A House of History, Mystery, Legend, and Lore

Moulton house, c. 1900 watercolor by Isabella S. Lamprey. Hampton Historical Society.

Moulton house, c. 1900 watercolor by Isabella S. Lamprey. Hampton Historical Society.

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.


Moulton House sketch by Cornelia Schoolcraft, 1938. Hampton Historical Society.

Moulton house sketch by Cornelia Schoolcraft, 1938. Hampton Historical Society.

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 “The 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 Moulton’s contemporary Christopher Toppan just up the road. It’s too bad Lucy passed away before the railroad 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

Moulton house, c. 1900 watercolor by Caroline Cutler. Hampton Historical Society.

Moulton house, c. 1900 watercolor by Caroline Cutler. Hampton Historical Society.

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.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, September 1, 2015.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.

Hampton’s Founding Documents


For such a little state, New Hampshire has an amazingly large and complicated history, especially during the early days when it seemed that everybody and their minister wanted a piece of her soil. So it’s not surprising that the myth of the state’s ‘four original townships chartered by the General Court of Massachusetts’ continues to persist alongside counterclaims that these towns—Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, and Hampton—were ‘vulnerable and without formal government’ and were thus ‘forced to accept Massachusetts’ rule for 40 years.’

Okay, there are a few nuggets of fact in them thar statements. But the truth is, of the four original towns, only Hampton was settled (in 1638) by order of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and from the get-go it came under the protection of the Massachusetts government (Dover and Portsmouth were founded as commercial outposts of the Council of Plymouth, and Exeter was settled by the religious exile John Wheelwright. Then, between 1641 and 1643, Massachusetts absorbed the three towns).

Hundreds of records preserved at public and private archives enable us to accurately trace this early history. Eight documents, especially, tell the earliest history of Hampton, from pre-settlement to its first years as a Massachusetts town.

 1-MARCH-3-1636There Shall Be A Plantation Settled at Winicumet

 In the first document, dated March 3, 1636, the Great and General Court ordered that ‘there shall be a plantation settled at Winicumet and that Mr. Dummer and Mr. John Spencer shall have power to press men to build a house forthwith in some convenient place.’ The house these wealthy Newbury landowners built was called the Bound House, whose purpose was to mark possession of the surrounding land. Who inhabited this house or for how long is unknown, but it is believed to have been located in present day Seabrook.

The second document appeared twenty months later. On November 2, 1637, the Court granted the plantation of Winnacunnet to some ‘inhabitants of Neweberry,’ with the stipulation that they settle the area within one year. These individuals, whoever they were, were not able to settle the plantation in the time allotted, and the area remained pristine, a favored summer camping place for small bands of Pennacook Indians who fished in the rivers and planted corn and beans in the meadows.

 Massachusetts Removes Illegal Settlers

 Still, Massachusetts kept a jealous grip on the land. In the third important document, dated June 8, 1638, the Court ordered the Ipswich magistrates to ‘discharge Mr. Easton and Mr. Geoffry from building at Winnacumet, and if they will not take warning to clear the place of them.’

Nicholas Easton was a tanner who emigrated to New England in 1634, was disarmed at Newbury, and banished from Massachusetts. After he was found squatting at ‘Winnacumet’ and kicked out, he moved south, established the plantation of Newport, and became the Governor of the Rhode Island colony (take that, Massachusetts). His fellow squatter Mr. Geoffry was possibly an inhabitant of Newbury or Ipswich.

 The Court Grants The Petitioners Liberty To Settle Founding Hampton 1

 Three months after Easton and Geoffry’s removal, the fourth document, issued by the Court and dated September 6, 1638, gave liberty to Reverend Stephen Bachiler and ‘diverse others’ to begin a plantation at Winnacunnet. Other well-known names from Hampton’s early history appear in this record: Christopher Hussey, Mary Hussey, John Moulton, William Eastow, William Palmer, Robert Tuck, and Richard Swaine.

