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NorthChurchLanternsOld North Church (officially, Christ Church in the City of Boston), at 193 Salem Street, in the North End of Boston, is the location from which the famous “One if by land, and two if by sea” signal is said to have been sent. This phrase is related to Paul Revere’s midnight ride, of April 18, 1775, which preceded the Battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution. Like many of the stories related to our history, they often are embellished to serve personal interests. Within this story is an unknown patriot, Captain John Pulling.

The church is a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. It is the oldest active church building in Boston and is a National Historic Landmark. Inside the church is a bust of George Washington, which the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly remarked was the best likeness of him he had ever seen.

Old North Church was built in 1723, and was inspired by the works of Christopher Wren, the British architect who was responsible for rebuilding London after the Great Fire. In 1775, on the eve of America’s Revolution, the majority of the congregation were loyal to the British King and many held official positions in the royal government, including the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, making the fact that some members were loyalty to the Patriot cause even more extraordinary. The King had given the Old North’s its silver that was used at services and a Bible.

Into history comes Paul Revere , a talented silversmith, engraver but more importantly an active member of Boston’s Sons of Liberty. For months he has served as the group’s messenger, carrying information as far away as Philadelphia. When group leader Dr. Joseph Warren learns that General Gage’s army will march on Lexington and Concord, he calls once again on Revere (and young William Dawes) to ride into the countryside to warn area militia members. Dawes’s mission was to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that they were in danger of arrest. Dawes was to take the land route out of Boston through the Boston Neck, leaving just before the military sealed off the town.

For many months before Paul Revere would make his ride, tensions between the Colonists and British Troops had been on the rise, both in the city and in surrounding towns. The Royal Government (the British government in Massachusetts) wanted to ensure that troops would be able to secure the colony in case of rebellion. Orders went out to confiscate weapons that the Colonists had been storing throughout the countryside.

Several parties of British troops had been sent up the coast to confiscate ammunition in Salem and parts of what is now New Hampshire. In both of those cases, Paul Revere and other riders who were members of the Sons of Liberty, alerted the townspeople of the movement of British troops well before those troops could reach their destinations. The munitions were successfully hidden and the British troops were humiliated.

British soldiers guarded the exits to the city and anyone caught wandering the streets after dark could have be arrested. If both Revere and Dawes were detained, their warning would not reach the minutemen. A back-up plan was needed. Revere recalls the view of Charlestown from atop the Old North Church where he rang the bells as a teenager. He approached an intimate friend from boyhood and business associate, a man named Captain John Pulling to help. Both Paul Revere and John Pulling were members of Boston’s Committee of Correspondence. One of the principle roles of its members was to gather intelligence and track the movements of British troops within the Colonies. Pulling also had with ties to the church and Revere would ask a huge favor—to hang signal lanterns in the steeple.

John Pulling was the perfect choice. He was not only a member of the church but also a vestryman (part of the church’s governing body, like an elder). John Pulling was a passionate patriot. We know this because earlier that day, the vestry, Pulling and other vestrymen, made a decision to fire their Loyalist Rector, Rev. Mather Byles Jr., for preaching against their patriot cause. A bold move for liberty. If captured hanging the lanterns, Pulling hoped he could provide a believable reason for being in the church, he was part of the “management team” and needed to be there after firing their Rector. So on April 18th, Captain Pulling was ready to go to the church and hang two lanterns from the window on the north side facing Charleston. This would be the signal that the British Regulars were coming by sea.

Robert Newman, the sexton (janitor) of the Old North, also had patriot allegiances but, perhaps more importantly, he had the keys to the building. He also lived just across the street from the church. Newman was generally considered to be a trustworthy young man, but had not, as yet, been very active in the rebellion. He was not able to find work and had taken a job he did not like as the church caretaker. Eager to help out, he was known to be a man of few words and right for the job of helping in signaling a secret message.

Revere then went to his boat in Boston Harbor and was rowed across by two friends, Joshua Bentley and Thomas Richardson. The men used a petticoat to muffle decrease the noise made by the oars. Seven hundred British soldiers began their journey led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Regiment and Major John Pitcairn of the Marines. But by using the lantern method, they would have a fast way to inform the back-up riders in Charlestown about the movements of the British; these back-up riders planned to deliver the warning message to Lexington and Concord in case Revere and Dawes were arrested on the way. To be certain the message would get through.

