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.

Follow by Email


Friday, April 20, 2018

Conceptions of Medicine and History at the A.A.S.

Here are couple of interesting programs coming up at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 24 April, 7:00 P.M.
“The Medical Imagination in the Early United States”
Sari Altschuler

The checklists and clinical algorithms of modern medicine leave little space for imagination, and yet we depend on creativity for the advancement of medicine—to diagnose unusual conditions, to innovate treatment, and to make groundbreaking discoveries. We know a great deal about the empirical aspects of medicine, but we know far less about what the medical imagination is, what it does, how it works, or how we might train it. It was not always so.

Sari Altschuler will return to A.A.S. to discuss her new book, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American doctors understood the imagination to be directly connected to health, intimately involved in healing, and central to medical discovery. Literature in particular provided physicians and other health writers important forms for crafting, testing, and implementing theories of health. Reading and writing poetry trained judgment, cultivated inventiveness, sharpened observation, and supplied evidence for medical research, while novels and short stories offered new perspectives and sites for experimenting with original medical theories.

Sari Altschuler is assistant professor of English and associate director of the Humanities Center at Northeastern University. Her research focuses primarily on American literature and culture before 1865, literature and medicine, disability studies, and the health humanities, broadly understood. Her talk is cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College.

Tuesday, 1 May, 7:00 P.M.
“Antiquarian America: Isaiah Thomas and the Ends of History”
Peter S. Onuf

Isaiah Thomas intended for the A.A.S. to play a critical role in promoting the future progress of the new American nation’s epochal experiment in republican government. Thomas and his colleagues were convinced that the success of that experiment depended on comprehensively collecting any evidence—from Indian antiquities and other “curiosities,” portraits, maps, manuscripts, and anything in print—that would illuminate the life of present as well as past for their future successors. The American Antiquarian impulse was cosmopolitan and progressive, eschewing the didacticism and patriotic exceptionalism of nationalist historiography and so anticipating the contemporary turn toward scientific, “objective” accounts of social and cultural development.

Peter S. Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and also senior fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. He is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous books, including Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” and Jeffersonian Legacies. This year Onuf is the A.A.S.-Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence.

These programs take place in Antiquarian Hall, 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. There is on-street parking available on Regent Street and at the lot at 90 Park Avenue. They are open to the public free of charge. Books will be available for sale and signing after the program.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Shedding Light on the Lanterns Debate

There are two big reasons I think the late-1870s debate over whether sexton Robert Newman or vestryman John Pulling hung the lanterns in the Old North Church steeple on 18 Apr 1775 didn’t amount to much.

The first is that the two family traditions which finally saw print in that decade weren’t really contradictory. Of course each set of children born after the Revolution grew up hearing about how their own daddy or granddaddy had done something very important in the war, paying little attention to other people in the story. But two traditions actually fit together.

Here’s the Newman lore, as expressed in 1873:
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. 
Newman’s son recalled him awaiting “a sea captain,” and Pulling was a mariner whom everyone called “Captain.” Significantly, the Newmans didn’t recall the sexton hearing news directly from Paul Revere.

Meanwhile, Pulling’s relatives were clear that the first thing he did after learning about the British plans from Revere was to go to Newman:
As soon as he received his notice, he left his house, 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.
In sum, the two accounts are complementary. The only contradiction between these stories is that each family felt that their relative alone took two lanterns to Christ Church.

But it makes more sense if both men went to the church. That way one could keep watch and run interference. Pulling may well have seen himself as supervising while Newman recalled doing most of the physical work.

Both family traditions also hold that the royal authorities seized Robert Newman on 19 April or soon afterward. That leads us to the next big disagreement between the accounts. The Newman family said the sexton was released because the army didn’t have enough evidence to hold him. The Pulling relatives believed that Newman was released because he snitched on the captain—but they offered no evidence for the words they put in Newman’s mouth. The sexton remained in the North End for years after the war, and no one else accused him of being an informer.

These days, almost all historians say Robert Newman and John Pulling put up the signal lanterns together. The Pulling relatives’ suspicion about Newman gets swept aside. So as of now both sides of the debate won, and both sides lost.