Sensitive to the fact that Massachusetts had no legal right to send settlers to New Hampshire, or perhaps anticipating opposition from Exeter, which did, in fact, protest the new settlement, the Court assigned three prominent Massachusetts men, whose authority no one dared question—Simon Bradstreet, John Winthrop, Jr., and Edward Rawson—to oversee the surveying and assignment of lots at Winnacunnet.

 beehiveHistory Saved By Rogue Bees

 Stephen Bachiler’s honey bees were in a tizz. Their hive had been invaded by bees from a foreign stall, one that Bachiler had promised to deliver to John Winthrop, Jr. in Ipswich. It was a gift from Winthrop’s father in law, Reverend Hugh Peters of Salem, the stepfather of Winthrop’s second wife Elizabeth Reade.

Suffering from a dearth of nectar, the ‘thievish’ Winthrop bees ‘hath robbed & spoiled’ Bachiler’s beehive. The raid delayed the delivery, and prompted Bachiler to write the fifth founding document, a letter to Winthrop dated October 9, 1638, in which he reported the incident. He also advised Winthrop that he had found a ‘reasonable meet place’ at Winnacunnet plantation and planned to begin settlement the following week, on October 14, the traditional date of the town’s founding.

Had it not been for the rogue bees, ‘as the manner of bees is,’ Bachiler would have delivered them to Winthrop, and in so doing would have relayed his plans for settlement in person, depriving us of some important details of the founding of our town.

 6-JUNE 6 1639Winnacunnet Is Allowed To Be A Town

 The sixth document is dated June 9, 1639. With the settlement of the plantation resolutely underway, the General Court allowed Winnacunnet to be a town, granting the settlers power to ‘choose a constable and other officers, and make orders for the well ordering of their town, and to send a deputy to the court.’ Abraham Perkins was the first constable on record, William Wakefield the first town clerk, and John Moulton the first General Court representative.

At the request of Stephen Bachiler, in September 1639 the town’s name was changed to Hampton, after Southampton, Hampshire, England.

The First Tax Bill Arrives

 In the seventh document, dated May 13, 1640, the General Court tallied up its bills and commitments and levied a colony-wide tax of £1,200 to cover the costs. As one of the seventeen Massachusetts towns then in existence, Hampton’s share was set at £10. John Moulton and John Crosse were appointed to be the town’s first tax collectors.

Money was not the only medium of exchange acceptable to the Massachusetts Bay tax man. The Court decreed that payment in silver plate should ‘pass at 5 shillings the ounce,’ and it valued ‘good ould Indian corn at 5 shillings the bushel, summer wheat at 7 shillings the bushel, rye at 6 shillings the bushel.’ Also acceptable were horses, oxen, goats, hogs, and wampum. Perishable items such as the ‘fruits of the earth’ were not allowed.

 T8-JULY 28 1641own Meeting Rules

 The spirit of the eighth document, taken from the Hampton town records, is still alive today in the yearly Town Meeting. On July 28, 1641, the town established its first written rules ‘for the better proceeding in the affairs to be agitated at [town] meetings.’ Among other things, it shows that the moderator’s job was as important then as it is today.

‘The moderator shall first of all be the mouth of the company, to put up petitions to the Lord concerning the present occasions; after which [he] shall make way for propositions to be considered of; and so begin to speak of some particular himself or call upon the rest that one of them may begin; and when [anyone] shall speak he shall stand up or put off his hat; and while anyone is orderly speaking another shall not without leave; neither shall one man speak oftener than twice or thrice to one business without leave; nor shall anyone propound anything till the former be for that time determined; nor shall any be talking of any other thing.’

 Founding Hampton Exhibit At The Tuck Museum

 To celebrate the town’s 375th anniversary in 2013, the Hampton Historical Society obtained high resolution images of the eight original documents, courtesy of the Massachusetts Archives, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Town of Hampton. The images were installed as part of the Tuck Museum’s ‘Founding Hampton’ exhibit, a special presentation of early town history funded by Mr. Alfred Casassa in memory of Hazel Simonds and Olga and Herbert Casassa. Please visit the museum some afternoon to see these fascinating documents for yourself.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, August 4, 2015.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of three books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.

The Millionaire, the Minister, and the Museum


It was the 1920s, the war to end all wars had been fought and won, prosperity was rising, morals were relaxing, and a rush of innovations was creating a new mass consumer culture in America. Amid all the ‘roaring’ going on in the country, significant changes were taking place in Hampton, too. The population was increasing as never before, farming and fishing were steadily abandoned in favor of business and manufacturing, and the town, embracing its reputation as a summer tourist destination, boldly touted Hampton Beach as the ‘Atlantic City of New England.’


