Before Thanksgiving, we received a letter from 8-year-old Hannah in St. Augustine, FL lamenting the fact that we did not do justice to John Pulling Jr.’s role in the events of April 18, 1775. “What a precocious and well-researched child,” we thought. Most of our visitors know very little about the two potential lantern holders, and this little girl seemed adamant that credit be given where credit is due. Hannah chose Old North Church as the focus of her class project because she and her family had visited the church when she was a little girl and she found its history intriguing. As her mom says, “Being originally from the Boston area, one can’t help but be thrilled with all things Boston and all things Revolutionary.” We are honored that Hannah chose to share her project with us along with a picture of herself and her poster.
I had the pleasure of initiating a heartwarming series of emails with Hannah and her mom Kristin to engage in a converation about the validity of primary and secondary sources and the historian’s role in separatng fact from fiction. Not an easy task! Robert Newman is often recognized (incorrectly) as the lantern holder the night of April 18, 1775 – in many history books and websites – but we do know that John Pulling was involved. The best resource for what actually happened that night is David Hackett Fischer’s book Paul Revere’s Ride. When he did his research here in the 1990s, he retraced the lantern holders’ steps and looked through records and documents. What he decided is that the task of climbing 8 stories high in total darkness and then lighting the 2 lanterns would have been quite difficult for one man to do alone. He concluded that both Newman and Pulling went up the steeple together. How’s that for an idea?
However, because there are no primary sources from that night, we can only surmise what Paul Revere meant when he said he “called upon a friend.” The letter in which he wrote that phrase was actually written 25 years after the actual event. Could he have forgotten the name of his friend? Did he want to keep the identity of his friend a secret? We just don’t know. Many facts point to the friend being John Pulling, as Hannah suggested. Because he was a vestryman, he was technically Newman’s boss, so he would have been able to ask for the keys and Newman could not refuse. Because he was closer in age to Revere and they ran in the same circles, it is most likely that Revere would have called upon Pulling. However, Newman’s role is still important, whether he went up to the steeple with Pulling or not. Both men were incredibly brave in a crucial moment. They did not know that what they were doing would be celebrated as historically significant one day. And until we find a primary source, perhaps a diary or letter written by Newman or Pulling, we cannot officially say who held the lanterns. It frustrates so many people when we tell them this complicated story, but I think it shows how history is not always a finite thing. As historians we have to look at the evidence and make our best assertion, knowing that there is always more than one way to interpret a story!
In our interpretive talk and interpretive signage inside the church, we give credit to both men, as we do on our website as well. This page on the real events of April 18, 1775 is actually our most visited page! We also offer an elementary school program called History Mystery: Who Hung the Lanterns at the Old North Church? geared toward 3rd-5th graders that addresses the very issue that Hannah researched in her project.
Do you have a class project about Old North or its stories that you’d like to share? Tell us about it!