The Moulton Tragedy - Introduction

By S. Foster Damon

Boston, Gambit, Incorporated, 1970


Jonathan Moulton's name will probably never appear in any one-volume history of the United States. It may or may not be mentioned in popular histories of New Hampshire; it is scattered here and there through the histories of several counties, and is written large throughout Joseph Dow's History of Hampton. He was a minor yet real figure in the great fight for freedom, the development of a state, and the founding of a nation. He was also the legendary "Yankee Faust."

Jonathan Moulton was born in Hampton, New Hampshire on July 22, 1726, the great-grandson of one of the original founders of the town. Apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, he bought his freedom about 1745 (the year of the capture of Louisburg) and became a captain of scouts, ranging through the Ossipee lands to the north of Lake Winnipesaukee. In the early part of 1749, he married Abigail Smith (daughter of Benjamin Smith and his wife Mary Hobbs of North Hampton); by her he had eleven children. He ran a general store very successfully in Hampton, where from an advertisement of 1757 we learn he sold "braziery, cutlery ware and almost everything suitable for housekeeping and a large assortment of summer goods suitable for men's and women's wear. Also West-India goods, salt, &c." During the French and Indian War he served as captain, and became sufficiently prominent to be elected representative to the New Hampshire legislature, which position he held for many years. After the capture of Quebec, and especially after the Ossipees had been wiped out in 1763, he acquired large tracts of wilderness land on the northern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, where he was a leader in founding the new townships of Moultonborough (named for himself), New Hampton (named after his home town), Tamworth, Center Harbor, and Sandwich. His somewhat high-handed procedure following the wreck of the mast-ship St. George (November 30, 1764) is said to have been the real foundation of his fortune; but he must have been quite well off before that. In the early hours of March 15, 1769, his magnificent mansion-house, with its furniture and panelling imported from England, was burned to the ground. Although he rebuilt more modestly, his second house has been called "the finest house in New Hampshire prior to the Revolution." *[Alice Van Leer Carrick, "A House with a Ghost," Country Life, LVI: 39-41, 78, 80, 90 (August, 1929).]

When the revolutionary troubles began, he came to the forefront on the patriot side. He was elected moderator of town meetings, chosen a member of the Committee of Safety, appointed delegate to the rebel Exeter Assembly, and commissioned as Colonel of the Third Regiment of New Hampshire militia. At first, his chief military duty seems to have been to keep a guard on the Boar's Head, a promontory of Hampton Beach. On September 21, 1775 (the day of Governor Wentworth's last official proclamation), his wife died of smallpox and was buried in the garden. A year later, he married Sarah Emery, daughter of Dr. Anthony Emery, by whom he had four more children.

In 1777 he led his regiment at the second battle of Saratoga. In the post-war depression, he found himself land-poor. It is said that in a card dated January 24, 1785, he advertised as far as Ireland to try to sell half of his 80,000 acres. On March 25, 1785, he was commissioned Brigadier General of the First Brigade. In 1786, he was president of a self-created convention at Rochester whose purpose was to declare property legal tender; and that September he strongly encouraged the Chester Convention to persevere in the same pursuit; but the resultant "Rockingham Insurrection" was quickly put down. On September 18, 1787, he died suddenly, aged sixty-one years, one month, and twenty-six days, and was buried beside his first wife in the garden.

Moulton's personality was far too marked for him ever to achieve the conventional halo of the hero. The rich man made too much money by too many ingenious devices. How he wangled "the Gore" in Lake Winnipesaukee from his friend, the sinister Governor Benning Wentworth; how Gershom Griffith cursed him in front of the church one Sunday; how somebody burned a barn, but was not discovered, in spite of the governor's proclamation offering a reward -- such tales were commonly told and were doubtless true. But considering the obvious fact that through our most trying years he was steadily reelected to the State Assembly and given other positions of trust, we must recognize the confidence his townsfolk placed in him, and conclude that his dealings, however sharp, were strictly within the law. Indeed, I have found but one responsible statement to the contrary: a page penned by the caustic Governor William Plumer, *[See F. B. Sanborn, "The Weare Papers and Gen. Moulton," Granite Monthly, XLI: 33 (January, 1909); and another parallel account in Georgia D. Merrill, History of Carroll County (Boston, 1889), p. 402.] concerning the General's activities during his last, desperate years -- certainly not to be taken as characteristic of Moulton in his prime.

