The Unsolved Mystery at Old North Church
December 1, 2010 by Ben Edwards
Who doesn’t appreciate a good mystery – especially one that dates all the way back to the beginning of the American Revolution! On the evening of April 18, 1775, “a friend” of Paul Revere held two lanterns in the northwest window of Christ Church (Old North Church) steeple to signal patriots in Charlestown that the British troops were leaving Boston by water on their secret expedition to Lexington and Concord. One hundred years later, on April 18, 1875, Samuel Haskell Newman spoke before a large crowd at Old North Church giving his family’s account of that historic night and identifying his father, church sexton Robert Newman, as the man who displayed the lanterns. After that speech, Samuel Haskell Newman climbed 14 stories into the steeple and held two lanterns aloft just as he believed his father did a century earlier. One year later on July 20, 1876, a letter by Reverend John Lee Watson of Orange, New Jersey, appeared in a newspaper called the Boston Daily Advertiser. In the letter, which he entitled, Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston, Watson argued that his relative Captain John Pulling, a member of the church vestry, had actually held the lanterns in the steeple window and not Robert Newman.
These competing tales were addressed in an excellent lecture I attended this fall at Old South Meeting House given by Old North Foundation historian and Education Director Bob Damon. At the beginning of his talk, which was part of the Paul Revere Memorial Association Lecture Series One Hundred and Fifty Years of “Paul Revere’s Ride”: Facts, Fables and Fiction, Bob shared a unique image. It was a picture from 1875 showing a close up of Old North Church all decorated for the first lantern ceremony – the one that Samuel Haskell Newman spoke at. Later, I spotted a stereograph of that image in this post from John Bell’s great blog Boston 1775. I became motivated to see if I might track down an original copy of the picture for my own collection. As luck would have it, I was able to find not only that photograph, in stereographic form, but also a second showing the entire church as well as an 1875 illustration from a newspaper called Gleason’s Pictorial that features people in period attire admiring the decorated building. (All three of these items have since been donated to the Old North Church.) In each image, on the front of the church, we see a beautiful rendering of a lone patriot displaying two lanterns. The question posed to the audience at the beginning of the lecture was, “Who is this man?”
All wondered – what evidence did Samuel Haskell Newman and John Lee Watson have to support their claims that the man holding those lanterns was either Robert Newman or Captain John Pulling? Bob Damon presented their cases. Both men had strongly held beliefs, much of it based on family tradition. Newman’s took the form of the remembrances of family members, among them Mrs. Sally Chittenden the granddaughter of John Newman, brother of Robert. She recalled hearing how her relative Robert Newman displayed the signal lanterns on that fateful night. Newman was jailed for a time by the British for his suspected involvement and his relations were well aware of that fact. Watson’s family story came down from his mother, aunt, and Miss Mary Orne Jenks, the granddaughter of Captain John Pulling. Miss Jenks stated, “The story of the lanterns I heard from my earliest childhood from my mother and from my step-grandmother, and I never supposed there could be a doubt of its truth. I know he (Captain John Pulling) held the lanterns on that night, but how can I prove it after all these years?” Additional information would come to light and be published after Samuel Haskell Newman’s speech at Old North on April 18, 1875 and John Lee Watson’s letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser on July 20, 1876 to support both their positions.
On November 9, 1876, during a monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Recording Secretary Charles Deane passed on correspondence from John Lee Watson that further backed the case for Captain John Pulling and offered evidence that Christ Church was the location from which the lanterns were displayed (not the Old North Meeting House as some believed). In 1878, a book authored by William W. Wheildon entitled History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, in the Steeple of the North Church contained multiple testimonials supporting Newman’s side of the argument and also made an effort to discount Watson’s claims regarding Captain John Pulling. Two of the testimonials were the words of Mary B. Swift, granddaughter of Colonel Conant, and Maria Green, granddaughter of Thomas Barnard. Below are more complete quotes from these individuals or their relations as they appear in another pertinent book on this topic Robert Newman, His Life and Letters 1752-1804 by Robert Newman Sheets.