But that’s only the first reason I say the debate over who hung the lanterns doesn’t matter much. The other reason is that hanging those lanterns probably had zero effect on history.

The lantern signal told William Conant, David Cheever, and other Patriots in Charlestown that the British troops were going to cross the Charles River. They dispatched a messenger on horseback to carry that news to Committee of Safety and Supplies members Elbridge Gerry, Azor Orne, and Jeremiah Lee in west Cambridge and to John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington.

That messenger never made it. He was probably stopped on the west side of the Charlestown neck by British officers on horseback. Revere later ran into such officers and had to gallop off to a northern road. We don’t know who the original Charlestown rider was or what happened to him, but we know he didn’t get through.

That means the signal from the Old North tower played no role in alerting Provincial Congress leaders or countryside militia officers about the British march. Thus, if the two lanterns had never shone, the events of 19 April would have played out the same way. (Mind you, I’ve even questioned whether Revere’s ride mattered.)

So why did people care so much about the lanterns in the 1870s? Why do we care today, reenacting that event and idolizing the lanterns supposedly involved? The answer goes back to Henry W. Longfellow. He recognized the poetic power of that moment when the twin lanterns were lit—it’s focused, dramatic, visual. He made it a vital part of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” distorting history to depict it as crucial to Revere’s actual ride. And we’ve had it embedded in our national consciousness ever since.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Debate Over Newman and Pulling

The Rev. John Lee Watson was pretty relentless in arguing his claim that John Pulling, not Robert Newman, had hung the lanterns in Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775.

On 20 July 1876, Watson published his letter in the Boston Daily Advertiser. In November he sent an updated and corrected version of that letter to Charles Deane, corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who endorsed his conclusion and entered the letter into the society’s Proceedings.

The following year, a pamphlet titled Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston appeared. That reprinted Watson’s letter and the M.H.S. discussion of it. Watson published an expanded edition in 1880. (In addition to arguing for Pulling’s participation, he also disputed the mistaken belief that the signal had been sent from the Old North Meeting-House instead of what had become known as the Old North Church.)

Most of the evidence to support Pulling’s participation was indirect, based on his documented role in other Patriot activism. Pulling was a member of the North End Caucus. He was elected to town offices: clerk of the market, warden, fireward, committee to supply the poor, committee to enforce the Continental Congress’s Association. After the siege, he served on the town’s wartime “Committee of Correspondence, Safety & Inspection” alongside Paul Revere.

In 1777 Pulling was a captain and conductor or commissary of ordnance in Col. Thomas Crafts’s Massachusetts artillery regiment. Basically that regiment was how middle-aged Sons of Liberty from Boston’s mechanics class helped to fight the war. (Revere was second-in-command.) In addition, starting in 1761, Pulling intermittently attended events of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons.

Pulling’s Whiggish work was somewhat unusual in that he was an Anglican, even at times a warden and vestryman of Christ Church. But of course his access to that church’s tall steeple would have made him valuable on 18 Apr 1775.

In 1878, a defender of the Newman family claim hit back at the pro-Pulling argument. William W. Wheildon published his History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, in the Steeple of the North Church from his press in Concord. He listed more than a dozen people who had lived in the North End before and after the war and testified that it was common knowledge that Newman had hung the signal lanterns. (Like Watson, Wheildon also spoke up for Old North Church, not Old North Meeting-House, as the source of the signals.)

There’s clear evidence that Newman was indeed the sexton at Christ Church in 1775 and for years afterward (until he was criticized for charging visitors money to see the body of Maj. John Pitcairn in the crypt). And who besides the sexton would have the church keys and knowledge of the stairs to the steeple?

In this historical debate, Newman was the inside candidate. His family had remained in the North End and first got the attention of the Christ Church rector. Though Pulling had returned to the North End after the siege, by the 1870s his descendants were more scattered.

On the other hand, the Pulling faction had the advantage of class. The Newmans didn’t publish their own accounts. Pulling’s relatives did, the most vocal being clergymen. Pulling had been a respected merchant. In contrast, church sextons like Newman were seen as poor, menial, and dependent. “Are sextons, as a class, so intelligent and so reliable as to have been chosen for and intrusted with such an important affair?” Mary Orne Jenks sniffed. In this period the M.H.S. was at its most Brahmin, and it’s no surprise that institution lined up on the Pulling side.

