Thursday, February 25, 2016


JFK+50:  Volume 6, No. 1870


Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Fifty-five years ago today, February 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy received a pair of lanterns crafted by Colonial Williamsburg's master silversmith, William de Matteo*.  JFK had them placed on the wall of the Oval Office behind the famous Resolute desk.

The lanterns were functional electric reproductions of the original tin lamps that hung in the Old North Church in Boston, Massachusetts on the night of Paul Revere's famous midnight ride, April 18-19, 1775.

The President, who was born in Boston and grew up with a love of American history, had to have been well aware of the story behind the lanterns.

Robert Newman**, sexton of the Old North Church and holder of keys to the door, was instructed by Mr. Revere to signal from the steeple of the church, the highest building in the city located opposite Charlestown just across the Charles River.

Paul Revere had alerted friends in Charlestown, including Colonel William Conant, to watch for the signal.  One lantern would mean the British army would be moving out of the city "by land" at the Boston Neck, while two lanterns would indicate they were rowing across the Charles to Cambridge.

After that, the British were bound to the towns of Lexington and Concord with the intent to capture rebel arms and ammunition as well as Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  Paul Revere and his friends then would ride ahead to warn the countryside that "the British are coming!"

As instructed, Robert Newman joined Captain John Pulling, Jr. and Thomas Bernard to carry out Revere's plan.  Their actions were unknown to the rector of Old North who was a "vowed loyalist."

We all know that two lanterns were placed in the steeple of the Old North Church that night and the rest is history...not necessarily precisely accurate thanks to "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1861.  But what about those original lanterns?

Unfortunately, their fate is far from certain.  According to the Old North Foundation, Robert Newman sold the only surviving lantern to Captain Daniel Brown in 1782.  That lantern was eventually donated to the Concord Historical Society which displays it today although its authenticity is "questionable."

*William De Matteo (1923-1988) Designer and maker of handwrought arts and crafts and fine antique reproduction sterling holloware.  He studied under his father and became master silversmith at the Colonial Williamsburg Restoration.

**Robert Newman (1752-1804) lived with his mother in Boston where she rented part of her home to occupying British officers.  RN served as sexton at Old North Church until the day of his death which came on the same day the famous steeple of ONC was toppled by a hurricane.


"History Center Notes and Queries," Allen County-Fort Wayne History Center, June 24, 2010,

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston.

Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks and Maker's Marks,

"Robert Newman and the Signal Lanterns," The Old North Foundation,

Colonial Williamsburg Lantern

JFK and Caroline in Oval Office
Lantern visible on the wall
JFK Library Image

Old North Church
Boston, Massachusetts
Photo by Jennifer White (2014)