The history and legend surrounding Paul Revere’s midnight ride have been interwoven so tightly that they may never be untangled. Certainly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow obliterated all boundaries of poetic license in mythologizing Revere’s gallop in his famous 1861 ode, and when Sarah Palin came to town last year and delivered her creative interpretation that Revere rode to warn the British not the Colonists, history’s waters got even muddier.
In a quest to discover where the myths end and the truth begins, I set off to re-create the midnight ride of Paul Revere — albeit without the horse and not by moonlight. In truth, a midday drive.
With tricorn hats out of fashion, I instead don my Patriots sweatshirt and start my journey at the Paul Revere House in the North End. The wooden structure is teeming with schoolkids, but since Revere himself had 16 children, I guess nothing much has changed.
Revere wrote that around 10 p.m. on April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, having learned through the revolutionary underground that British troops were preparing to cross the Charles River, “sent in great haste for me and begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington.” Like a superhero returning to his lair for a uniform change, Revere came back to this house to collect his heavy boots and riding coat before setting off with a message for John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were ensconced at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington.
While Revere made a beeline to the waterfront to retrieve a rowboat, I detour to the Old North Church. Patrick Leehey, research director of the Paul Revere House, tells me that out of all the myths surrounding the midnight ride, the biggest misconception concerns the lanterns that shined from this church. “The signals were not intended to warn Revere, but to let the Sons of Liberty in Charlestown know whether troops had left by land or sea in case Revere couldn’t leave Boston with the news.”
Revere knew upon leaving Warren’s house that the British were moving by sea, and he put in motion the plan to signal Charlestown’s patriots with two lanterns. Exhibits inside the Old North Church reveal, however, that the exact identity of who briefly held the lanterns aloft in the steeple windows is unknown, with ancestors of both sexton Robert Newman and vestryman John Pulling making the case for their forefathers. Leehey says both men had church keys, and it is probable they worked together. The Old North Church seems to call it a toss-up as well.
While Revere had two friends row him across to Charlestown, I am getting shuttled across the water by the MBTA ferry at Long Wharf. After a quick, 12-minute ride, I disembark at the Charlestown Navy Yard and walk past the USS Constitution to Revere’s landing spot. From here, he walked to the town center and mounted Deacon John Larkin’s fleet steed. Relying on some different horsepower to follow the trail to Lexington, I hop into my car armed with directions from the Paul Revere House website. Leehey tells me the route is essentially the same as Revere’s, although some streets have been straightened and relocated.
Revere streaked out of Charlestown around 11 p.m. and planned to travel by way of Cambridge. Soon, however, he encountered the perennial plague of Boston travelers: the unexpected detour. Two British officers on horseback, who were keeping watch for potential patriot riders bearing news of the military maneuvers in Boston, spotted him and began a hot pursuit. In what was worthy of a great cinematic chase scene, one of the officers got stuck in a clay pond trying to cut Revere off at the pass and Revere managed to outrun the other. A stone marker near the Holiday Inn on Somerville’s Washington Street marks the approximate spot where Revere was forced to make his U-turn and take a longer route through Medford.
After navigating Charlestown’s one-way streets and braving the Sullivan Square rotary, I beat a similar path up Broadway to the crest of Winter Hill before veering onto Main Street at postage-stamp-size Paul Revere Park. The fenced-in, triangular tuft of lawn with a towering evergreen and stone marker noting Revere’s ride is smaller than most backyards — even by Somerville standards. Locals say it is the world’s smallest park. That I can believe. The story that President Taft dedicated the park, however, I am not buying. There is no way the portly Taft could have squeezed in there.
I head into Medford, where Revere wrote that he began to alarm “almost every house till I got to Lexington.” One house he presumably galloped past was the grand estate of Loyalist Isaac Royall Jr. However, I take a few minutes to stroll the grounds of the Royall House and the state’s only surviving slave quarters. Within weeks of Revere’s ride, Royall had fled the country and the mansion had become a patriot military headquarters.
Back in my car, I get all turned around trying to navigate through Medford Square. The small brown sign in front of the library saying “Revere’s Ride” gives me comfort that I am heading in the right direction on Route 60, but I have come not to rely on these sporadic signs that were posted during the bicentennial. One sign I come upon in Arlington Center is so sun-bleached that it is virtually blank.
After passing the Paul Revere Restaurant in West Medford, I turn right on Mass. Ave. and stop at Arlington’s Jason Russell House. This is one of the homes that Revere alerted as he galloped through the village of Menotomy, as Arlington was known at the time. The home’s lame, 59-year-old namesake stayed to fight, reportedly proclaiming, “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” It was a brave — and fateful — decision.
Faith Ferguson of the Arlington Historical Society tells me that by the time the British marched into Menotomy on their way back to Boston, “they were an exhausted, cranky bunch.” That probably made the fighting that broke out in the village particularly brutal. Russell was shot and bayoneted on his doorstep. When his widow returned home, she found the bodies of 11 other patriots killed in the house and yard lying in the kitchen in blood that she said was ankle-deep.
The Jason Russell House was the scene of fierce room-to-room fighting, and it has amazing battle scars to prove it. Musket ball holes still riddle the walls of numerous rooms and staircases. Ferguson shows me where one shot grazed a staircase banister before piercing the parlor wall. “It must have been so terrifying in here,” she says. The battle at Menotomy was bloodier than the ones at Lexington and Concord, but, unfortunately, much like the defunct village itself, it has nearly been forgotten.
Back on Mass. Ave., I am lumbering behind the 77 bus and not moving much quicker than those weary British troops marching back from Concord. Finally, I reach Lexington. After bearing right at the famed Battle Green onto Hancock Street, I arrive at Revere’s destination: the Hancock-Clarke House.
It was just after midnight when Revere pulled up here. He had covered a distance of more than 13 miles on horseback in little more than an hour. Granted, I had just slogged through a maze of one-way streets, traffic-clogged arteries, and a never-ending sequence of rotaries and squares, but that Revere managed to get from his house in Boston to Lexington in less than two hours may have been the most awe-inspiring feat of his night.
When the guard posted outside the house warned Revere not to make any noise and rouse the occupants from their sleep, an incredulous Revere responded, “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” Today’s visitors receive a warmer welcome to the Hancock-Clarke House, which was renovated in 2009 and painted to match its oldest known color. After watching a 15-minute video about the battle at Lexington, you can take a guided tour through the rooms of the property.
Shortly after Revere arrived, another rider, William Dawes, joined him. The duo were soon back on the road again to warn the residents of Concord. Along the way they were joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott, who was returning from courting a young woman, successfully it appears given the late hour. At 1:30 a.m., the three encountered a British patrol. Dawes and Prescott managed to escape, but Revere did not.
I pull off Route 2A into a parking lot at Minute Man National Historical Park and enter a circle of stones that marks the approximate spot where Revere was captured. Panting joggers trudge by as I stand alone reflecting on the abrupt conclusion of the midnight ride. It’s certainly not a Hollywood ending, which is probably why Longfellow granted Revere the license to gallop into Concord. Sometimes, however, you realize that history needs no embellishment.
If you go...
Paul Revere House
19 North Square, Boston
Old North Church
193 Salem St., Boston
15 George St., Medford
Jason Russell House
7 Jason St., Arlington
36 Hancock St., Lexington
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopher