A House of History, Mystery, Legend, and Lore
By Cheryl Lassiter
Originally published as a History Matters column in the Hampton Union, September 1, 2015
Hampton is a very strange, very haunted town, a place where fact and fiction tangle together like lobster traps in a hurricane. And judging from the content of the locally-produced literary efforts on file at the Historical Society, the people like it that way.
This fact v. fiction conundrum is no more evident than in the case of Mammon-worshipper General Jonathan Moulton (1726-1787) and his haunted mansion house. Nearly every writer who takes on the subject notices it, promises to do something about it, but sooner or later falls under the spell of the legend. That the famous house still exists, architecturally and historically significant as the only high-style Georgian in town, makes the stories about Moulton all the more intriguing.
The Yankee Faust
The owner of the house was a study in contradictions. A self-made man of humble beginnings, Moulton became a wealthy merchant, land speculator, and public figure. He was a noted Indian fighter and Revolutionary War figure, awarded the rank of brigadier general in the state militia. Through his political connections he obtained large tracts of land near Lake Winnipesaukee, which he named Moultonborough and New Hampton.
By all accounts, Moulton was a hospitable, well-mannered gentleman, but it was said that he “uniformly and sedulously flattered the vices and follies of mankind,” and his name became a byword for deceitful dealing and financial tyranny. Through fraud and trickery he “reduced many families from affluence to beggary,” and to win in courts of law he corrupted judges, bribed jurors, and suborned witnesses. Despite his wrongdoing, he was (and is) a respected, albeit sometimes overlooked, figure in Hampton.
Moulton’s egregious dealings provided the raw material for the fable of the Yankee Faust, in which he learns the consequences of greed when he sells his soul to the Devil for a bootful of gold coins. He employs the largest boot he can find, and when that doesn’t satisfy his lust for money, he cuts the sole from the boot to provide an endless flow of coins. When the Devil discovers that he has been cheated, he burns down Moulton’s house. Over the years Moulton lost a total of ten buildings to fire—six barns, two stores, a stable, and the house—besides one warehouse seriously singed by lightning. It seems that Old Nick didn’t give up his grudges so easily.
The Ghost Wife
In 1769, undeterred by this satanic comeuppance, Moulton built his second mansion to replace the one that burned. It was in this house that his wife Abigail succumbed to smallpox. In John Greenleaf Whittier’s supernatural tale “The New Wife and the Old,” greedy old Moulton gives the dead wife’s rings and bracelets to his new wife, provoking Abigail’s unhappy ghost to rise up and reclaim her baubles.
The Haunted House
Back in ’62, before all the trouble started, Moulton bought the old Tuck tavern house from bankrupt innkeeper Gershom Griffith to use as his store. The tavern was situated on a triangular plot of land between the country road (Lafayette Road), Drakeside Road, and the road we now know as Park Avenue. It was here that he built fancy mansion number one, “contiguous with two stores.” After the house and the stores burned, the second house—the one that stands today—was built close by.
After Moulton’s death, and the delivery of his soul to Hell, the house became haunted by his own unhappy ghost. It was said that Portsmouth lawyer Oliver Whipple, who bought the mansion from Moulton’s estate, had to fetch a minister to exorcise the restless spirit and plank it up in the cellar.
In 1802 Whipple sold the mansion to James Leavitt, for whom it was home, tavern, post office, and boarding house for Hampton Academy students.
“There was one walled off part of the cellar into which we dared not go at night,” Susan, one of Leavitt’s daughters, had said. “It had something to do with General Moulton’s death. When we were seated by the fire, telling stories of ghosts and witches, we heard footfalls on the stairs, the rustle of silk dresses, and doors slamming when there was no wind.”
No one knows why, but Leavitt moved the house to a new foundation some hundred yards or so to the west side of the country road. The house had escaped the haunted cellar, but the otherworldly mystique remained, inspiring Whittier in 1843 to pen the ghostly tale of Mrs. Moulton’s disappearing jewelry.
Also in 1843, carpenter Jabez Towle bought the mansion from Leavitt’s estate. He continued to keep the boarding house. By 1870 his widow Elizabeth had taken in her divorced daughter Elizabeth Towle Mace and her three children, and was renting part of the house to a sea captain and his family.
Widow Towle died in 1873, leaving the house to her children. Mrs. Mace eventually became the sole owner, but could not afford the upkeep. The mansion fell into disrepair. It was in this era that it became known as “The Haunted House,” and would remain so for the next half century.