Ira Jones (left) and NH Sec of State Hobart Pillsbury, October 14, 1925, Memorial Park dedication.

Ira Jones (left) and NH Sec of State Hobart Pillsbury, October 14, 1925, Memorial Park dedication. Hampton Historical Society photo.

A Good Time To Gather Up The Past

Some felt that now was the time to gather up the past before it slipped away forever. To that end, a group of civic-minded citizens formed the Meeting House Green Memorial and Historical Association, with a mission to preserve the town’s history. They built Memorial Park on the Meeting House Green and dedicated it on the occasion of the town’s 287th birthday, October 14, 1925. Attended by representatives of Hampton’s nine ‘daughter’ towns, the event was capped by the unveiling of a 12-ton granite monument honoring Hampton’s Puritan founders.

Across the road from the Park, in an 1890 farmhouse purchased for the purpose, Association members created Tuck Memorial Hall as a place to collect and preserve the town’s historical relics. Nearby they erected a log cabin, their version of the town’s first meeting house. They later acquired the funds to construct the Tuck Athletic Fields to benefit Hampton’s present and future crop of youngsters. Not exactly a conventional historical society function, but they did it anyway.

Ira Jones of Hampton and Edward Tuck of Paris, France were largely responsible for creating the memorial park, hall, and playing fields. The original idea belonged to Ira, who applied the sweat equity in liberal doses and drummed up enthusiasm for the project while Edward supplied the funds and goodwill. Neither were spring chickens, but both would have scoffed at any suggestion that they were far too old to be running around starting new adventures at their time of life. Ira, a retired Baptist minister and funeral director, was 89 years old. Edward, a retired ex-pat banker, was 83.

Edward Tuck in Paris. 1920s. hampton Historical Society photo.

Edward Tuck in Paris. 1920s. Hampton Historical Society photo.

Edward Tuck, The Millionaire Philanthropist

Edward ‘Ned’ Tuck was born in Exeter in 1842. His mother was Sarah Nudd of Hampton, whose ancestors had settled here in the early 1640s. She married Mainer Amos Tuck, himself of Hampton first-settler stock, his fourth great-grandparents being the town’s first tavern keepers Robert and Joanna Tuck. A graduate of Hampton Academy and Dartmouth College, he became a lawyer, abolitionist, and congressman. His son Edward was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College.

In view of his father’s ardent abolitionist stance, it remains a curious fact that Edward missed out on the Civil War. After graduating in 1862, he was appointed to a diplomatic post in Paris, France by his father’s friend, President Abraham Lincoln. Edward remained in Paris, joined an international banking firm, and married heiress Julia Stell. By the 1880s Mr. and Mrs. Edward Tuck had wealth enough to claim membership in the new Gilded Age millionaire class.

In some measure, they were adherents of Andrew Carnegie’s ‘gospel of wealth,’ and when Edward retired from banking he and Julia devoted their lives to giving away their fortune to worthy causes, with much of their philanthropy aimed at New Hampshire. Long before Edward became the benefactor of the Hampton museum that bears his name, he had given generously to his alma maters and had financed such projects as the New Hampshire Historical Society building in Concord, the Reverend John Tucke obelisk on Star Island, Stratham Hill Park, and the Exeter Cottage Hospital. He was also in the habit of donating $300 a year to his father’s old prep school, Hampton Academy.

Founders Monument Ira Jones 1925. Hampton Historical Society photo.

Founders Monument & Ira Jones, 1925. Hampton Historical Society photo.

Ira Jones, The Minister With An Idea

From the founding of the town in 1638 until 1810, the Meeting House Green had been the site of a succession of meeting houses. From then until 1883 it was home to Hampton Academy. When plans were being made to move the school building to a new location, there were calls to ‘put in its place something as a memento of the past.’ For centuries this part of the common had been the beating heart of the town, and for some it was a wrenching experience to see it abandoned. But the calls went unheard, and for forty years the Green was a ‘desolate’ place, ‘growing only weeds and brambles.’ ‘Then,’ in the words of Caroline Lamprey Shea, the Association’s first secretary, ‘came a man with an idea.’

