A previously unknown diary recently discovered in a crypt at the Old North Church in Boston revealed that Paul Revere almost began his famed "midnight ride" in April, 1775, believing that the British were coming by land, not sea. The confusion was caused by the forgetful church sexton, an old friend of Revere, who mixed up the signal instructions at the last minute.
Revere had carefully written out instructions for the sexton, instructing him to observe the British troops in Boston, who were expected to head for Concord, where the colonials had stored weapons and ammunition in the event of a conflict with British troops. Revere needed to know if the troops were leaving Boston by land or water. According to his precise directions, the sexton was to send a warning to Revere, across the water from the church, indicating by one lantern in the church belfry if the troops were moving on land, two lanterns if they went by sea.
While Revere waited impatiently with his horse across the water, the sexton watched the British encampment from the church, constantly repeating: "One if by land, two if by sea; one if by land, two if by sea." When it became apparent that the initial movement would be by boat, the sexton began the climb up the rickety stairs to the belfry. Two lanterns had already been placed at the belfry windows, ready for lighting.
On the way up the stairs, the sexton missed a step, fell, and rolled to the landing below. How long he lay there we do not know, but Revere, knowing that the troops were about to move, became extremely anxious, muttering to himself.
The sexton recovered. Dazed ad confused, he once again began the climb to the belfry,trying to recall Revere's little rhyme but what came to him was Danny Kaye's comparable poetic instructions. The sexton mumbled: "The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true." Over and over as he climbed, he repeated Kaye's line, garbling it each time.
As he neared the belfry, Revere's instructions - the written ones were lost when the sexton fell - came back to him, sort of.
"One if by sea, two if by land, and I on the opposite shore shall stand," the sexton repeated, over and over, unaware that he had reversed Revere's intent.
As he entered the belfry, the sexton saw the two lanterns he had placed there earlier in the day. "One if by sea," he repeated as he lit the only lamp he needed to light. Across the water, Revere saw the light. Ready to ride, he waited, however, to see if there would be a second lighted lantern.
The sexton, having fulfilled his role. prepared to head down the dangerous stairway. He looked out the window first and mistakenly thought he saw troops preparing to march overland. "One if by sea, two if by land,,," Unaware that the British were merely marching to the boats, not toward Concord, he quickly lit the second lantern.
Revere, already mounted and practicing his chant, "The British are coming!" now started his historic ride, the two lanterns burning brightly in the belfry.