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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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Another Version of the Story of John Pulling

I’ve been quoting the letter published in the 20 July 1876 Boston Daily Advertiser that first publicly credited John Pulling with having hung the signal lanterns in Old North Church at the start of the Revolutionary War.

It’s striking evidence of the speed of communications possible then that an evening reprint of that newspaper item reached Malone, New York, by 22 July, and a man there was able to have his reply published back in the Boston Journal on 24 July.

Henry F. Lane (1825-1897) was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Malone. He wrote:


Under this caption in your evening edition of Friday I learn that a correspondent of the Advertiser from Orange, N.J., answers the question by giving the name of John Pulling.

John Pulling was the grandfather of my mother, the late Mrs. Charles Lane, Jr., of Boston. The wife of John Pulling, my mother’s grandmother, died in Abington, Mass., about thirty years ago in her ninety-ninth year.
That elderly widow was Sarah (Thaxter McBean Pulling) Reed (1746-1843). Her daughter Sarah (1773-1817) married Isaac Reed of Abington in 1793, and their daughter Sarah (1797-1871) married Charles Lane in 1815. (The first Sarah's third husband was the father of the second Sarah’s only husband.)

Henry F. Lane told the family lore this way:
When I was a lad I remember distinctly hearing from her that her husband hung the lights in the steeple of the Old North Church to give the alarm to the country people. His residence at the time was on the corner of what was then called Ann and Cross Streets. The British at the time made diligent search for him, and I have heard my great-grandmother give a very vivid description of their searching the house to find him, and how he avoided capture by her concealing him under an empty wine-butt in the cellar.

He escaped with her from Boston in a small skiff while the British had possession, by disguising himself as a fisherman, was challenged while passing under the hawser of a British man-of-war, and landed on Nantasket beach. He was in concealment for a while in an old cooper shop near the beach, and in that lowly place my mother’s mother was born. At the time John Pulling was a shipping merchant. All his vessels and goods were confiscated and his house was occupied by British ofiicers. . . .

I will also add that John Pulling was one of the number that destroyed the tea in Boston Harbor. He was not disguised as an Indian, but was in his usual garb, even to the three-cornered hat. My great-grandmother, upon his return, took from the rim of his hat a small quantity of the tea that had been lodged there, and preserved it in a glass vial. Many of her descendants besides myself who are yet living will recall how vividly the old lady used to describe the event as she brought forth the precious memento. During the last year of her life that vial mysteriously disappeared.
In broad outline this is the same story passed down by the sisters and daughter of Pulling’s first wife to the Rev. John Lee Watson—sought by the royal authorities, Pulling snuck out of Boston by boat to Nantasket and lived there with his family during the siege of Boston, enduring privations. Many of the details differ, however, from the location of the Pullings’ North End home to the boat they escaped on.

In one important respect, Henry Lane’s understanding of his family history was wrong. He believed his grandmother was born at Nantasket during the siege. In fact, she was born on 19 Oct 1773, according to Boston records, and baptized at Christ Church five days later. It’s notable that Henry Lane didn’t know his grandmother, who died before he was born, but clearly did know his long-lived great-grandmother and her vivid stories of the Revolution.

In the end, the existence of two versions of the tale of John Pulling hanging lanterns from two branches of the family who clearly weren’t in touch shows that story goes back well before those lanterns became a celebrated part of American lore. But where does that leave Robert Newman?

TOMORROW: The debate over Newman and Pulling.

1 comment:

chasebeazie said...

Fascinating! John Pulling and his wife Sarah were my 5th great grandparents.