That man was Ira Jones, born into a Quaker family in Maine in 1836. Rejecting that creed, he studied at New Hampton for the Free Baptist ministry. When war came, he served with the 15th Maine Infantry Co. D until June 1862, when he was discharged as disabled at Camp Parapet, Louisiana. Over the years, he preached in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and every New England state. In 1901 he came to Hampton, bought a furniture and casket store, and hung out his sign as a funeral director. His wife Aurelia Lawrence Jones bought some nice flower gardens attached to an unspectacular Victorian on Winnacunnet Road, not far from the bramble-choked town green. The name of their new home was Roselawn, which Ira emblazoned in raised golden letters on his personal stationery.

Aurelia died in 1913 at age 83, and the following year Ira, now 77 years old, married a 38-year-old nurse named Vina Morgan, who was likely the old lady’s caretaker in her last illness.

Caroline Shea tells us in her elegant little sketch that Ira ‘came to town a stranger, learned to love its beauties and know its history,’ and he ‘determined to do something to preserve the Green and honor the founders of Hampton.’ Aware that wealthy philanthropist Edward Tuck was a regular contributor to Hampton Academy, Ira solicited and received his financial backing. Ned’s first gift of $7,000 in 1925 paled in comparison to the nearly $850,000 he gave to Dartmouth College that year, but it enabled the Association to buy the farmhouse and build Memorial Park.

The Jones-Tuck Mutual Admiration Society

Ira and Edward corresponded across the Atlantic as the projects progressed, even swapping photographs of themselves like a couple of giddy school boys.

“I cannot refrain from expressing my admiration of your picture, showing your fine and impressive appearance at your advanced age,’ Edward, the young pup, gushed upon receiving the senior Ira’s likeness. ‘I make a very good showing myself, but I take my hat off to you.’

‘I am quite convinced,’ Ira replied benevolently, ‘that you need not take your hat off to anyone as showing a better physical or mental condition for the age you represent. I do most sincerely compliment you.’ With his letter he included yet another photo of himself, which he pointed out that ‘in posture I have followed Paris Style.’

No one talks like that anymore, which makes their exchange all the more charming.

Ira had another admirer in James Tucker, the editor of the Hampton Beach News-Guide. Commenting in 1926 on Ira’s recent appearance as King James II in a local play, he heaped praise on ‘that splendid gentleman and rare citizen,’ who, ‘unbowed by his more than four score years, straight as the proverbial arrow and with real majesty in his bearing, moved across the pageant stage, a living symbol of everything that was and is good and worthwhile in the life of historic Hampton.’

Seven months later, in April 1927, just as his plans to build the Tuck Athletic Fields were being finalized, Ira died in his sleep. When Edward heard the news he lamented that it was ‘a pity that Mr. Jones could not have lived to see [his work] fully completed.’ He donated another $10,000, others took up Ira’s work, and the playing fields were completed and dedicated in 1930. Edward would live to see 96 years and no more, all the while continuing his financial support of the Meeting House Green Memorial and Historical Association.


Tuck House, 1931. Note addition at rear with closed in porch. HHS photo.

Tuck House, 1931. Note addition at rear with closed in porch. HHS photo.

The Museum Turns 90

If the millionaire or the minister had any serious doubts about the future of their Hampton endeavors, they never expressed it. The Association was a legal corporation, and other members stepped in where they left off. Over the years the farmhouse that we know as the Tuck Museum has been joined by a fire-fighting museum, an eighteenth-century barn, and a twentieth-century tourist cabin. The old log cabin meeting house finally disintegrated, its place taken by a nineteenth-century one-room schoolhouse.

GOTG 1Up PosterThe Museum and the Association, now known as the Hampton Historical Society, together turn ninety years old this year. To mark the milestone, the Society has opened a new exhibit, ‘Gathering on the Green: A History of the Hampton Historical Society and Tuck Museum, 1925 to the Present, with highlights of town, beach, and national events.’ On Saturday, July 18 they’re hosting a birthday bash on the museum grounds, with appearances by Vikings at Thorvald’s Rock, the witch Goody Cole, and other things of equally special magnificence. I hope to see you there.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, June 29, 2015

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.

