In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie explores an often-overlooked detail of Paul Revere’s ride. In a letter recounting his historic midnight mission on April 18, 1775, Revere mentions that he “passed Charlestown Neck and got nearly opposite of where Mark was hung in chains.”
Who was Mark and why was he hanged? As you will learn in this video, Mark was an enslaved Black man convicted of poisoning his enslaver, John Codman, in 1755. Jaimie examines Mark’s story and its significance to the history of colonial Boston and the American Revolution.
See below for the video, primary sources, and episode transcript!
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated.
You likely have heard the story of Paul Revere’s ride on the night of April 18, 1775. On that night, he warned his neighbors that the British troops were approaching by sea across the Charles River. Revere was one of a group of about thirty men who started gathering in the Fall of 1774 to surveil the movements of British soldiers. The group met at the Green Dragon Tavern to discuss their latest discoveries. The group was so secretive that at each of their meetings, they swore on a Bible not to tell other people in the community about their discussions.
You also likely know the story of how Old North’s sexton worked alongside a vestryman to hang lanterns in the church steeple as a signal to all of the danger and possibilities that lay ahead. In a 1798 letter to Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, Revere described these two men as “a friend.” His choice not to reveal their names reveals how much fear early Americans maintained of political backlash even decades after the American Revolution.
In this video, we will turn our attention away from Robert Newman, Captain John Pulling Jr., Paul Revere, and Old North’s steeple to focus on the spectral presence of slavery in Revere’s 1798 letter to Jeremy Belknap about his historic ride. You can view the original text of Revere’s letter to Belknap on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. There you can see the original letter with a side-by-side transcription of it.
In today’s video, I will focus on a sentence on page two of Paul Revere’s letter. He wrote, “After I had passed Charlestown Neck and got nearly opposite of where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on horseback, under a tree.” With all the other riveting details of Revere’s letter, this sentence, in which a man’s hanging body is used as a landmark is frequently overlooked, but we are wrong to overlook it. Mark’s hanging body points to the contradictions of the new nation. In April of 1775, Revere and others took extraordinary risks to extricate themselves from British political authority. However, the memory of Mark’s body is a reminder of the role of violence against people of African descent in the making of this new nation.
Mark was a thirty-year-old enslaved man from Barbados. His enslaver was thirty-six-year-old John Codman of Charlestown. On September 18, 1755, Mark was hanged for allegedly poisoning John Codman. We can learn quite a bit about John Codman through the archival records. Codman was born on February 14, 1719. He was the eldest child of John and Parnell Codman. He was a ship’s captain. The inventory of his estate after his death indicates that he had a wide array of possessions, including a Bible, a cedar desk, gold jewelry, and enslaved Black people. All these things were considered to be his property. After his unexpected death, each piece of property, including the human property, was assigned a numeric value and sold.
The archive yields less information about Mark. Had it not been for his deadly encounter with Codman, his life would likely be overlooked entirely. However, Mark’s participation in the alleged conspiracy to poison Codman in late June of 1755 and his subsequent execution after the incident points to the interconnected nature of life and death for white and Black Bostonians in the eighteenth century. Because of Mark’s crime and the resulting punishment, his name, and the sight of his body remained as a landmark in Boston’s story. In his final statement before his death, Mark shared information about his life. He explained that he was brought from Barbados to Boston as a young child. He had been enslaved by two men before Codman purchased him.
Mark claimed to have conspired with two enslaved women, Phillis and Phebe, to poison John Codman. After Codman’s death, Phillis was executed and Phebe’s name appeared along with the other “property” to be sold with Codman’s estate. In his statement, Mark placed much of the blame for his participation in Codman’s demise on his failures to submit to God and his choice to listen to and conspire with enslaved women. Mark revealed that although he was enslaved by John Codman in Charlestown, he spent significant time in Boston drinking with friends and visiting his wife. We can only imagine how much of a nuisance Bostonians considered him and his friends to be. On February 28, 1755, city records reveal that Mark was warned out, or instructed to leave Boston. Perhaps he chose to remain in the city despite the warning. The column on the far right of the page that normally states how long a person had been in Boston instead said that Mark was “since hanged.”
At the end of Mark’s September 1755 statement, we see that his words were printed and sold next to the prison on Queen Street. Not only would his body hang in Boston for all to see as a reminder of the social standing of Black enslaved people, but this statement, in which an enslaved man advised other enslaved people to “shun their vices” or face the same fate he did, would live on as a somber reminder of the cost of resistance. We also see that four men were present when Mark acknowledged that this statement reflected his final words. These men were Isaac Bradish, James Boyd, David Cutter, and Samuel Hide.
The signatory James Boyd and his wife were married in 1735 by Rev. John Moorhead. Moorhead pastored the Church of the Presbyterian Strangers. This mostly Scottish-Irish congregation was distinct from their mostly English Puritan neighbors. Moorhead was an effective minister and much beloved by his congregation. He was also the enslaver of artist Scipio Moorhead who painted the well-known frontispiece of poet Phillis Wheatley. Scipio Moorhead’s painting is said to have produced the very first portrait of an American woman in the act of writing. The signatory Samuel Hide was married by Rev. Samuel Myles. Myles was the rector of King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Church of England parish in New England. These signatories, who were all Christian men with families, affirmed the state’s decree that Mark must die for the crime of poisoning the man who enslaved him.
The story of Mark’s execution stands out because such incidents were rare in Boston. Nevertheless, the incident is noteworthy because it reveals that perhaps many enslaved people in Boston committed small acts of sabotage against their enslavers. When we center Revere’s reference to Mark in our memory of his historic ride, we can reimagine that night in 1775 as one that was both illuminated by two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church and overshadowed by the reality of the institution of slavery. While British citizens in the American colonies were resisting British authority, enslaved people throughout the Atlantic World were likewise demanding their freedom through actions big and small.
What do you think about Revere’s reference to Mark in his retelling of his historic ride? How does focusing on Mark’s resistance and demise help you to think differently about that April night in 1775? You can share your thoughts in a comment below this video. To see other Illuminating the Unseen videos, please visit www.oldnorth.com/itu. I would also love to hear from you directly. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.