The Debunker: Did Two Lanterns Signal Paul Revere?

by Ken Jennings

July is the season of barbecues and coolers full of watermelon and supermarket-brand soda. In the United States, at least, it all happens in the service of the nation’s birthday. On the 4th day of this month, Americans celebrate 236 years of independence from their British oppressors, who wanted them to pay taxes on stamps or spell the word “color” with an extra ‘u’ or something. But, as leading political figures occasionally remind us, a lot of what we think we know about the nation’s Founding Fathers is actually a load of hooey. Let Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings give you liberty from all the misinformation before you run for office yourself and make one of these red-white-and-bloopers.

Independence Myth #4: Two Lanterns Alerted Paul Revere That The British Were Coming.

It should come as no surprise that much of what we think we know about Paul Revere’s legendary midnight ride isn’t 100 percent accurate. After all, the most popular account of Paul’s exploits comes not from historical documents but from “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a poem—a poem!—written almost a century after the actual event. My favorite part of the story was always the “Two if by sea” lanterns in the tower of Boston’s Old North Church. What kid wouldn’t like the idea of sending battle plans via lantern signal? Secret codes! Espionage! Pre-Industrial Revolution walkie-talkie technology!

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s version of events, Paul tells a confederate to shine the signal if the British march, “and I on the opposite shore will be, ready to ride and spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm.” The lanterns, in other words, are a signal to Paul. In reality, though, Paul ordered the signal himself and then left Boston. The lanterns weren’t for him, but for patriots across the river in Charlestown, a backup plan in case he didn’t get through himself.

Longfellow tweaked history in many other ways. Paul didn’t row himself across the Charles River alone “with muffled oar”—two friends took him. He never said “The British are coming,” going instead with the slightly less catchy “The regulars are out!” Most surprisingly, Revere never made it to his destination at Concord, even though that’s how the poem ends. Instead he was detained on the road by British troops, and it was a chance traveling companion, a doctor named Samuel Prescott, who ended up delivering the warning to Concord Minutemen. Unfortunately, “Prescott” is considerably harder to rhyme than “Revere,” even if you’re a skilled as poet as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Quick Quiz: On a 1986 single, what music group claimed they met while their guitarist was crossing a desert with a quart of beer and “a little horsy named Paul Revere”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Illustration: "View of the Attack on Bunker's Hill with the Burning of Charlestown" by Lodge (1783).