The Boy Aviator at Hampton Beach


In his brilliant new book The Wright Brothers, historian David McCullough reminds us that in 1903, when the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio proved to the world that powered flight was possible, America was not entirely onboard with the idea that machines could fly. Wilbur Wright made his first public flights in front of crowds in France, not the United States. It would take more time and flights before interest in the aeroplane took off here as it had abroad. When it did, the awed first spectators rushed onto the landing fields, not understanding that the open swathes were for the planes to land, not places for the audience to assemble. They thought the pilot would simply alight, balloon-like, in his craft.

Early Aviators Atwood, Redding, and Bushway

In May 1912 the heretofore quiet farming community of Hampton got its first look at a ‘noisy reaper in the sky’ when pioneer aviator Harry Atwood of Massachusetts buzzed the town in a Burgess-Wright biplane on his way to Portland, Maine. On the return trip he landed on the Hampton River after becoming lost in a fog bank.

The field of aviation advanced at warp speed, in part because it offered the public an exciting new amusement. Showmen immediately saw the potential of aerial exhibitions, the more daring the better, as they drew the largest crowds.

Perhaps the last photograph of Massachusetts aviator J. Chauncey Redding who was killed in an airplane crash a month later. With Carnival Queen Blanche Thompson at Hampton Beach, September 1915. Hampton Historical Society.At Hampton Beach in 1915 an aerial act billed as ‘the most thrilling ever seen in New England’ made daily appearances at the new, end-of-summer Carnival Week. Two Massachusetts aviators, J. Chauncey Redding, who held the first aviation license issued by the Commonwealth, and J. Howard Bushway, heir to a Somerville ice cream company, demonstrated the art of ‘aerial warfare…in which a defended fort is bombarded and destroyed by intrepid aviators high in the air out of reach of the fort’s guns.’ Parachutist Phil Bullman demonstrated the tricky art of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. When Blanche Thompson was crowned Queen of the Carnival, Redding took her aloft for the thrill of a lifetime. Later in life she would recall to local reporters the excitement of flying up to 1,000 feet and then landing on the sands of Hampton Beach with a flat tire.

The Boy Aviator, Farnum T. Fish

'Boy Aviator' Farnum T. Fish at Hampton Beach, Septermber 1916. J. Frank Walker photo, Hampton Historical Society.The aviators were an immediate and memorable hit, and had Redding and Bullman survived when their plane crashed into a Saugus, Massachusetts marsh a month later, they likely would have been back for the 1916 Carnival Week.

Bushway instead procured the 19-year-old ‘Boy Aviator,’ whose daring aerial exploits, not the least of which was being shot at and wounded while flying a scouting mission for Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, were all the current rage. ‘Nine months actual experience with Villa’s army in Mexico!’ hawked the exhibition advertisements.

This early war pilot and barnstormer was Farnum Thayer Fish of Los Angeles, the world’s youngest licensed aviator. At age fifteen he earned his pilot’s certificate after completing four hours of flight instruction with Orville Wright at the Wrights’ flying school in Dayton. Farnum quoted Orville as saying, “if you couldn’t learn to fly in four hours, you shouldn’t be flying anyway.” This suited Farnum’s need for speed, and he immediately bought a Wright Model B biplane, shipped it home, and entered what the Wright brothers had called the ‘mountebank business’—exhibition flying.

Although born and raised in California, Farnum’s namesakes were New Englanders. The first Farnum Fish was born in 1775 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts and settled in Swanzey, New Hampshire, where he married Rachel Thayer, a physician’s daughter. Their third son was the Boy Aviator’s grandfather, Ezra Thayer Fish, who went on to make his fortune in Pennsylvania coal. Ezra’s son Charles, a physician, left the weathery East in favor of sunny southern California, where he married Catherine Goodfellow and raised two boys, Winthrop and Farnum.

Farnum’s most interesting relation was his maternal uncle Dr. George Emory Goodfellow, a gutsy, perpetual motion machine, an expert on gunshot wounds and a pioneer in the use of sterile techniques. He kept an office above the Crystal Palace Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, so that he could gamble and drink when he wasn’t pulling bullets out of cowboys and lawmen like Virgil and Morgan Earp of O.K. Corral fame. Among his many other exploits, he hunted and then befriended the Apache warrior Goyahkla (Geronimo), got himself bitten by a Gila monster to see if its venom was as poisonous as was commonly believed (it wasn’t, but it still kicked like a mule), and survived the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

‘Hair-Raising Stunts Performed by Birdmen in Rattle Traps’

This early headline exemplified the adventurous, restless spirit of the times that had Doc Goodfellow’s nephew firmly in its thrall. Before discovering the thrill of piloting his own ‘rattle trap,’ Farnum channeled the zeitgeist into petty law-breaking. As an aviator he was at times suspended and blacklisted for not following the rules. He enjoyed performing dare-devilish, dangerous feats like the Death Dip and Texas Tommy Twist for his earthbound spectators. He also liked to ‘mushroom hunt’ (fly low) over the tops of their heads, which got him into trouble with aviation officials on more than one occasion.

