Robert Newman and the Lantern Signals

Robert Newman is perhaps the most famous sexton ever to serve Old North due to his participation in the fateful events on the night of April 18, 1775.

Robert Newman was born on March 20, 1752 in Boston. He had an interesting and complex family tree. Robert Newman’s great-grandfather, Rev. William Burroughs, was accused of witchcraft in 1692 and hanged in Salem. After the death of his father when he was only two years old, Newman’s mother, Mary Thomas, married John Gibbs of Christ Church, whose former wife was the daughter of the Rev. Timothy Cutler (the first rector of the church). His brother was the organist at the Old North Church, and his cousin, Isaiah Thomas, was a Boston printer. Newman became sexton of Christ Church in 1772. He owned Pews #50 and #78.

In the spring of 1775, Newman lived at home with his mother in a house on the corner of Sheafe Street and Salem Street. She rented part of her home to British officers during the occupation of Boston, as was common for many families. On the night of April 18, 1775, Newman pretended to retire to his bedroom to go to sleep, but instead he snuck out of his house and met up with Old North vestryman Capt. John Pulling, Jr., and Thomas Bernard, at the Old North Church. By request of Paul Revere, Newman and Pulling were to carry signal lanterns to the top of the Old North Church steeple and place them in the windows while Bernard stood outside as a lookout. These signal lanterns sent an incredibly important message across the river.

Paul Revere had told Col. Conant and some friends in Charlestown to keep an eye on the steeple of the church and to wait for a signal. They were told that if they saw one signal light, the British troops were leaving Boston by land via the Boston Neck, and if they saw two lights, the troops planned on rowing across the Charles River to Cambridge before marching to the countryside. Their orders were to seize and destroy munitions that the colonists had been illegally stockpiling in Concord. After receiving the signal for which route the British soldiers were taking, riders would then alarm the countryside.

Legend has it that after assisting with the signal lanterns, Newman escaped from the church by climbing out a back window on the ground floor of the church and sneaking back into his home to sleep. The next day, British troops arrested Robert Newman and placed him in jail since he was one of few people in town with a set of keys to Old North. He was later released after he told them that he had lent Capt. Pulling the church keys. When the authorities went looking for him, they discovered that Pulling had fled Boston.

In 1861, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized this event when he wrote the poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, which forever made Old North and Paul Revere famous across the country. The poem opens with these famous words:

Listen my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One, if by land, and two, if by sea.

In 1782, Robert Newman sold a lantern to Capt. Daniel Brown for an undisclosed amount of money, claiming that it was the sole remaining lantern of the original two that were displayed in 1775. In 1853, a descendent of Capt. Brown sold it to Mr. Cummings Davis of Concord. In 1886, Mr. Davis donated it to the Concord Historical Society. That lantern is now on display to visitors in the Concord Museum, although its authenticity is questionable due to circumstances of the original sale.

Newman continued serving as sexton of the Old North Church until his death on May 26, 1804. Tragically, Newman committed suicide. He was buried in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston.

Every year since 1875, on the eve of Patriot’s Day, Old North has commemorated the hanging of the lanterns and the role the signal played in the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. This year’s Lantern Ceremony will take place on Sunday, April 20 at 8 pm. Be sure to show your patriotic pride and participate in this special tradition!

By Mark Hurwitz