Both parties in the debate claimed that their man was the “friend” that Revere asked to send the signal. Neither was actually able to provide evidence for friendship aside from all three men living in the North End in the same years. But Pulling was in his late thirties, closer to Revere’s age, while Newman was only twenty-three.

Both sides had dramatic stories to tell of their man carefully hanging the lanterns on 18 April, evading the royal authorities that night, and then being hunted down. But there’s no documentary evidence from 1775 to support either of those traditions.

And in the end, this whole debate was over very little.

TOMORROW: Why the Newman-Pulling dispute really doesn’t matter.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Another Version of the Story of John Pulling

I’ve been quoting the letter published in the 20 July 1876 Boston Daily Advertiser that first publicly credited John Pulling with having hung the signal lanterns in Old North Church at the start of the Revolutionary War.

It’s striking evidence of the speed of communications possible then that an evening reprint of that newspaper item reached Malone, New York, by 22 July, and a man there was able to have his reply published back in the Boston Journal on 24 July.

Henry F. Lane (1825-1897) was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Malone. He wrote:


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 ninety-ninth year.
That elderly widow was Sarah (Thaxter McBean Pulling) Reed (1746-1843). Her daughter Sarah (1773-1817) married Isaac Reed of Abington in 1793, and their daughter Sarah (1797-1871) married Charles Lane in 1815. (The first Sarah's third husband was the father of the second Sarah’s only husband.)

Henry F. Lane told the family lore this way:
When I was a lad I remember distinctly hearing from her that her husband hung the lights in 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-butt in the cellar.

He escaped with her from Boston in a small skiff while the British had possession, by disguising himself as a fisherman, was challenged while passing under the hawser of a British man-of-war, and landed on Nantasket beach. He was in concealment for a while in an old cooper shop near the beach, and in that lowly place my mother’s mother was born. At the time John Pulling was a shipping merchant. All his vessels and goods were confiscated and his house was occupied by British ofiicers. . . .

I will also add that John Pulling was one of the number that destroyed the tea in Boston Harbor. He was not disguised as an Indian, but was in his usual garb, even to the three-cornered hat. My great-grandmother, upon his return, took from the rim of his hat a small quantity of the tea that had been lodged there, and preserved it in a glass vial. Many of her descendants besides myself who are yet living will recall how vividly the old lady used to describe the event as she brought forth the precious memento. During the last year of her life that vial mysteriously disappeared.
In broad outline this is the same story passed down by the sisters and daughter of Pulling’s first wife to the Rev. John Lee Watson—sought by the royal authorities, Pulling snuck out of Boston by boat to Nantasket and lived there with his family during the siege of Boston, enduring privations. Many of the details differ, however, from the location of the Pullings’ North End home to the boat they escaped on.

In one important respect, Henry Lane’s understanding of his family history was wrong. He believed his grandmother was born at Nantasket during the siege. In fact, she was born on 19 Oct 1773, according to Boston records, and baptized at Christ Church five days later. It’s notable that Henry Lane didn’t know his grandmother, who died before he was born, but clearly did know his long-lived great-grandmother and her vivid stories of the Revolution.

In the end, the existence of two versions of the tale of John Pulling hanging lanterns from two branches of the family who clearly weren’t in touch shows that story goes back well before those lanterns became a celebrated part of American lore. But where does that leave Robert Newman?

TOMORROW: The debate over Newman and Pulling.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Pulling on the Run

Yesterday we left merchant captain John Pulling (1737-1787) in Boston’s North End with the royal authorities seeking to question him about the signal lanterns hung in the Old North Church steeple on 18 Apr 1775.

At least, that’s the way the Rev. John Lee Watson told the story in a letter published in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 20 July 1876. Watson went on:
In the meantime, a Mrs. Malcolm, a Scotchwoman, and wife of a near neighbor of Mr. Pulling,—who was under obligations to him for some service he had rendered him,—came to him with a message from her husband, “that he had better leave the town as soon as possible, with his family.”

