More Than a Poet’s Fancy

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John Greenleaf Whittier, 1852. Library of Congress.

John Greenleaf Whittier, 1852 (Library of Congress)

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier of Haverhill and Amesbury, Massachusetts, spent many a summer on the New Hampshire seacoast. Well-acquainted with its natural beauty, history, and local legends, he penned a number of ballads set in the Hampton area. His visits to the shore gave us “Hampton Beach” (1843) and “The Tent on the Beach” (1867), and the legend of Hampton’s witch Goody Cole was the supernatural inspiration for “The Wreck of Rivermouth” (1864) and “The Changling” (1867).

Another tale of the supernatural was “The New Wife and the Old,” published in 1843. It was, he wrote, “founded upon one of the marvelous legends connected with the famous General Moulton of Hampton, New Hampshire, who was regarded by his neighbors as a Yankee Faust, in league with the adversary.” The ballad recounts a visit to Moulton’s new wife on her wedding night by the ghost of his dead wife, who had come to reclaim the jewelry—her jewelry—that the new wife now wore.

“I give the story as I heard it when a child, from a venerable family visitant,” Whittier wrote in his preface to the ballad. As he was born in 1807, just 20 years after Moulton’s death, the original story could almost qualify as news, and his “venerable” visitor had likely known Moulton in the flesh. Equally fascinating, the story has a basis in discoverable fact, thanks in part to Winnacunnet High School history teacher Harold Fernald, who generously donated to the Hampton Historical Society his storehouse of local history, including several Moulton family letters.

The Story Behind the Story

In 1775, Moulton’s first wife Abigail died of smallpox. She left behind eight children, six under the age of fifteen. A year later Moulton married Sarah, the daughter of local doctor Anthony Emery. His choice, it seems, was not popular with his children, as one of Moulton’s sons, likely Josiah, a Harvard graduate who had assumed ownership of his father’s store, complained in writing that Sarah had wrongfully appropriated his mother’s belongings, “which of right belonged” to the oldest daughter, Nancy.

Sarah, he said, had taken Abigail’s gold necklace, had added to it more gold given to her by her husband, and had “worked [it] up to make herself a larger one.” She also took Abigail’s gemstone ring, monogrammed china, linens, and several items of costly clothing. She cut up the linens and clothing to disguise having taken them, and “at every opportunity” had robbed the house and conveyed items, including money, to her mother and others. Along with the list of items taken, the writer filled the page with his stepmother animus, saying that “Intermixed with lying deceit, backbiting, misrepresentations, every evil practice to answer her interest, and malevolent temper against the true heirs and children of the family and estate and their friends, [all] to such a degree that nothing short of a representation of images of Hell can represent her true conduct and character on Earth.”

In 1777, then-Colonel Jonathan Moulton of the 3rd New Hampshire militia was busy preparing his citizen soldiers for war, yet found time to engage in several ink-and-paper wars with his kinfolk. In a letter dated March 1, Moulton accused his father in law of reneging on Sarah’s dowry, and, with Sarah, of “Schem[ing] to defraud me by deed.” He implied that he might bring these actions into public should Emery not pay him what was due. Two days later he received Dr. Emery’s reply. “If you go into publick,” Emery warned, “I shall divulge those things which you never will wipe off, nor yours after you.” He closed by saying, “God forbid there should be such another on the face of the Earth as you are.”

That same day, Moulton wrote to his son regarding a situation that was just then “disturbing the Peace & Tranquility” of the family. His son replied on March 10, scolding him for his “evasive denials” and “indecent and malevolent reflections,” and warned that he would pursue “a more publick way for satisfaction” if the problem was not resolved. He signed the letter, “Your much injured, yet in all due respects, your Dutiful Son.”

These letters, of course, are only hints to a much larger story. But the accusations leveled by father and son against Dr. Emery and his daughter Sarah—the haunted heroine of Whittier’s ballad—make it plain that the Emerys were profoundly at odds with the Moultons, who, in turn, were at odds with each other. In consequence, their bitter, real-life family drama had fashioned for Whittier the perfect cauldron of greed and resentment in which the poet could brew his fanciful tale of ghostly (and righteous) retribution.

And the tenderest ones and weakest,
Who their wrongs have borne the meekest,
Lifting from those dark, still places,
Sweet and sad-remembered faces,
O’er the guilty hearts behind
An unwitting triumph find.
—from The New Wife and the Old by John Greenleaf Whittier

 

In grateful remembrance of Harold Fernald (May 18, 1931 – May 21, 2018), who in his day created a few legends of his own.

Harold Fernald

Harold Fernald as Franklin Pierce, c. 1995.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, September 28, 2018.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com, Tuck Museum, and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at hamptonwriter@gmail.com or lassitergang.com

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