A combination of skilled aerial showman and a cat with nine lives, Farnum survived some pretty hairy crashes, into a pond in Wisconsin and into the ocean at Revere Beach. In June 1916 he performed flawlessly over the Charles River Basin, but at Lynn the following month, as he was attempting his signature bomb-dropping stunt, several of the homemade devices detonated in the plane’s ‘bomb box’ beneath the passenger seat. Farnum was able to land the plane safely, but his assistant received burns when his shoes and clothes caught fire. At the Nashua fairgrounds a few weeks later he attempted to take off from the infield of the track as a motorcycle race was in progress. The airplane snagged on the fence at the far end of the field and crashed onto the track as ‘nine motorcyclists were tearing around it.’ Farnum received burns to his face and wrist and his parachutist Joe Schiber suffered several sprains, but they skirted any serious damage.

1916 Carnival Week at Hampton Beach. J. Frank Walker photo, Hampton Historical Society.In September Farnum T. Fish, billed as the ‘Latest in Aviation,’ appeared at Hampton Beach as promised. For his Carnival Week debut he gave ‘one of the most successful aeroplane flights of the week, reaching a high altitude.’ In a time when the public could only read about the European war they would soon be fighting in, he gave them visual ‘demonstrations of aerial bombardment and of the various capabilities of the flying machine in time of war.’ After the bombing runs came the parachute jumps. The parachutist’s first fall out of the plane put him ‘near I Street,’ but in landing he fell and was injured. Not too badly, as his jump the following day was reported to have been ‘finely executed.’

Like Chauncey Redding the year before, Farnum took the Carnival Queen for a ride in the sky. This year’s winner was Clara Dudley of Hampton, who had won the title by selling the most chances to win a new Ford automobile on display in the Casino bowling alley. With her long skirts safely roped down, Farnum’s passenger enjoyed a ‘long trip to the southerly part of the beach,’ and returned to circle the Casino before landing.

Biplane at Carnival Week, Hampton Beach. Postcard, Hampton Historical Society.It may have been a wishful guesstimate, but it was reported that a single day’s attendance ‘easily’ totaled 100,000—all on hand to cheer Farnum’s aerial maneuvers over Hampton Beach. If the numbers are true, his Carnival Week appearance was the high water mark in his career as a stunt aviator. He had exhibited in front of huge crowds before, but this may have been his largest ever.

The Boy Aviator grows up

Almost overnight, Farnum’s days as a daredevil birdman came to an end. His high altitude antics no longer filled newspaper columns across the country. It was reported that he eloped in January 1917 with his childhood sweetheart, was ‘doing work for the government,’ and in 1918 went overseas as a test pilot for the Army Signal Corps.

Barnstorming lost its novelty and died out after World War I. No longer the ‘Boy’ aviator, Fish decided that he could, as he said, “make more money on the ground.” He left flying and the public eye for good, but temporarily surfaced in the early 1970s for an interview with a San Francisco area newspaper. He died in Napa on July 30, 1978, never having told the full story of his life as an early aviator.

Aviation humor in 1911: A Wright machine flew over a mining town. Was it Orville?

A HISTORY MATTERS column published in the Hampton Union, June 2, 2015.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of three books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.

Small Towns Are the Best!


I love living in a place where a body can call you up on the phone and say “I’d like to buy your book for my granddaughter’s birthday…how can I get it from you?” and a couple of hours later, there you are, hand-delivering the book to her home!

Jeannette is a life-long resident of Exeter and will be turning 90 this year, only you’d never know it from the clarity of her mind and the spring in her step. I found her in her driveway with one leg sticking out through the open car door – she was cleaning out her car and really getting into it. It was a honor to have her as a customer!