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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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Robert Newman and the Lanterns in the Old North Steeple

As I wrote yesterday, people paid very little attention to the question of who hung the signal lanterns in Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775 until after Henry W. Longfellow published “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860.

Within a decade, a Boston family had come forward to share their lore of an ancestor hanging those lanterns. The earliest written statement of that tradition that I’ve seen appeared in the Boston Traveler newspaper on 30 Dec 1873, in an article about the sesquicentennial of the first service in Old North   (formally Christ Church, Boston).

Here’s the pertinent paragraph, broken up for easier online reading:
The eighteenth of April, Easter Tuesday, 1775, is a day memorable in our annals, connecting the history of this church with that of the nation. It was the last day of the rectorship of a clergyman owning allegiance to the King of Great Britain [Rev. Mather Byles, Jr.].

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. On the other side of the river was Paul Revere, waiting for them to communicate to him the intention of the English.

Mr. Newcomb [sic] succeeded in eluding the vigilance of his unwelcome guests, took down the church keys, and with two large lanterns in his hand went out, met his friend, heard his intelligence, opened the church door and locked it again after him and went “up the wooden stairs with stealthy tread to the belfry chamber overhead.”

The lights from this steeple waked the fires of war and symbolized two mighty changes; the colonies became an independent nation, and the Church of England in this land is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. If Robert Newman’s courage or patience, or firmness or self-control had failed him for an instant, Paul Revere would have looked in vain across the dark waters at the tall steeple on Copp’s Hill.

When his task was done Mr. Newman came down, passed through the church, jumped out of a back window, went round through Unity and Bennett streets to his house, and succeeded in entering it without being observed. The British found him in bed. They arrested him and threw him into jail, but he had taken such nice [?] precautions that nothing could be proved, and he was set at liberty.

Mr. [Henry] Burroughs [rector of Christ Church in 1873] stated that he had heard these facts from the lips of a son of Robert Newman about four years since. The church was closed that night. Mr. Byles was soon after banished, with other subjects of Great Britain, and he retired to Halifax.
Later newspapers made clear that the “son of Robert Newman” who had spoken to Burroughs was Samuel Haskell Newman. He participated in subsequent lantern-hanging ceremonies at the church. In addition, Burroughs later reported corroboration from:

  • “Mrs. Sally Chittenden, now ninety years of age, who is the grand-daughter of John Newman, brother of Robert”
  • “Joshua B. Fowle, living at Lexington, who knew Paul Revere, who often came with the other patriots of his time to his father’s house.”
  • “William Green, who lives at the North End, is the grandson of Captain Thomas Barnard. His sister, eighty-four years old, remembers Robert Newman.”

Nonetheless, we can see the influence of Longfellow’s poem on this telling as well. Not only does it mistakenly put Revere on the opposite shore in Charlestown awaiting the signal, but the account even quotes a couplet.

This account also reflects the belief that British army officers were “quartered” on unwilling civilian families before the war. In fact, Robert Newman lived with his mother, and she took in British officers as boarders to help pay the bills.

Dramatic details such as sneaking out of the house, sneaking out of the church, and nonetheless being arrested would naturally be the parts of the story that children would remember and pass on. There’s no contemporaneous support for them, but the Newman family simply wasn’t prominent enough in Revolutionary Boston to be noticed.

TOMORROW: A rival claimant from out of town.

[The photograph above shows the Newman house in the North End, as preserved in the collection of the Boston Public Library.]

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