And this he did, disguised as a laborer, on board of a small craft loaded with beer for the man-of-war lying in the harbor. In some way, one of the sailors belonging to the craft had known Mr. Pulling, and to him he confided his wish to escape from Boston with his family. The sailor said “if the skipper of the craft should be on board, he would not allow of any delay; but if the mate, who was a good-natured fellow, should have the command, he would be willing to put him ashore on his return.” This proved to be the case, and Mr. Pulling and his family were landed at Nantasket.

How long he remained there is not known, probably not long; but his wife and family continued to live there for some time, suffering from want of all the necessaries of life; for they had carried nothing with them,—every thing had been left behind.

And when Mr. Pulling returned to Boston,—after the siege was raised,—he found his dwelling-house, and stores, and abundant means, all so injured or destroyed that, at the end of the war, all his property was gone. He died soon after, and the family at once removed to Hingham, Massachusetts.
Boston newspapers show John Pulling holding offices in the militia and town government during and after the war, and advertising imported cloth and other goods for sale before his death in January 1787. But his family passed down a perception of him as impoverished.

Watson said the story he told was “derived principally from the letters of my kinswoman, the grand-daughter of John Pulling.” When the minister expanded his newspaper letter into a pamphlet, he named his correspondent as Mary Orne Jenks (1800-1886) of Salem.

Jenks had told her cousin: “The story of the lanterns I heard from my earliest childhood, from my mother, and from my step-grandmother.” John and Annis (Lee) Pulling (1743-1771) had only one daughter, also named Annis. In 1773 John remarried Sarah (Thaxter) McBean of Hingham, who helped to raise Annis and her brother from the first marriage. Thus, the mother and step-grandmother whom Jenks referred to must have been Annis (Pulling) Jenks (1769-1837) of Salem and Sarah (Thaxter McBean Pulling) Reed (1746-1843) of Abington.

In addition, Watson stated he heard the same story from “my mother and my aunt—both of them sisters of Mrs. Annis Pulling.” The minister’s mother was Lucy (Lee) Watson (1759-1840), Annis (Lee) Pulling’s youngest sister. There are multiple candidates for the aunt, but this is clearly an example of the women of the family maintaining the family lore and passing it on to the next generations.

TOMORROW: Another branch of the family heard from.

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.

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.]

Friday, April 13, 2018

How the Signal Lanterns Started to Glow in American Culture

For most of the nineteenth century, Americans didn’t care who hung the lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775. That’s because very few Americans had ever heard about that signal.

Paul Revere had mentioned the lanterns in the account he gave to the Massachusetts Historical Society around 1798, published in the society’s Collections series. He wrote:
I agreed with a Col. [William] Conant, & some other Gentlemen, in Charleston, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; & if by Land, one, as a Signal; for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck. I left Dr. [Joseph] Warrens, called upon a friend, and desired him to make the Signals.

I then went Home, took my Boots and Surtout, and went to the North part of the Town, where I had kept a Boat; two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man of War lay. It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, & the moon was Rising. They landed me on Charlestown side. When I got into Town, I met Col. Conant, & several others; they said they had seen our signals.
However, Revere’s story didn’t get very wide circulation. It was reprinted in the New-England Magazine in 1832, but historians and textbook writers didn’t pick up on it. Revere’s name appeared in just a few books published in the first half of the 1800s, all discussing him as an engraver or as a leader in Boston manufacturing after the war.

That started to change in 1849 when Richard Frothingham published the first edition of his History of the Siege of Boston. In addition to drawing on Revere’s account, he published a corroborating document, a memorandum written by Richard Devens of Charlestown:
I soon received intelligence from Boston, that the enemy were all in motion, and were certainly preparing to come out into the country. Soon afterward, the signal agreed upon was given; this was a lanthorn hung out in the upper window of the tower of the N[orth]. Ch[urch]., towards Charlestown. I then sent off an express to inform Messrs. [Elbridge] Gerry, &c., and Messrs. [John] Hancock and [Samuel] A[dams]., who I knew were at the Rev. Mr. ——— [Jonas Clarke’s] at Lexington, that the enemy were certainly coming out. I kept watch at the ferry to watch for the boats till about eleven o’clock, when Paul Revere came over and informed that the T[roops]. were actually in the boats.
Over the next decade, several more authors mentioned the signals.