About 10:00 PM, Newman opened the church door with his key before Captain Pulling joined him inside while Thomas Bernard stood guarding the door. Then John Pulling would hang the two lanterns for just under a minute to avoid catching the eyes of the British troops occupying Boston, but this was long enough for the message to be received in Charlestown. The militia waiting across the river had been told to look for the signal lanterns, and were prepared to act as soon as they saw them.

The warning was delivered miles away to dozens of towns, first by Revere and Dawes on horses, and then by other men on horses and men who rang church bells and town bells, beat drums, and shot off warning guns. Revere didn’t really say “The British are coming!” because most of the people in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. But he did say “The Regulars are coming out!” (or something similar) to almost every house along the way to Lexington after he felt safe from that British patrol. The lanterns were immediately seen by the British troops and Robert Newman, living across from the church, was placed under arrest. It would be Newman who would proclaim his innocence and give John Pulling’s name to the British officials. Newman was released and a search for Pulling began immediately.

At first Pulling hid in his house, inside an empty wind cask in the cellar. Then, disguised as a fisherman, he eluded the troops and embarked upon a small skiff to leave the city by sea. The skiff was challenged by a nearby English warship at anchor, but allowed to pass. Sometime later the small boat arrived at Nantasket Beach. At the same time, his wife Sarah Pulling, had also fled Boston. Now, John Pulling was a hunted man. They were to rendezvous at an old Cohasset cooper’s shop. While here, Mrs. Pulling would give birth to a daughter, born before the arrival of her husband. It is unclear for how long the Pulling’s remained hidden in the cooper’s shop (which must have been a primitive structure at best, lacking even the most rudimentary comforts of a home), but they did remain in hiding for an extended period. It is likely that John Pulling was a hunted man for the duration of the British occupation of Boston.

The identity and precise location of the Cohasset cooper’s shop where the Pulling’s would hide is not known, although historians conjecture it might have been among the numerous fishing and mercantile buildings located near our harbor. Here the Pulling’s remained, safe from British eyes. In their hasty flight from Boston, they had left all their property at home and arrived in Cohasset with scarcely any belongings. Thus the couple was destined to suffer from lack of resources during their time in exile. They remained in exile until the last British troops evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. Among the few belongings they were able to bring with them to Cohasset was Sarah’s Bible, which remained in the possession of her descendants for the next century and a half. In 1909 Sarah’s great, great grandson Harvey H. Pratt, of Scituate, a prominent Boston attorney, owned the old family Bible and was able to confirm the story of her exile at the Cohasset shore. Captain Pulling’s health had declined as a result of the privations suffered during his exile, for, although he resumed revolutionary activities following his return to Boston, he died at the age of fifty, in 1787. Sarah Thaxter Pulling, who had been Pulling’s second wife, later resided in Abington until her death at age ninety-nine, in 1846. A great grandson, Rev. Henry F. Lane, noted, “When I was a lad I distinctly remember hearing from my mother’s grandmother . . . that her husband hung the lights from the steeple of the Old North Church.”

So how did the Pulling’s sacrifice fare in history? Not too well. It is not the predominant story surrounding what we now celebrate as “Patriot’s Day.” Upon their return, they found that everything, their possessions and their home were gone. John and Sarah Pulling lost everything because of the light of two lanterns. Were John and Sarah’s risks of no value? Well, history tells us that Revere was actually detained by the British and did not reach Lexington until the battle had already begun. William Dawes did not make it either. He fell off his horse and the horse ran away. Upon procuring another horse, Dawes showed up late too. The message reached Lexington because of the many riders who could see the lanterns that night in the steeple. Those lights high on the church steeple, would start 13 colonies on a path that would create the greatest nation on the earth and the freedoms we enjoy today. Who does history give the credit for the lanterns to? A plaque on the side of the Old North Church gives all of the credit to Robert Newman.

One of the original lanterns is on display at the Concord Museum. The other lantern, is lost, rumored to have been broken during a tour.

Material taken from the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 15 By Massachusetts Historical Society (1876-1877)

A First Person Sermon called “Setting the Record Straight” telling the story of John Pulling [Vimeo Video]