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 15, 2018

John Pulling and the Lanterns in the Old North Steeple

In 1875 Old North Church celebrated the centennial of the start of the Revolutionary War and the role that its steeple had played in that event.

The rector, the Rev. Henry Burroughs, credited Robert Newman, the church’s sexton, with hanging the two lanterns that H. W. Longfellow’s poem had made famous.

That prompted a response from the Rev. John Lee Watson (1797-1884), who had four years before moved from Massachusetts to Orange, New Jersey:
Knowing that this statement could not be correct and having my attention called to the matter by a kinswoman of mine, who furnished me with additional reasons for believing that the honor of aiding Paul Revere on that “night much to be remembered,” belonged rightfully to a member of our own family, I addressed a letter to the reverend rector, asking for the authority on which he had made such a statement.
The rector pointed to the informants named yesterday, all descendants of Newman or people who had known him and/or Revere in Boston’s North End earlier in the century.

Watson, however, had grown up hearing a different story. In a long letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser published on 20 July 1876, he wrote, “I claim ‘the honor of raising the signal-lanterns’ for Captain John Pulling.”

Watson quoted Revere’s own account of the events of 18-19 Apr 1775, declaring that the “friend” the silversmith referred to was Pulling—indeed, that Pulling “had been, from boyhood, his most intimate friend.”

Like the Newman family, Watson shared dramatic details of that night:
Major [John] Pitcairn’s regiment was drawn up nearly in front of the church, and not only was there a risk of the light being observed in that quarter, but also, as Pulling said, “he was afraid that some old woman would see the light and scream fire.”
(When Watson republished this letter as a pamphlet, he silently replaced the clause about “Pitcairn’s regiment…nearly in front of the church” with the more vague and defensible “The soldiers were in the streets, at no great distance from the Church.”)

Here’s what Watson understood Pulling to have done:
As soon as he received his notice, he left his house [footnote: in Salem Street], 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. He then went into the church, locking himself in; and, “climbing to the upper window of the belfry,” he there waited patiently, until—
And here Watson inserted five lines of Longfellow’s poem.
…and then he hung out the signal of “two lanterns,” by which those on the opposite side would understand that the British “were going by water.”
Watson wrote that Paul Revere saw that signal from Charlestown (he didn’t) and quoted two more lines of Longfellow. We can see that poet’s cultural dominance in how people were trying to align their family stories with his verses rather than the historical record.
When it was discovered by the British authorities that the signals had been made from Christ Church, “a search was immediately set a-foot for the rebel who made them.” The sexton of the church was suspected and arrested. He protested his innocence; and, when questioned, declared that “the keys of the church were demanded of him, at a late hour of the night, by Mr. Pulling, who, being a vestryman, he thought had a right to them; and, after he had given them up he had gone to bed again, and that was all he knew about it.”

This answer was sufficient to procure his release, and turn the search towards Mr. Pulling.
Watson thus declared that not only had Robert Newman not hung the lanterns as his descendants and neighbors believed, but that he had actually pointed the royal authorities to the man who deserved the credit.

TOMORROW: Pulling on the run.

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