In 1888, with Mrs. Mace still ensconced in the house, Lucy Dow published “A Beautiful Place of Pines: Winnacunnett Shalbee Called Hampton,” her florid sketch of the history and lore Hampton. About the house she wrote: “the ghostly visitors departed long ago, and flesh and blood occupy the mansion undisturbed. It stands in a conspicuous position, a two-story, hip-roofed house, fronting on three roads, and is still outwardly substantial, and little less than imposing in appearance, though innocent of paint and tasteful care. Of the internal adornments, once lavish and costly, no vestige remains, unless, by implication, in the great stairway and the paneled wainscoting.” A fancy way of saying that the place was a dump, and a stark contrast to her glowing portrayal of the grand old house of Christopher Toppan, Moulton’s contemporary, just up the road. It’s too bad Lucy passed away before the street railway laborers came to board with Mrs. Mace. Her insights regarding their use of the moldings and wainscoting for firewood would have been priceless.
The Salem Saviors
By 1919 Elizabeth and her heirs were dead, leaving a former son in law, Robert T. Batchelder, to inherit the neglected mansion. In 1922 he sold the house to siblings Catherine, Harlan, and Sarah Little of Salem, Massachusetts, who recognized its historical importance and had the money to restore it. Their intention was to recreate the mansion as a house museum to give to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (Historic New England) after their deaths. They moved the house onto a new foundation, several hundred feet back from the road, and over the years furnished it with eighteenth century antiques, “faithful reproductions,” and “modern approximations of a style.” For years, Harlan Little was active in the Meeting House Green Memorial and Historical Association (Hampton Historical Society), and he opened the house for tours on special occasions.
Erudite and educated Eloise Lane Smith was known as a “veritable fountainhead of knowledge concerning Hampton history.” In 1938, assisted by “papers in the possession of the Little family,” she wrote Moulton, his house, and his “bodyguard, Johnny Squaretoes” (the Devil) into the Drama of Winnacunnet, a historical pageant performed during the town’s 300th anniversary.
Regrettably, the Littles’ dream of a museum was never realized—in 1975 SPNEA released the house to the contingent beneficiary, Bates College of Lewiston, Maine, which kept the antique furniture and housewares and sold the house to a private party. With deed restrictions to preserve its architectural integrity, the house remains to this day a private residence.
The Moulton Mansion Artists
Its dark side connections have made the Moulton mansion not only a favorite subject of writers, but of artists, too. Among the Littles’ collections were several paintings and a pencil drawing of the house, created by three local, early-twentieth-century artists: Isabella Lamprey, Caroline Cutler, and Cornelia Schoolcraft. In 1992, Bates College donated the pieces to the Tuck Museum, which periodically exhibits this special artwork.
Isabella Shirley Lane Lamprey (1865-1909) was a lifelong resident of Hampton and a descendant of early settlers William and Sarah Webster Lane. She lived on Mace Road near Five Corners with her husband, shoemaker Joseph I. Lamprey. Her watercolors present views of the Moulton mansion not easily seen by today’s passersby.
Caroline T. Cutler (1855-1928), a music teacher, was the daughter of George P. and Anna S. Cutler of Taunton, Massachusetts. The Cutlers were said to have been the first family to build a summer cottage on Hampton Beach. As Peter Randall relates in his history of Hampton, Caroline “painted many watercolors of the Beach and marshes about the turn of the century.”
Cornelia Cunningham Schoolcraft (1903-1974) was born in Savannah, Georgia. A professional painter, illustrator, and block printer, she resided in Dover, New Hampshire in the 1940s-early 1950s, and again in the 1970s. In 1933, she published “Atlanta: City of To-Day,” a book of her sketches of historic sites and street scenes in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Last House Standing
Moulton’s devilish old mansion outlived Lucy Dow’s beloved Toppan house, which died of old age about the year 1900, its “colonial grandeur” unsullied neither by satanic nor ghostly visitations. Elmfield, the eighteenth-century Hampton Falls house where Whittier summered and spent his last days on earth, was likewise devoid of apparitions: it was disassembled in 1996 and carted off to Connecticut. Maybe if some worthy shades had haunted them, they’d still be with us today.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of “The Mark of Goody Cole: a tragic and true tale of witchcraft persecution from the history of early America” (2014). Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.