Hampton, New Hampshire. Built in 1797, the fifth town-owned Congregational meeting house—where the ‘phew’ incident took place—was converted in 1844 to secular public use only. As the town hall (shown above), the building was altered a number of times and assumed its final appearance in 1888, when, according to town historian Joseph Dow, it was “radically made over.” Lawrence, Massachusetts architect George G. Adams designed the alterations, which included the unique belfry tower. The hall burned down in 1949. —Postcard image courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
The firing of Reverend Ward Cotton, a man known to sometimes lose control of himself while in the pulpit, had been years in coming. The complaints of certain female parishioners were becoming impossible to ignore, and in 1765 he was removed as pastor of the Hampton Church. No one disagreed that his behavior had been shocking, but on the subject of how the case should be handled there was a large divide between those who worked for his outright dismissal and those who took a more sympathetic approach, believing his mind had been damaged by “disease.”
The differences spilled over into the choice of Cotton’s replacement. Every plan put forward was met with opposition. When the town finally settled on 32-year-old Ebenezer Thayer of Boston, the vote was far from unanimous. Dissenters believed he had been chosen only to keep a more liberal candidate from taking the position, and they warned that if Thayer should become pastor, “the Town of Hampton is on the Verge of Ruin,” which they were “Determined to find out some way to remedy it.”
Some saw the deaths of Deacon Joshua Lane, a dissenter who had been killed by lightning as he stood at his doorstep, and the child of another malcontent, Simon Nudd, as “special providences” in favor of the new pastor. Others not swayed to his side went elsewhere for their religion, refusing to pay their minister’s tax. The town didn’t like it, but short of rounding up the dissenters and confiscating their property, there was little that the selectmen could do.
Adding to the strain of these religious troubles were the British Acts of the mid-1760s, which had been enacted to tax the colonists’ commerce. The Acts agitated Hampton as much as any town, and everywhere in the colonies efforts were made to encourage anti-British sentiment and to make life hard for the royal officers charged with enforcing the laws. It was a risky course of action, one that eventually exploded in the Boston Massacre of 1770.
It was within this atmosphere of dissent and dissatisfaction that the bizarre affair of Nathaniel Sheaf Griffith of Hampton, a 24-year-old clock and watch repairer, was carried on.
“Z.Z.” goes public
In a letter published in the July 1, 1768 issue of the New Hampshire Gazette, someone calling himself “Z.Z.” first brought the affair to the public’s attention. His purpose for writing was to expose the “abandoned character” of one “N—th—el S—fe G—fi—th of Hampton, who on the Night of [Saturday] the 11th of June…descended into some Sink for Human Excrements…and therewith freighting himself, proceeded to the Meeting-House in Hampton, and in a dirty, filthy and polluted Manner discharged the same upon the Linings and Cushions of a Gentleman’s Pew.”
The 12th of June being a Sunday, the deed was soon discovered, “to the Interruption of divine Service, and to the Discomposure of the whole Congregation.” According to Z.Z., “had the stinking Offender…Wit enough to have kept his own secret,” he would have gotten away with it, too.
Two weeks later the Gazette published Nathaniel’s reply, in which he expressed “the greatest Surprize, Amazement and Astonishment”—not that he had been accused of smearing human excrement inside a church pew—but that such a “hard mouth’d scandalous Defamer, a Detractor…a most indelible Disgrace to the human Species, a Defamer of so black a Dye” actually existed in the world.
He did, however, “solemnly declare” his innocence, and he defied anyone to prove that he was guilty, because he knew that “only the circumstantial Evidence of a Girl…who for Ten Dollars more, and another green Gown, may be induced to swear” to his guilt. In short, the girl had been bribed to falsely accuse him, apparently at the behest of a person who had “found himself disappointed in all his former Attempts” to seize the property that was to be Nathaniel’s inheritance.
In response to Z.Z.’s impassioned outcries about defiling a house of God, Nathaniel shot back, “how dare you enter within the sacred Walls of that Meeting House where so many distress’d Persons, made so by your cruel Oppressions, present themselves to your View?” Clearly, Nathaniel believed that Z.Z., the briber, and the gentleman of the befouled pew were all the same person. Even if they were not, his revelatory remarks point, as we will see, to the one man in Hampton whose reputation fitted their blunt assessments.
A letter from “T.N.” and an apology
Several weeks later, a third writer calling himself “T.N.” (possibly Thomas Nudd, Esq., a Justice of the Peace in Hampton) entered the war of words. He chastised the editor for bothering to print such “personal, rude and indecent” missives, vouched for the reputations of both the girl and the gentleman whose pew had been fouled, and wholeheartedly agreed with the premise of Z.Z.’s letter. The “whole Neighborhood, if not the whole Town” of Hampton, he said, knew that Nathaniel was the one who had put the poo in the pew, and he likened the Griffiths to “lazy, idle People” who think they are “greatly abused if they are made to pay their debts.”
Mocking the “fine strain of Eloquence” that ran through Nathaniel’s letter, T.N. hinted that someone with more writing talent than young Mr. Griffith possessed had composed it. Like a well-aimed arrow shot, the allegation found its mark, and sure enough, toward the end of the year the Gazette published an apology from the anonymous scribe, who confessed that if he had known then what he knew now—notwithstanding Nathaniel’s claim of innocence—he “would sooner have cut off his right Hand, than have put Pen to Paper in behalf of the Author of that Piece.”
“Bitter cries and lamentable moans”
If Nathaniel was the culprit, then surely revenge was his motivation. The clues lie in the words of his letter, which tell us that an “Oppressor” was attempting to get at his “Father’s Inheritance,” and in the county records—where a man’s secret failures and humiliations are unapologetically made public—which show that Nathaniel’s father, Hampton innkeeper Gershom Griffith, had gotten himself deeply into debt. By the summer of 1768 his creditors were closing in on his tavern and 26 acres of prime Hampton land. Unfortunately, Griffith’s principal creditor was his neighbor Jonathan Moulton, a prominent merchant and land dealer whose greed and deceitful financial dealings were the stuff of legend (and not a few tears). His takeover of Griffith’s property was imminent, and there was nothing that Gershom or Nathaniel could do—except perhaps take revenge on the heartless man (Moulton) said by Nathaniel to have caused the “bitter Cries and lamentable Moans of the distrest Widow and the helpless Orphan.”
“Devilish envy and revenge”
Had the vile prank satisfied Nathaniel’s need to get even, or was he planning more acts of revenge? As it happened, for some time Moulton had been the target of arsonists who had burned down three of his barns in Hampton Falls. He opined that his antagonists were “persons of bad character and shattered circumstances, who…when they cannot be discharged from their just debts in a course of law [will] give full scope to their devilish envy and revenge.” He brought charges against Capt. Jonathan Swett, a man of similar social rank whom he had bested in a contentious court case, and who was jailed for failing to pay a judgment levied against him in the arson case. But while Moulton was focusing his attention on Swett, he may have missed the fact that it’s not always the most obvious or strongest enemy who does the greatest damage. Swett seems to have left the area by early 1768, but a few months after the pew incident an arsonist struck again, torching Moulton’s home barn and hitting him right where he lived. Of course, anyone could have done it, but we could ask the question—since Nathaniel had the means, opportunity, and enough motive to fill a barn—had the “phew in the pew” been his gateway crime to arson? We may never know for sure.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, June 7, 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.