But what really made those lanterns famous was Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” published in The Atlantic in 1860. Longfellow used Revere’s account as his main source, but he indulged in a lot of poetic and narrative license. He made Revere the rider on “the opposite shore” awaiting those signals rather than the Boston organizer who’d arranged to send that information before crossing the river as a backup messenger.

Longfellow wrote of the silversmith:
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”
Longfellow’s poem made the lantern signal into a big deal, and not just because he provided the easily remembered “One if by land, and two if by sea” phrasing. Six of the poem’s fourteen stanzas describe Revere arranging for this signal, his friend gathering intelligence, his friend climbing the tower, Revere waiting for the signal, until finally “A second lamp in the belfry burns!” Revere’s actual ride goes by in a relative blur, even including the extra miles out to Concord that Revere didn’t get to travel.

Longfellow was one of America’s favorite poets at a time when poetry was part of pop culture. “Paul Revere’s Ride” became one of his greatest hits. Starting in 1861, therefore, the lanterns in the Old North Church steeple were embedded in America’s national origin myth.

Which made the identity of the “friend” Revere had asked to “make the Signals” a topic of great public interest.

COMING UP: Rival claimants.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

New Edition of We Stood Our Ground in Lexington

This Patriots’ Day also brings us a revised and expanded edition of We Stood Our Ground, Alexander R. Cain’s in-depth study of Lexington at the start of the Revolutionary War.

First released in 2004, this book has grown to reflect new discoveries in archives, archeology, and interpretation. It traces Lexington’s transition from a quiet rural town to a center of Patriot militancy in the decade before 1775, looking at the religious, economic, and geographical forces at work.

In this edition Cain discusses not only the militiamen who gathered on and around the town common as British soldiers arrived but also the families who rushed to evacuate and the remaining Loyalists.

Recent archeological findings lend new weight to the description of “Parker’s Revenge,” as Lexington’s militia companies fired at the British column when it returned to town from the west. And the book follows the citizens of Lexington through the siege of Boston.

We Stood Our Ground is available from Amazon in paperback and as a very well priced Kindle ebook.

Alex Cain is an active historical researcher and reenactor. He teaches, speaks on constitutional and criminal issues, and leads tours of historic Newburyport through Untapped History. His writing can be found at Historical Nerdery and the Journal of the American Revolution. His other book, “I See Nothing but the Horrors of a Civil War”, follows the Loyalist families from New York and the Hampshire Grants (Vermont) who fought for the Crown as McAlpin’s Corps of American Volunteers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Launch of A Single Blow in Lexington, 15 Apr.

On Sunday, 15 April, Phillip Greenwalt and Robert Orrison will launch their new book A Single Blow: The Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Beginning of the American Revolution, April 19, 1775 at the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington.

A Single Blow is one of the first titles in a new series growing out of the Emerging Revolutionary War Era website. It aims to do what the same publisher’s Emerging Civil War guidebooks do for that later conflict, distilling the latest historical findings into a succinct narrative for readers interested in more than a surface treatment.

As Gene Procknow wrote at the Journal of the American Revolution about another volume in the same series, this book is “more comprehensive than the freely available tour guides and less detailed than a full scholarly account of the battles,…best used by historically inquisitive visitors…or by a reader new to the subject seeking a cogent overview of the battles.” Each paperback volume is short for easy portability and contains many photographs, yet each covers a lot of ground.

The authors have years of experience leading the public around battlefields. Phil Greenwalt, who holds an M.A. in American History from George Mason University, works for the National Park Service at George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Thomas Stone National Historic Site. Rob Orrison received his master’s in Public History from George Mason, and he oversees operations at a large municipal historic site in northern Virginia.

The authors’ book talk and signing is scheduled to start at 1:30 P.M. at the town library. It is co-sponsored by the Lexington Historical Society and the Lexington Visitors Center. The whole event is free and open to the public.