By Bernard Trubowitz
138 years ago, on October 20th, 1878, North Enders awoke to a neighborhood full of familiar, unchanging edifices in an ever-changing neighborhood. One such structure was the Old North Church, its tall brick tower and white steeple only altered by the Great Gale of 1804. Shem Drowne’s golden weathervane still swung in the harbor breeze, and the ranks of tall arched windows still gazed down upon the narrow, crowded streets. But when the residents of the North End went to sleep that night, the unchanging façade of the church was forever altered by the quiet, unceremonious addition of a massive 10 foot three-inch-wide, six foot four inches tall, solid granite tablet permanently affixed forty-two feet above the pavement. Carved into its foot thick surface were six and eight-inch letters, proclaiming in a silent, yet stentorian text, the following words:
The Signal Lanterns Of
Displayed in the Steeple of This Church,
April 18, 1775,
Warned the Country of the March
Of the British Troops To
Lexington and Concord.
For 138 years since, countless people have photographed the tablet, craning their necks to gaze up at the words and pondering their meaning. It is as much a fixture of the church’s exterior as the steeple. The massive size and permanence of stone lend the words an air of authority; surely such an imposing inscription is a statement of indisputable fact. In fact, the wording of the tablet was anything but cut-and-dry and reflects how the battle between the history and legend of Paul Revere’s ride was already being fiercely debated less than twenty years after Longfellow’s famous poem immortalized the night of April 18th, 1775.
We know the intimate details of the tablet’s history thanks to the efforts of William W. Wheildon. Wheildon, a resident of Concord, local historian, and author, was integral in the final design of the monument and made efforts to compile an accurate account of that famous night in his publication of a “History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns” (a publication which can still be found in the Old North Church Gift Shop and the Printing Office of Edes & Gill) upon learning of its planned construction in 1876. This illuminating pamphlet declared from the introduction the author’s intention: “It was somewhat surprising that any doubt should be thrown upon the accepted history of that incident, either as to the place where the lanterns were displayed, the sole author and the purpose of them, or the party by whom they were shown. It is a satisfaction to know that doubt has been dispelled, and it is now believed the true history must be considered as established.”
Wheildon spoke with the Old North’s Rector, the Rev. Dr. Henry Burroughs, before turning his attention on not only whose lanterns they were, but how the plan came about, all known accounts of that famous night, which of the many churches in the North End was the site of the signal, and Longfellow’s poem and the liberties taken by it. The section on the traditional history of Robert Newman and claims by the family of Captain John Pulling Jr. are of particular note, as they include interviews with older residents of the neighborhood. Remember, in 1878 there were still people alive who as children played in the streets of Boston during the Revolutionary War, those few referenced when Longfellow described that “hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year!”
After all of his investigations and arguments, Wheildon turned his attention to the inscription proposed for the tablet: “The lanterns hung from this tower signaled (sic) to Paul Revere the march of the British troops upon Lexington and Concord.” He immediately wrote a letter to Mayor Henry Lillie Pierce declaring the text “inaccurate and untruthful.” His interest piqued, the mayor passed the letter to the City Clerk, who replied that the text had been approved by the City Council, and could not be altered without a new vote. The clerk admitted that “others” had similarly requested the substitution of “the Patriots” for “Paul Revere”, but declared the change was merely a technical one.
Convinced the text was a “perversion of history”, Wheildon fired off a second, far more direct letter to Mayor Pierce on March 23, 1878. It is worth including the whole of this lengthy letter with original emphasis, as it illuminates the core arguments still made today between Longfellow’s version of history and the actual events, a debate which still goes on to this day:
“Dear Sir, I trust you will allow me to acknowledge to you the receipt of a note from the City Clerk in answer to mine of the 20th, addressed to you. If, as he understands, my objection (so to speak) was merely technical, it would perhaps have been undeserving any answer. My statement was that the proposed inscription was both ‘inaccurate and untruthful,’ and if you will allow me, I will specify the points wherein it is so.
The lanterns were in no sense to Paul Revere, but, on the contrary, were his signals to Col. Conant and others, at Charlestown, made by special agreement between them, and the statement is therefore inaccurate and untruthful. Paul Revere did not see them; they were not made for him, and he did not need to see them. They did not signal to him the ‘march of the British troops,’ for he knew of the movement before he left Boston. The sole object of the signal lanterns was to alarm the country of the movement of the British troops (through Col. Conant and other gentlemen) in case he (Paul Revere) should be seized or otherwise prevented from crossing the river to give the alarm himself and carry Dr. Warren’s message to Lexington. I repeat, they were in no sense signals to Paul Revere, ‘while on the opposite shore,’ as the poet says, but his signals to the gentlemen mentioned, and we now know would have accomplished their purpose by his foresight in the matter, had he been seized or upset in the river. If these things are so, is not the proposed inscription ‘inaccurate and untruthful,’ and should it not be revised and corrected?
Allow me to add a brief word of criticism. The proposed inscription, if my copy is correct, says ‘march of the British troops upon Concord and Lexington.’ The use of the preposition ‘upon,’ I think, is objectionable, and the sentence reads as if we should say, in another case, ‘the Massachusetts troops marched upon Washington and Baltimore.’
I trust your Honor will excuse what may seem to be meddlesome on my part, in addressing a second note to you on this subject; but it impresses me very strongly that the perversion of history in putting up such an inscription cannot be in accordance with the character of the people of Boston. I may add that I have no personal interest in the matter, or any connection with those who may have, and am prompted only by the interest which I feel in my native city, in which, in my boyhood, I was permitted to drive my mother’s cow to pasture on Boston Common. Very respectfully, &c.”
Mayor Pierce, far from seeing the letter as “meddlesome,” brought Wheildon into a partial hearing on the tablet with the Chairman of the Board of Aldermen, the President of the Council, the City Clerk, City Architect, and other distinguished politicians. That same evening, the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council ordered the inscription be changed per Wheildon’s input. While it was impossible to address all of the circumstances of April 18th and 19th with limited space (despite the great size of the tablet), the inscription as we see it today was settled upon as the best summary, and the great stone plaque was hoisted up and affixed high over the church’s door, blocking the spot where once a window for the bell ringing chamber (and later a small clock) had been, without ceremony or inauguration. Ever since then it has been a silent testimonial to the church’s most famous night; a permanent record of April 18th, 1775. Thanks to William W. Wheildon’s efforts, it is also an accurate account of that most famous night.