High above Boston’s North End, is where I spied someone scaling the tall steeple of the Old North Church (officially known as Christ Church in the City of Boston, built in 1723). Apparently working as part of a construction project, the courageous man shimmied up the side of a needle with ropes. I admired his courage.
224 years earlier, under the cover of darkness, two other men risked their own hides by climbing to the heights of that same church – but from the inside. Their mission was to hang two small lanterns of light, in order to awaken a rebellion.
“One, if by land, two, if by sea,” was what the lanterns were meant to signal, as told by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride. That much Longfellow got right. However what he got wrong was that the signals were not sent to Paul Revere, but from Paul Revere. It was on his behalf that the two snuck into the church and spiraled up a series of dark staircases and ladders, up and around the church’s large bells, to the set of large windows that looked over the city and far beyond. At the time, all along Hull Street, where I sat drawing, were the homes of many British soldiers. Many of the church’s congregation were British. Yet, lanterns were successfully hung, or held, before the highest windows of the Old North Church – eight stories up.
The lights hung for only a short time – perhaps a minute – before they were extinguished. Patriots in Charlestown, to whom the signal was sent, had been watching for a few nights for the alarming signal. The British plans to send a large force (about 700 soldiers) across the Charles River and on to Lexington and Concord to seize colonists’ stockpiles of munitions, and perhaps arrest the patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were broadcast across Boston Harbor. Alerted in Charlestown, riders were sent into the countryside to alert the local colonial militias. Not long after, Paul Revere would set out, first by boat to Charlestown and then by horseback to Lexington as one of two special riders who’s job it was to alert Adams and Hancock of what was to come.
The secret as to who were the two men who snuck into and up to the top of the Old North Church was kept better than the British plans. It is thought that Robert Newman, the church’s sexton (caretaker) and Capt. John Pulling, a vestryman (a leading parishoner) of the church, were the two who lit the lanterns. It was their flint, that sparked the colonists to action that fateful night.