In his own lifetime General Moulton became the center of a whole cycle of legends. If it is true that he hung his boot over his parlor mantel, he must have heard the famous tale about how he cheated the devil in bartering his soul. The legend written up by Whittier in his "The New Wife and the Old" must also have been contemporary, as Mrs. Shea, in retelling it, adds: "Years ago, when some gossip bolder than the rest ventured to ask the second Mrs. Moulton if the rumor which had come to her ears was true, she could win from her lips no denial." *[Caroline C. Lamprey Shea, "In the Home of his Ancestors with Whittier," Granite Monthly, XXVII: 146 (September, 1899).] The laying of the two ghosts was probably an authentic event, and the mansion is still known as "the haunted house."

A curious fact about these legends is that the more of them that turn up, the more they fit together, almost as though they were fragments of some ancient epic now lost. The black dog (probably a descendant of Agrippa's "Monsieur") comes and goes mysteriously; the hall clock strikes and is forgotten, to reappear and strike again; and there were a variety of tales whispered about the funeral. Yet, as the stories interlock, known gaps appear, especially in Moulton's activities during the French and Indian War. "Many of his adventures during this bloody period," says one of his biographers, "have been preserved and transmitted to the present time; enough indeed to fill a large space in this brief sketch." *[Henry W. Moulton, Moulton Annals (Chicago, 1906), pp. 243-245.] Then the author provokingly gives only one specimen, a tale which is found in a number of other places -- that of the black dog's killing the Indian on the ice of Lake Winnipesaukee.

I have found it necessary, therefore, to fill in these gaps, by inventing or transferring the requisite anecdotes. Only one extended episode, however, is wholly my own ("The General as Alchemist"), and even there Philip Towle's diary provided the necessary meteor, so that I was able to date the episode to the day.

My poem is a blending of legend and history. The legends I have utilized according to the necessities of composition, and the history is perhaps given more as people understood it then than as they understand it now. For history, when it is lived and first written, is a mosaic of panegyrics and libels -- a method I have naturally found to be most appropriate to the spirit of the times. So if I have libelled Burgoyne, after the fashion of the political verse of his day, I have offset that by idealizing Wolfe after the tradition of the old ballad. In the same ballad, Montcalm is the Heroic Adversary, but in the sermon he becomes the Baffled Villain. "Pomposo" and "Methodius," mouth-pieces of State and Church, are merely shadows distorted to caricature upon the rising cannon smoke. But, as John Selden remarked long ago, "More solid things do not show the Complexion of the times so well, as Ballads and Libels."

My treatment of General Moulton and his personality is sanctioned by the fact that he already belongs to legend as well as history. But as for his parents, wives, children, and some neighbors, I have naturally been obliged to use their names; and as little record remains beyond the genealogical dates, I have had to construct personalities for them; and of course I have done so according to the ethos of the poem. The real Josiah Moulton and his young bride, Dorothy Shackford, were doubtless very different from the impression which might be gathered from the "Epithalamium of the Bachelors"; yet even so, as I have never known a fine chap to get married but his male friends prophesied ill of his bride, that section is really nothing more than the suppressed verse of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." I hope that no descendants will feel hurt if I have misrepresented their great-great-grandparents, or turned them into symbols.

Sometimes I have had to invent names for subsidiary characters, such as "Dick Sparhawk" and "Jabez Towle." If in the Sparhawk or Towle genealogies these names should actually appear, I must plead (echoing Shakespeare) "This is not the man."

