more sense if both men went to the church. That way one could keep watch and run interference. Pulling may well have seen himself as supervising while Newman recalled doing most of the physical work.

Both family traditions also hold that the royal authorities seized Robert Newman on 19 April or soon afterward. That leads us to the next big disagreement between the accounts. The Newman family said the sexton was released because the army didn’t have enough evidence to hold him. The Pulling relatives believed that Newman was released because he snitched on the captain—but they offered no evidence for the words they put in Newman’s mouth. The sexton remained in the North End for years after the war, and no one else accused him of being an informer.

These days, almost all historians say Robert Newman and John Pulling put up the signal lanterns together. The Pulling relatives’ suspicion about Newman gets swept aside. So as of now both sides of the debate won, and both sides lost.

But that’s only the first reason I say the debate over who hung the lanterns doesn’t matter much. The other reason is that hanging those lanterns probably had zero effect on history.

The lantern signal told William Conant, David Cheever, and other Patriots in Charlestown that the British troops were going to cross the Charles River. They dispatched a messenger on horseback to carry that news to Committee of Safety and Supplies members Elbridge Gerry, Azor Orne, and Jeremiah Lee in west Cambridge and to John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington.

That messenger never made it. He was probably stopped on the west side of the Charlestown neck by British officers on horseback. Revere later ran into such officers and had to gallop off to a northern road. We don’t know who the original Charlestown rider was or what happened to him, but we know he didn’t get through.

That means the signal from the Old North tower played no role in alerting Provincial Congress leaders or countryside militia officers about the British march. Thus, if the two lanterns had never shone, the events of 19 April would have played out the same way. (Mind you, I’ve even questioned whether Revere’s ride mattered.)

So why did people care so much about the lanterns in the 1870s? Why do we care today, reenacting that event and idolizing the lanterns supposedly involved? The answer goes back to Henry W. Longfellow. He recognized the poetic power of that moment when the twin lanterns were lit—it’s focused, dramatic, visual. He made it a vital part of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” distorting history to depict it as crucial to Revere’s actual ride. And we’ve had it embedded in our national consciousness ever since.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

While it is arguable that neither Revere nor the lanterns were important to how events unfolded the following day, both tales, and the fact that neither was essential, only highlights the fact that the patriots were not mere angry citizens, but a highly organized resistance movement that never put all their eggs in one basket.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I agree that's the real lesson about this episode. The Patriots had at least four ways to alert their political and military leaders about possible British army moves. First and I think ultimately having the most effect, those leaders and the local population around them were on alert, so they spotted the British army officers on patrol. Then came William Dawes. Then the signal lanterns and the rider from Charlestown, who was stopped. And fourthly Paul Revere, who reached Lexington before Dawes.

And then Revere and Dawes took it upon themselves to go beyond their original assignment, alerting more households and ultimately, through Dr. Samuel Prescott, the Concord contingent—which was already on alert.