Up until the second decade of the twentieth century, constables were a regular feature of civic life in Hampton. They were ordinary men from the community, chosen each year at the town meeting to keep the peace and collect the taxes. Originally an important official, the constable eventually became obsolete as his duties were taken over by professional tax collectors, organized police forces, and sheriff’s departments.
Constables in the 17th and 18th centuries
In 1639, when the Great and General Court of Massachusetts allowed Winnacunnet (the original name of Hampton) to be a town, it gave the town founders liberty to choose a “constable and other officers.” The first constable was John Moulton, who not only kept the King’s peace, but collected the town and colony taxes—which were more likely to be paid in hogshead staves and corn rather than actual coinage. At the town meeting in 1641, the freemen chose Abraham Perkins to succeed Moulton in the office of constable.
Constables were the enforcement arm of the court, first in apprehending and bringing law breakers before the justices, and after, when punishments were meted out for crimes committed. In 1656, 1657, and again in 1661, constables carried out whippings on the suspected witch Unise Cole. In 1662, Constable William Fifield whipped three Quaker women, convicted of being vagabonds, through the streets of Hampton. Not comfortable with the task, Fifield offered to whip them before daylight, but they refused, saying that “they were not ashamed of their sufferings.” He offered to whip them with their clothes on, but they refused that, too.
In June 1732, the Hampton court found a man named John McVickers guilty of forging and passing counterfeit bills. He had been involved in the schemes of Tamsen Tibbits of Dover, who had convinced an artistically inclined schoolteacher to forge paper bills. McVickers was fined seven pounds plus costs, pilloried at Hampton for one hour, and suffered the cutting off of an ear by the constable at the time, Benjamin Towle. McVickers may have been the first man put in Hampton’s pillory, which had been erected just that month upon order of His Majesty’s Court of Sessions.
Constables were allowed to deputize men when they needed assistance. Constable Henry Dow’s deputy was Nathaniel Batchelder; together they transported Unise Cole to Boston to stand trial for witchcraft in 1673. The roundtrip took eight days and cost the taxpayers two pounds four shillings.
Constables were also empowered to make arrests and serve summonses on inhabitants, including other town officials. In 1684, Constable Nathaniel Batchelder arrested and incarcerated his old boss Henry Dow, now the town clerk, for refusing to pay his province taxes. In 1701, Constable Ephraim Marston served his fellow constables, Thomas Roby and Benjamin Fifield, with a summons to appear at the court in Portsmouth to explain why they had failed to deliver money owed to a man for work he had done on His Majesty’s fort at Newcastle. As this illustrates, the constable himself could be brought before the court if he neglected or refused to perform his duties. In 1662, when Constable Henry Roby failed to deliver notorious troublemaker Edward Colcord to the Boston jail, he was fined and ordered to complete the mission at his own expense.
A 1659 Massachusetts law stipulated that any newcomers who resided in a town for more than three months (extended to twelve months in 1701) without being notified that the town was unwilling to have them stay, would be accounted a legal inhabitant and entitled to poor relief if they became indigent. Selectmen were therefore keen to “warn out” strangers before they could become a burden on the taxpayers. While the warning did not necessarily mean removal, the constable was obliged to advise strangers that should they become penniless, they could count on no help from the town. In 1691 a man named William Penny was warned to leave town unless his host, John Garland, would post a bond for his “security.” In 1726, a woman named Deborah Brown was warned to “forth remove out of the town or get security for her staying here,” otherwise the town would “proceed with her as the law directs in those cases.” In 1797, Constable Henry Dearborn Taylor issued a warning to a man named John Towle and a boy named Sylvester Miller, giving them two weeks to get out of town.
A crisis of constables
Unlike the offices of town clerk and selectman, men who were chosen constable rarely served more than one term. The office was fraught with immense and often horrendous responsibilities, for which there was no fiscal remuneration beyond reimbursement for travel expenses. It’s no wonder some men flat out refused to serve when chosen, preferring to pay a hefty twenty pound fine instead. It was a trend with roots in the pre-Revolution, Stamp Act generation of young men who resented “the man” taking their labor free of charge.
At the town meeting in 1766, the voters chose as constables Jonathan Dow and Nathaniel Towle. In what was by then a familiar scene at the yearly meeting, both men refused the post and paid a fine. William Lane, Samuel Brown, and Josiah Dearborn were chosen next, each one refusing, and each one paying his fine. At an adjourned meeting the following month, voters agreed to award the one hundred pounds of fine money paid by the five refusers to the man “that shall serve as constable for the whole town.” Not even that large sum of money could entice Jeremiah Dow, the next man chosen, to accept the post. The crisis was resolved when Simon Dow, Jeremiah’s brother, agreed to serve in Jeremiah’s place.
The following year, after the first candidate had refused, Simon was again chosen to serve. This appears to be the first time that the town offered the constable a true salary, promising Simon seven pounds ten shillings for his service.
Later, in the 1790s, the office of tax collector was separated from that of constable. For the next seventy years, however, it was a general rule that the man hired as constable was also employed to collect taxes.
Constables in the 19th century
Early Hampton police force. Some of these men may have served as constables. Image courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Hampton had begun to replace the constable with full-time, salaried police officers. In 1869 the town expended money on a police station, and by 1880 the names of the policemen had been added to the list of officers in the town report. Policemen wore badges to denote their office, and the position of “special” policeman began to appear in the records. What roles these men filled is not always clear, but in 1892 and 1893 policeman Curtis DeLancey was paid an additional five dollars as a special policeman to enforce the dog laws.
The constable had not been killed off quite yet, as the title continued to appear sporadically in the records of this period. In 1887, John W. Dearborn earned fifteen dollars as a policeman, ten dollars as constable, and another fifteen dollars as special constable. Clearly, the job had been absorbed into the police department, its duties most likely restricted to civil matters.
The last Hampton constables
The last constable to be mentioned by name in the town reports was Charles A. Weare in 1891. Constables were not mentioned again until the second decade of the new century, when for several years voters left the appointment of a constable to the selectmen, a sure sign of the office’s impending demise. The selectmen seem to have declined to exercise their privilege, and from 1914 on the constable disappeared from the records—and so apparently from the town.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, September 22, 2017.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl’s latest book is “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Her website is lassitergang.com.