His political cronies called him “Old Seaweed.” The town historian lauded him as a man of “great business ability and forethought.” But to Uri Lamprey’s enemies he was a dictator, thug leader, Copperhead, seller of Peruvian guano, a hardline Democrat who callously looked the other way at slavery.
It was once rumored that he had designs on the governor’s seat, but the Civil War was over, Reconstruction had begun, and the Democratic Party to which he had pledged his loyalty for over 30 years was on the ropes. His wish for the leadership of the state would remain just that.
His occupations were as many and varied as the names thrown at him—he was a farmer, justice of the peace, deputy sheriff, constable, collector of taxes, bank director, president and agent of the Rockingham County Farmers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Company. And when he was still young enough not to know any better, he had been the Hampton agent for a quack product called Dr. Holman’s Jaundice Powder.
Born in 1809, Lamprey became politically active during the Age of Jackson. He was drawn to the party of power in New Hampshire, the anti-federalist Democratic-Republicans, who saw as evil both the national bank and the “fanatical doctrines of universal emancipation.” He rose through the ranks as selectman, town meeting moderator, and state representative, and, as a delegate to the 1850 state constitutional convention, had tackled a slate of vexing issues, including a proposal to remove the provision barring any but Protestants from holding public office (in Hampton as well as statewide, voters soundly rejected this measure).
In the 1852 presidential election, three of the candidates were New Hampshire natives—Brigadier General Franklin Pierce, Democratic ticket; U.S. Senator John P. Hale, Free Soil ticket; and U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster; Union Party ticket (he, however, died a week before the election). Pierce had set up his campaign headquarters at the Ocean House in Rye, just a short carriage ride from Hampton, and Lamprey, who would be elected to the state Executive Council in 1853, was one of his most active campaigners. His relationship with Pierce went back a decade or more, and it was likely around 1842 that he received from then-U.S. Senator Pierce the gift of a black walking cane, which was said to have come to him “through the late Hon. Tristram Shaw.” Shaw, who died in 1843, is the only person from Hampton to have been elected to Congress, serving his term of office when Pierce was in the Senate, 1837-1842. In 1931 Lamprey’s granddaughter Caroline Lamprey Shea presented the Pierce cane to the Meeting House Green Memorial and Historical Association (now the Hampton Historical Society).
After Pierce won the presidency, Lamprey resigned his agency with Farmers’ Mutual and went to Washington. It’s not clear what role he played there, but in 1854 we find him back in his old haunts, serving as State Insurance Commissioner and lobbying for Pierce’s agenda. Like his hero in the White House, he was fatally attached to the idea that for the sake of the Union slavery must be tolerated. The opposition press called him a “Thug leader,” one whose interest in politics started and ended with the spoils system. To criticize his lobbying efforts they lampooned him as an “agent of the New York Guano Company,” who had set out in the back room of a Concord hotel his samples of “Peruvian or Chincha Islands sugar, commonly called guano,” which some Democratic members of the New Hampshire legislature had liberally imbibed with their liquor.
During the early years of the Civil War, Lamprey threw his support behind the “irascible old physician” Dr. Nathaniel Batchelder of Epping, who had been arrested and temporarily imprisoned for leading a group of antiwar protestors in tearing down the U.S. flag at the Epping post office and “shouting hosannas to the Confederate regime.” Batchelder became an overnight martyr to the anti-Lincoln crowd, and Lamprey proudly introduced him at the next party convention (which opponents called “slaveholder rallies”), where Batchelder expounded his theory of the “divinity of human slavery” to an appreciative crowd.
Charges of jury tampering
The war was still ongoing when William Young, a Deerfield, New Hampshire physician, was indicted for the murder of Sarah Atwell, alias Fannie Morgan, a 24-year-old factory worker from Clinton, Massachusetts. Sarah had arrived at Dr. Young’s house in early August 1864, “in a condition of pregnancy” with the intention of “procuring an abortion.” She never left the house alive, and Young was arrested and charged with her murder.
Lamprey’s interest in the case is a mystery, but during the trial held in Exeter he was accused of attempting to influence a member of the jury. The judge ordered him arrested and held for trial, but later released him without charges. The trial ended with an acquittal for Dr. Young.
A legacy, of sorts
While he was loathed by his political opponents, Old Seaweed had the esteem of supporters who saw him as a “bigger man than Old Jackson.” Fifteen years after Lamprey’s death in 1881, Lewis K. H. Lane of North Hampton wrote the following edited anecdote, which serves to illustrate his iconic stature in the minds of his admirers, and the sort of men, in Lane’s opinion, they tended to be.
“One day in the autumn of a certain year, an advertising team drove through Hampton, painting the fences and rocks alongside the road with the letters T L for the purpose of exciting curiosity and to cause people to inquire as to their meaning. A second team was to follow a few days later and supply the missing letters, which would then spell the name of a patent medicine. But before that could happen, two men, loaded with ozone blown over from the classic shades of Newburyport, came walking into town from a late night gunning trip off Boar’s Head. When they saw the mysterious first letters they wondered what they meant, and the mystery deepened as they continued up from the beach, encountering more and more of these strange symbols. At last one of them threw up his hands and shouted, ‘T is for Uri and L for Lamper! Oh holy, how plain I see it.’”
Lane concluded his story by saying that while the “days of Uri Lamprey are no more, the quaint saying T is for Uri, and L for Lamper is a common proverb in Hampton today.”
Originally published in the Hampton Union, January 25, 2019.
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 and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or lassitergang.com.