I might explain how I happened to select Bishop Seabury as the exorciser of the haunted house, although no account of his life mentions any such incident, or even places him near Hampton. That the house was exorcised, nobody doubts; but almost everybody names a different clergyman. Whittier named "Parson Milton of Newbury"; A. F. Moulton, to whom Whittier sent this information, gave as an alternative name "Parson Bodily of Milton"; K. M. Abbott named "the Rev. Mr. Willet of Newburyport"; Mrs. Richard W. Shea, "a clergyman from Portsmouth"; the New Hampshire Folk-Tales, "two clergymen from Portsmouth"; and A. L. V. Carrick, "the Bishop of Connecticut," who was, of course, Samuel Seabury, D.D.

The first two names were those of the Rev. Charles William Milton of Newbury and his friend the Rev. John Boddily of Newburyport, both of English birth, who prepared together for the Presbyterian ministry at Lady Selina Huntington's college. The Rev. Mr. Willet of Newburyport I have not traced. This Presbyterian tradition is offset by the clergyman or clergymen from Portsmouth (an Anglican and not a Puritan foundation) and Bishop Seabury. As the ceremony sounded more Anglican than Presbyterian, and as Bishop Seabury was the most distinguished person amongst all those named, I chose him for the role, after having consulted a high authority, who assured me that the bishop might well have exorcised the house, if he felt that the ceremony would bring comfort to its inhabitants.

It should be obvious that this poem has been under way for many years. I suppose that the incubation began in those distant days when I read in Whittier's Supernaturalism of New England about the "marvelous stories of Gen. M. of Hampton, N.H., especially of his league with the Devil." Whittier's phrase, "the Yankee Faust," was arresting; but nothing came of it until Abbie Farwell Brown told me of the beautiful deserted house at Hampton, in which nobody could live because of the ghosts. Ideas were definitely stirring in the winter of 1920—21 when, while translating some of J. P. Jacobsen's Gurresange, I made up my mind that, as Americans are a nation of singers, its lyrical forms should be used in writing an American legend; the more so as a variety of forms allows for a greater expressiveness. After all, epics were originally lyrical.

My first attempt to use any of the material seems to have been a worthless ballad of 1924. The first section saved for inclusion was "Sarah (Emery) Moulton," written on August 12, 1928. By 1931 I had quite an accumulation of notes from my reading, with a variety of independent ideas; but before I tried to organize the material, I fortunately called on Mrs. Richard W. Shea in Hampton, who told me a great number of new stories, virtually all of which have since been published in the excellent New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932) and More New Hampshire Folk Tales (1936), compiled by Mrs. Moody P. Gore and Mrs. Guy E. Speare. In July 1931, at the estate of my cousin Lindsay Todd Damon, on Lake Winnipesaukee, I set seriously to work on "The Swap." The first publications from my work appeared in Poetry for March, 1933.

Originally I planned to include a long bibliography; but after all, this is a poem; and the sources should be evident to anybody who is interested in that sort of thing: the town and county histories, family genealogies, folklore collections, the compilations of Alice Morse Earle. Whoever does not know Elizabeth Reynard's invaluable Narrow Land (Boston, 1934) might have difficulty in finding a frank account of the "Amourous Mr. Bachiler"; and those who know their Hawthorne may be surprised to learn that the Great Carbuncle was really believed in, and was still being sought for, years after General Moulton died. Students of our early history and literature will recognize brief passages which I have inserted without the self-conscious quotation marks. There have been some minor but necessary emendations of chronology, and I fear that a few anachronisms may have crept in. For example, the Windham frog-scare, one of the most successful libels of wicked Parson Peters, was not published until 1781.

Finally, I may alter slightly a few sentences from Tolstoy's introduction to War and Peace: "This is not history but literature I am aware of the reported monstrosities of the Puritan civilization, but in my researches I have found them quite as human as anybody I ever read about or know today. . . . It may be objected that my characters sometimes speak English and sometimes Yankee. . . . The form is not classical, but I do not know of any good American work that has been written strictly after a foreign model."

Brown University S. Foster Damon

[This is the introduction to the author's lengthy epic lyrical poem about General Moulton and his life, copies of which are available for loan at the Lane Memorial Library in Hampton, N.H.]

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