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, May 30, 2019

The Rediscovery and Remembrance of Robert Newman

For half a century after Robert Newman the Old North sexton killed himself in 1804, nobody much outside of his family remembered him.

He wasn’t named in public accounts of Revolutionary Boston. He had no monument in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, near the church he had tended.

(In contrast, his namesake Capt. Robert Newman did have a gravestone, which Thomas Bridgman described in detail in Epitaphs from Copp’s Hill Burial Ground, Boston: With Notes in 1851.)

Then at the start of 1861 Henry W. Longfellow published his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” That made Paul Revere and the lanterns hung in the Old North steeple famous. People started asking who hung those lanterns. Newman’s son and other descendants came forward to say that he had done it.

That led to a protracted dispute with the descendants of John Pulling, who grew up understanding that he deserved the credit. I already rehashed that unnecessary dispute; it seems quite clear that both men were involved.

More important to this week’s discussion, the rediscovery of the lantern story led to new interest in Robert Newman. Suddenly he was remembered. Meanwhile, the fact that another man of the same name had lived in the North End at the same time was forgotten.

As a result, starting in the late 1800s people gathered information about both Robert Newmans and wrote about them as a single person. By 1927 the Sons of the American Revolution had installed “an iron memorial” on Copp’s Hill that reportedly read:
CAPT. ROBERT NEWMAN
PRIVATEER ADVENTURE
SEXTON
OLD NORTH CHURCH
APRIL 19th, 1775
Historians of Freemasonry who were themselves Masons were particularly pleased by how this composite individual offered another link between Freemasonry and a famous Revolutionary moment. For example, this Masonic Genealogy website conflates the sea captain’s gravestone and Masonic career with the sexton’s activity on 18 Apr 1775. As I wrote yesterday, I’m skeptical that Newman the sexton was ever a Freemason.

Edward MacDonald’s Old Copp’s Hill and Burial Ground: With Historical Sketches, published in 1894, mentioned the sexton’s recently demolished house but said nothing about a gravestone for him. Within ten years, however, a stone had been installed for that Robert Newman at Copp’s Hill, as shown by the 1904 photo shown above.

The sexton’s stone reads:
HERE RESTS
ROBERT NEWMAN
BORN IN BOSTON, MCH. 20, 1752,
DIED IN BOSTON, MAY 26, 1804
(And then a Freemasons’ emblem—whether or not appropriate.)
THE PATRIOT WHO HVNG THE SIGNAL LANTERNS
IN THE CHVRCH TOWER, APRIL 18, 1775
The typography is, in a word, weird. It looks like a Colonial Revival attempt to replicate real eighteenth-century stones that’s at once too regular in its spacing and too irregular in its spelling. To me the type also looks similar to the monument in the Old Granary Burying Ground to Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre victims, erected by “Boston Chapter S.A.R. 1906.”

I don’t mind Robert Newman the sexton having a monument, of course. I just wish we did a better job keeping him and his life distinct from that of Robert Newman the captain.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Mr. Bell, wonderful work as always. With your permission, I'll discuss appending the note on the New England Craftsman publication from 1922 with your comments on the conflation of the two men. There tends to be quite a bit of speculation, as also demonstrated in Isiah Thomas having suggested the stone.

Victor said...

Thanks for the piece on Robert Newman