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
Promoting this post: Teach History presents
For the past six years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Colonial American history to grade school students while walking in the footsteps of my early Boston ancestors. During my field trips of Historic Boston, students walk the same streets my Edwards ancestors once strode with well known Bostonians like John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. As a tour guide and a teacher, I find this personal connection to history — and the stories I’m able to convey about it — to be a wonderful way to engage students. What makes it even more interesting for them is that these stories continue well after the tour is over. They come to life in my children’s book One April in Boston, and every student participating in a Boston field trip or any of my school programs receives the downloadable MP3 audio version for free.
Through the tour and the book, students learn that my Edwards ancestors arrived in Boston around 1700. My sixth great grandfather Captain Benjamin Edwards (pictured in this post) was 19 years old and living in the North End of Boston in 1706 – the same year Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street! That year he was married by Cotton Mather according to an entry in the 1708 Edwards Family Bible which still exists today. Benjamin Edwards was a sea captain and I discovered records of his many voyages including a battle with pirates in the Caribbean in 1722. His son Dolling Edwards, my fifth great grandfather, was a mastmaker at a shipyard in the North End and his son Benjamin was a cooper.
My fourth great grandfather, cooper Benjamin Edwards was an orphan by the time he was eight. Ben lived with his Aunt Sarah and his Uncle Alexander Edwards, a cabinetmaker and member of the Sons of Liberty. The family lived a few blocks down the street from the Old North Church and Ben was 10 when the signal lanterns were shown from its steeple and Paul Revere made his Midnight Ride. Toward the end of the Revolution, Ben’s older sister Sally Edwards married silversmith Paul Revere Jr., firstborn son of the famous patriot.
Ben’s son Joseph Edwards, my third great grandfather, was born in 1799. He was my last Edwards ancestor to live in Boston his entire life. Joseph was a paver who set granite paving stones in the city streets. He was also an innkeeper. Joseph lived in the West End not far from Boston Common, where most days you can spot me surrounded by enthusiastic schoolchildren and teachers heading off on my one-of-a-kind walking tour of Historic Boston.
Teachers: If you are interested in integrating family stories or genealogy into your history curriculum, the following genealogy resources will prove very helpful.
I’d like to make teachers aware of an outstanding online resource for information on New England just before, during, and after the Revolutionary War – the Boston 1775 blog. The blog is authored by J.L. Bell, a Massachusetts writer who specializes in the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. J.L. has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. His recent presentation “Gossiping about the Gores”, the story of one family from Colonial Boston, is archived by the WGBH Forum Network.
J.L. Bell is more than a writer who is passionate about history; he’s also a bit of a detective. Since 2006, the content on Boston 1775 has grown to over 1,300 posts, with many being the result of his exhaustive research into primary sources. Educators and all those passionate about history can truly spend hours on this blog learning information that will make them think about historical events in a different way. You’ll find numerous posts on Lexington and Concord, the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill and so much more.
Two posts I found particularly fascinating were on the myths and realities of the Quartering Act. Back in grade school I was taught that the Quartering Act forced Boston families to provide food and shelter for the King’s troops occupying the town. I had pictured colonists being required to open up their homes to soldiers without any payment in return or say in the matter. By reading posts at Boston 1775, I realized this was not the case. The Act only referred to shelter in “unoccupied” buildings and not inhabited ones.
Some Boston families did house British soldiers in their homes before the war but most did so due to economic necessity and were compensated for it in the form of rent. One example of this is the family of Old North Church sexton Robert Newman. Knowledge of the true nature of the Quartering Act came too late for me to catch a small Act related error on page 31 of my children’s book One April in Boston – but I guess that’s what second editions are for! It’s an example of what one can gain from reading Boston 1775, and ensures that today I’m conveying the correct information to the students I work with both on field trips and in the classroom. Thanks J.L. for all the time and effort you’ve invested in creating this important resource for educators and history buffs alike.
The events that lead up to the American Revolution come to life in my children’s book One April in Boston. The book is written for students in grades 3-6. The audio book version narrated by Phil Rosenthal is 3 hours long. Readers of the Teach History blog receive exclusive access to download a 30-minute sample of this product – see link below. The chapters contained in this download cover the lantern signal from the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride and the battle on Lexington Green.
One April in Boston is the story of several generations of an American family and a special gift that was passed down from one generation to the next. It revisits the life of 10-year-old Ben Edwards, my direct ancestor. We follow young Ben and his family, learn of their connection to the Sons of Liberty and Paul Revere and witness historic events through their eyes. We also learn about Ben’s goals, the process he sets in motion to help achieve them and the special spyglass he uses to glimpse the future.
The story passes through a timeline of American history, traveling from Revolutionary Boston to the present. On the journey, readers discover what happens to Ben’s spyglass and learn where it can be found today. They leave with a newfound appreciation for the choices and sacrifices made by patriotic Americans from the time of the American Revolution to the present day. The book teaches children about the value of goal setting in a creative and memorable fashion.
I hope you enjoy listening to the audio sample below. I offer author visits annually to schools located throughout New England. Presentations for grades 3-6 are highly praised by teachers, interactive, educational, inspirational and fun! I discuss One April in Boston and introduce students to Colonial Boston with the aid of photos, engravings, maps and original colonial newspapers from my personal collection. For more information, or to book a school visit, contact me (Ben Edwards) in Boston at 617-670-1888.
The Old North Church or Christ Church in the City of Boston (its official name) was built in 1723 and is the oldest standing church building in Boston today. It is the famous spot where sexton Robert Newman held two lanterns in the steeple window as a signal that the British troops had left Boston by the water (and not the land) route and were making their way to Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere came up with the idea for the lantern signal and it will be forever associated with his Midnight Ride.
Today visitors to Old North can sit in the high box pews that bear the names of their original owners and learn about the history of this wonderful site from an excellent staff of guides. Their 7-10 minute talks occur constantly throughout the day and are just one way to discover the history of Old North Church. A Behind the Scenes tour offers a unique perspective and provides new and in-depth information about the Church’s history. Visitors are taken into the Church’s second-floor gallery, up into the bell ringing chamber where a 15-year-old Paul Revere and his friends worked as bell ringers in 1750, and down into the crypt beneath the church where 37 tombs and about 1,100 bodies lie.
Behind the Scenes tours for school groups are available with advance reservations. This special tour is offered to families and small groups hourly on weekends in June, daily from July 1st through October 12th and the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for students/seniors/military and $5 for children 16 and under. Tickets may be purchased at the Old North Gift Shop. Large groups of 8 or more are encouraged to schedule tours in advance. To schedule your Behind the Scenes tour for a group of 8 or more contact Old North Church at (617) 523-6676 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.