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Exiled in Cohasset: The Lantern Hanger’s Story

David Wadsworth

From David Wadsworth, "Cohasset's Revolutionary war visitor Captain John Pulling;" Historical Highlights, Cohasset Historical Society, Spring 1989. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Captain John Pulling . . . is not often identified with the history of Cohasset, but a traceable link exists between that [Revolutionary War patriot] and this small South Shore fishing village, where he secretly resided during the spring of 1775.

Born at Boston in 1737, John Pulling was a well-known merchant . . . and from [his youth] had been a close friend of the ardent patriot Paul Revere. Pulling joined the cause of liberty and became a member of Boston's Committee of Correspondence. With Revere, he was part of a committee of citizens established to "collect the names of all persons who have in any way acted against or opposed the rights of this country."

Pulling also served as a vestryman of Boston's North Church, [which] would become famous for its role in alerting citizens of the movement of British troops on the eve of their planned march to Lexington and Concord. John Pulling was the person who lit and hung the two signal lanterns in the steeple of the Old North. "One if by land and two if by water" had been the signal they agreed to show in the church tower when British troops began their march.

At about 10:00 p.m. the evening of April 18, 1775, [Boston's] revolutionary Committee on Safety received word that [British] troops were embarking in boats for the first leg of their expedition to destroy patriot ammunition supplies stored in Concord. Immediately riders on horseback left the city to spread the word throughout villages and farms where patriot militiamen awaited the message.

Across the Charles River from Boston, citizens waited and watched for the signal . . . in the Old North's steeple. Paul Revere himself had arranged for the lantern signal . . . and had enlisted the help of vestryman John Pulling for lighting and placing the appropriate number of lanterns. Upon receiving word that British troops were moving in boats, Pulling, whose home was near the church, went to the house of church sexton Robert Newman and obtained the keys to the building. He then climbed its steeple and placed the two brightly lit lanterns where they would be seen by watchers on the other side of the Charles.

The signals were also seen by the British, who quickly deduced their purpose. Almost immediately the sexton Robert Newman was placed under arrest. It was he who gave John Pulling's name to British officials, and a search for the hanger of the lanterns began. At first Pulling hid in his own house, inside an empty wine cask in the cellar. Then, disguised as a fisherman, he eluded the troops and embarked upon a small skiff to leave the city by sea . . .

In Boston Harbor Pulling's skiff was challenged by a nearby English warship at anchor, but allowed to pass. Sometime later the small boat arrived at Nantasket Beach, where its passenger apparently disembarked. At the same time, his wife, [Sarah Thaxter Pulling], daughter of an old Hingham family, had also fled Boston . . . Mrs. Pulling seems to have been the first to arrive at a safe location, "an old cooper's shop on the Cohasset shore." She was later joined by her husband.

The identity and precise location of the Cohasset cooper's shop is not known, although historians conjecture it might have been among the numerous fishing and mercantile buildings located near our harbor. Here the Pullings remained, safe from British eyes. In their hasty flight from Boston, they had left all their property at home and arrived in Cohasset with scarcely any belongings. Thus the couple was destined to suffer from lack of resources during their time in exile. The patriots John and Sarah Pulling would not return to their Boston home until the last British troops evacuated the city.

Among the few belongings they were able to bring with them to Cohasset was Sarah's Bible, which remained in the possession of her descendants for the next century and a half. In 1909 Sarah's great?great?grandson Harvey H. Pratt, of Scituate, a prominent Boston attorney, owned the old family Bible and was able to confirm the story of her exile at the Cohasset shore.

While here, Mrs. Pulling gave birth to a daughter, born before the arrival of her husband. It is unclear for how long the Pullings remained hidden in the cooper's shop (which must have been a primitive structure at best, lacking even the most rudimentary comforts of a home), but they did remain in hiding for an extended period. It is likely that John Pulling was a hunted man for the duration of the British occupation of Boston.

Captain Pulling's health seems to have declined as a result of the privations suffered during his exile, for, although he resumed revolutionary activities following his return to Boston, he died at the age of fifty, in 1787. Sarah Thaxter Pulling, who had been Pulling's second wife, later resided in Abington until her death at age ninety-nine, in 1846. A great?grandson, Rev. Henry F. Lane, noted, "When I was a lad I distinctly remember hearing from my mother's grandmother . . . that her husband hung the lights from the steeple of the Old North Church."

The story of John and Sarah Pulling's exile at the shore of Cohasset was noted first in a book written in 1909 by Mary C. Crawford and rediscovered in later years by Cohasset's town historian Gilbert S. Tower, whose acquaintances included Sarah Pulling's descendant Harvey Pratt of Scituate.