While curating the collection of American Revolution newspapers featured in Reporting the Revolutionary War, I stumbled upon a rare 18th century American newspaper loaded with mystery and intrigue. Most newspapers of the era are well documented and catalogued by academic research institutions, but this one seemed to have slipped through the cracks for more than two centuries. Despite printing content of great historical importance, I found the issue wasn’t mentioned by any authority on Revolutionary newspapers and apparently never cited in history texts. The newspaper is a postscript edition of the Pennsylvania Journal dated April 27, 1775 (No. 1690), publishing extracts of three letters from Boston written just hours after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The full transcripts of all three letters, containing eyewitness accounts of the Revolutionary War’s first full battle, can be found in Peter Force’s American Archives (Letter 1|Letter 2|Letter 3).
The first letter from Boston to a gentleman in New York, dated April 19, explains that the action “alarmed the country so, that it seemed as if men came down from the clouds.”
The second letter to a gentleman near Philadelphia, dated Boston, April 20, called the scene “the most shocking that New-England ever beheld… I stood upon the hills in Town and saw the engagement very plain, which was very bloody for seven hours… communication between town and country is at present broke off; they were till ten last night bringing over their wounded, several of whom are since dead, two officers in particular. When I reflect, and consider that the fight between those whose parents but a few years ago were brothers, I shudder at the thought, and there is no knowing where our calamities will end.”
The three letters likely reached Philadelphia on April 25 or 26, a day or two after the arrival of Joseph Palmer’s Lexington Alarm. NewsBank’s Historical Newspaper Archive shows the three letter extracts were also printed in subsequent Philadelphia and Williamsburg newspapers, but none before April 27.
According to J. L. Bell of Boston 1775, we know these three letters did not travel along with Joseph Palmer’s Lexington Alarm letter because that left Watertown by 10:00 a.m. on April 19. The first of the letters printed in the postscript describes events through 7:00 p.m. on that day, and probably took a couple more hours to complete. And the others are dated April 20 so they probably started their journey a day after Palmer’s note. How the originals got out of Boston is an interesting question. The post riders didn’t have a monopoly on the mails; the writer(s) may have sent these letters out on ships, either all the way to the other harbors or put in the post somewhere along the way. Alternatively, some people or documents might have been let through the siege lines early on.
The single-sheet postscript edition of the Pennsylvania Journal containing these three letters was published by William and Thomas Bradford, and discovered in 2010 among the possessions of an antique dealer who had been deceased 10 years. The dealer’s next of kin claimed that the newspaper sat framed and untouched for at least 25 years. After winning the newspaper at auction, taking possession and carefully removing it from its frame, I was able to determine that the issue, measuring approximately 8.25″ (w) x 10.25” (h), was indeed single sided with a clear imprint of period type protruding on the verso. Holding the paper up to the light and looking through it I could see the chain and laid lines of the mold used when handmaking the paper. The textured linen fibers still had a fluffy bounce to them suggesting the broadside issue was not previously bound into a volume. It was one of the most beautifully preserved specimens of 18th century newspapers I had ever come across, but was it genuine and had it really been lost to the world for 200+ years?
Having handled thousands of historic prints dating as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries I had my own discerning eye, but the quality of this particular newspaper was so remarkable that I also sought the opinions of three third-party authorities. The verdict was quick and unanimous – authentic.
In 1775, the average circulation of 38 American newspapers being printed was 600 and very few of those originals exist today. The two popular indices of 18th century newspapers – Clarence S. Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America – identify institutional holdings of these papers and often expose extreme scarcity of original issues printed before 1780. So after researching the document’s contents and confirming its authenticity with trusted sources I contacted more than a dozen institutions, known for their pre-1776 and early Philadelphia newspaper holdings, to inquire more about the specific issue. I received responses from these 10 institutions:
- Library of Congress
- American Antiquarian Society
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Library Company of Philadelphia
- State Library of Pennsylvania
- Moravian Archives – Bethlehem
- New York Public Library
- Wisconsin Historical Society
- Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – Yale University
- William L. Clements Library – University of Michigan
None of the institutions could produce any evidence of the April 27 postscript to the Pennsylvania Journal ever existing – it wasn’t available in facsimile, in microfilm or as an original issue (loose or bound into a volume). As far as I could tell, this was something lost and forgotten to both the general public and academia. It was my 18th century newspaper equivalent of a great archaeological discovery. And I knew this may well be the only copy that survives today.
Extra, supplement or postscript editions of newspapers like this sheet were irregular and only offered when the printer had a surplus of news or advertisements to circulate. So unlike standard newspaper issues, postscripts can be tricky when determining what was printed. For example, the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), home of the largest collection of pre-1877 printed material, shared with me a story about an unrecorded extra edition of a newspaper printed in 1820 that it once acquired. The AAS happened to hold the publisher’s file for this newspaper title and discovered that the extra it had just acquired at auction didn’t even exist in the publisher’s own record. In 1820, more newspaper printers were boasting larger circulations and publishing more frequently, so it is perhaps understandable that an extra issue was overlooked then. In 1775, however, William and Thomas Bradford published 52 weekly issues of the Pennsylvania Journal – all on Wednesdays. The AAS, which is assumed to be one of the most comprehensive archives of the title, also holds four supplement, postscript or extra issues printed on other days of the week that year, but nothing on April 27.
This rare, seemingly one-of-a-kind, postscript edition of the Pennsylvania Journal is no longer lost to the world. After my exciting discovery process that revealed the paper’s contents and scarcity, it now sits in the archives of the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution – the Library of Congress – where it is finally in the public record and available to scholars. And here, for the first time on public display, readers of the Journal of the American Revolution can study and appreciate it (see pictures below). Enjoy!