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Frenchman's Lane


A man was murdered in Portsmouth in the fall of 1778. There wre many deadly crimes in the gritty seaport town, but this one left a special stain on the city. A rock where the murdered man lay, legend says, took on a bloody shadow. While the historical details are vague, the legend still looms large.



READ: The story in Ramble About Portsmouth

The ballad of Frenchman's Lane tells a tale from the dark side of the Port City's past and present. You won't learn this fact from the chamber of commerce, but Portsmouth today has the highest number of unsolved murders of any city in New Hampshire. This is the story of one of them. French sailor John Dushan was discovered with his throat cut on the 23d of October, 1778. He is buried in the North Cemetery not far from Revolutionary War heroes John Langdon, Prince Whipple and Declartion signer William Whipple.

Legend says that the rock where his body lay was so covered with blood that visitors still imagined they saw the blood stains 50 years later. Charles Brewster tells this tale, although inaccurately, in ├ČRambles About Portsmouth.├« It became the source for this popular local poem around the time of the American Civil War and was printed in "Poets of Portsmouth." Now we bring it to you, for the first time online, the once familiar poem. --- JDR

READ: More poems by BP Shillaber

By BP Shillaber (1865)

'Twas a brave old spot, and deep was the shade
By the fast-locked boughs of the elm-trees made,
Where the sun scarce looked with his fiery eye,
As he coursed through the burning summer sky,
Where breezes e'er fanned the beat-flushed cheek,
Old Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

Most lovely the spot, yet dark was the tale
That made the red lips of boyhood pale,
Of the Frenchman's doom, and the bitter strife,
Of the blood-stained sward, and the gleaming knife,
Of the gory rock set the wrong to speak,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

But the grass sprung green where the Frenchman fell,
And the elder-blossoms were sweet as well,
And the pears grew ripe on the branches high,
And the bright birds sang in the elm-trees nigh,
And the squirrels played at their hide-and-seek,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

The blessed shade on the greensward lay,
And quiet and peace reigned there all day;
The fledglings were safe in the tall elm-tops,
More safe than the pear-trees' luscious crops:
For the pears were sweet, and virtue weak,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

But at times when the night hung heavily there,
And a spirit of mystery filled the air,
When the whispering leaves faint murmur made,
Like children at night when sore afraid,
Came fancied sounds like a distant shriek,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

And gleaming white at times was seen
A figure, the gloomy trees between;
And fancy gave it the Frenchman's shape,
All ghastly and drear, with wounds agape!,
But fancy played us many a freak
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek:

For lovers' vows those dark shades beard,
Their sighs the slumbering night-air stirred;
And the gleaming muslin's hue, I ween,
Was the ghostly glimpse, the limbs between!
There was arm in arm, and check by cheek,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

Ah, blissful days! how fleet ye flew, .
Ere from life exhaled its morning dew!
When children's voices sweet echoes woke,
That often the brooding stillness broke,
As the meadow strawberry's bed they'd,seek,
Through Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

Those days have long been distant days,
Recalled in memory's flickering rays;
And the boys are men, with hearts grown cold
In the world whose sun is a sun of gold,
And their voice no more in music will speak
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

And Frenchman's Lane has passed away:
No more on its sward do the shadows play;
The pear-trees old from the scene have passed,
And the blood-marked stone aside is cast;
And the engine's whistle is heard to shriek
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

But, true to ourselves, we shall ever retain
A love for the green old Frenchman's Lane,
And its romance, its terror, its birds and bloom,
Its pears and the elderblow's perfume;
And a tear at times may moisten the cheek
For Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

Note from the book (1865): Frenchman's Lane was the scene of a fearful murder where a sailor belonging to the French fleet that lay at Portsmouth, N.H., nearly a century ago, was found with his throat cut. Hence its name and the mystery connected with it.

From: Poets of Portsmouth, 1865 edition. Collection of J. Dennis Robinson.

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