“My mother, 84 years of age, now living at 7 Bowdoin Square, is the granddaughter of Col. Conant with who Paul Revere consulted on the Sunday prior to the lantern signaling from the spire of Christ Church. She resided at the north end in her youth, and informs me that the hanging out of the lanterns was then a common subject of remark, that it was always spoken of as the act of the sexton of Christ Church, and that not till Mr. J L Watson’s statement in the Boston Advertiser of the 20th inst, did she ever hear of the act being attributed to any other person than that Sexton.”
Wm C Swift
“I hereby certify that I am the daughter of William Green who lived in Boston at the North End near Christ Church which I have always heard called the North Church. My grandparents also resided there. I was born in the year 1793. I have heard many times from my mother the account of the signal lights displayed from the steeple of Christ Church on the night of the 18th April 1775 and I distinctly remember that she said her father Capt Thomas Barnard was engaged on that night watching the movements of the British in order to obtain for Robert Newman the necessary information concerning their departure. Our family were familiar with the story of the hanging out of the lanterns owing to the connection of Capt Thomas Barnard with it, and we never heard the act ascribed to any other person than Robert Newman, or to any other place than Christ Church.”
Lincoln, April 7, 1877
In 1880, a book entitled “Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston by John Lee Watson was published. Retaining the same name as Mr. Watson’s original letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser, it made an effort to refute the evidence supporting Robert Newman in Mr. Wheildon’s book, and again made the case for Captain John Pulling. The book includes a letter from the Reverend Henry F. Lane, the great grandson of Captain Pulling, written to the editors of a Boston newspaper on July 22, 1876. A portion of that letter appears below:
“Who Signalled Paul Revere.”
Malone, July 22, 1876.
To the Editors of the Boston Journal:–
“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 99th year.
When I was a lad, I remember distinctly hearing from her that her husband hung the lights from 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-but in the cellar. He escaped with her from Boston in a small skiff, while the British had possession, by disguising himself as a fisherman…”
Henry F. Lane,
Pastor First Baptist Church, Malone, N.Y.
As the final evidence for each side was presented, and the lecture drew to a close, the audience was again posed the question, “Who is this man?” We were left to ponder – was it church sexton Robert Newman who displayed the lanterns, Captain John Pulling, or perhaps both men working together? That determination would come for each of us after our own careful review of the evidence. For me, it is mysteries like this that make history so intriguing. We may never locate one definitive document that points to Newman, Pulling or both, but what we do have is two men, two patriots forever linked in the annals of American history whose stories present today’s educators with a unique opportunity. Old North Church offers an outstanding school program that addresses this captivating event. It is called, “Who Hung the Lanterns in the Old North Steeple? A History Mystery.” Students use clues to formulate their own vision of what took place at Old North over 235 years ago. For teachers looking for ways to integrate technology into their social studies curriculum, this educator-led field trip is the ideal subject for a digital storytelling project! More details below:
Program length: 1.5 hours
Cost: $5 per student
Group size: From 25 students (or 1 class) to entire middle school grades!
Program offered: September – Mid June
This exciting program is an educator-led field trip where students use historical documents, grave markers in nearby Copp’s Hill cemetery, and clues on the Old North Church campus to investigate the unsolved mystery of who hung the lanterns in the Old North steeple on the night of April 18, 1775. They gain an understanding of the historical research process and the importance of “sourcing” historical documents to assess their accuracy.
To learn more or to book this field trip:
Finally, I’d like to wrap up this post with a word of thanks to my friends at Old North Church. Over the past ten years, on a variety of different projects, I’ve had the opportunity to access parts of this historic site not open to the general public. This includes not one but three chances to climb to the top of the steeple for which I am very grateful. This was especially meaningful for me back in 2000 while working on my children’s book One April in Boston in which my ancestor Ben Edwards makes that same climb in this chapter with the guidance of Captain John Pulling. In that tale, I have Robert Newman displaying the lanterns on April 18, 1775 but after attending Bob Damon’s lecture, I feel it’s quite likely that Captain John Pulling provided Robert Newman with some degree of assistance inside the church tower.
A climb to the top of the steeple – in the footsteps of sexton Robert Newman, Captain John Pulling or both!
Oldest known photograph of Christ Church (Old North) circa 1860.
Shortcut to this post: OldNorthMystery.com
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