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An Old Town by the Sea 4

A STROLL ABOUT TOWN by TB Aldrich (continued)

William Pitt Tavern in Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com

The same assertion cannot safely be made in connection with the old yellow barracks situated on the southwest corner of Court and Atkinson streets. Famous old houses seem to have an intuitive perception of the value of corner lots. If it is a possible thing, they always set themselves down on the most desirable spots. It is beyond a doubt that Washington slept not only one night, but several nights, under this roof; for this was a celebrated tavern previous and subsequent to the War of Independence, and Washington made it his headquarters during his visit to Portsmouth in 1797. When I was a boy I knew an old lady -- not one of the preposterous old ladies in the newspapers, who have all their faculties unimpaired, but a real old lady, whose ninety nine years were beginning to tell on her -- who had known Washington very well. She was a girl in her teens when he came to Portsmouth. The President was the staple of her conversation during the last ten years of her life, which she passed in the Stavers House, bedridden, and I think those ten years were in a manner rendered short and pleasant to the old gentlewoman by the memory of a compliment to her complexion which Washington probably never paid to it.

The old hotel -- now a very unsavory tenement-house -- was built by John Stavers, innkeeper, in 1770, who planted in front of the door a tall post, from which swung the sign of the Earl of Halifax. Stavers had previously kept an inn of the same name on Queen, now State Street.

It is a square three-story building, shabby and dejected, giving no hint of the really important historical associations that cluster about it. At the time of its erection it was no doubt considered a rather grand structure, for buildings of three stories were rare in Portsmouth. Even in 1798, of the six hundred and twenty-six dwelling houses of which the town boasted, eighty-six were of one story, five hundred and twenty-four were of two stories, and only sixteen of three stories. The Stavers inn has the regulation gambrel roof, but is lacking in those wood ornaments which are usually seen over the doors and windows of the more prominent houses of that epoch. It was, however, the hotel of the period.

That same worn doorstep upon which Mr. O'Shaughnessy now stretches himself of a summer afternoon, with a short clay pipe stuck between his lips, and his hat crushed down on his brows, revolving the sad vicissitude of things -- that same doorstep has been pressed by the feet of generals and marquises and grave dignitaries upon whom depended the destiny of the States-officers in gold lace and scarlet cloth, and high-heeled belles in patch, powder, and paduasoy. At this door the Flying Stage Coach, which crept from Boston, once a week set down its load of passengers -- and distinguished passengers they often were. Most of the chief celebrities of the land, before and after the secession of the colonies, were the guests of Master Stavers, at the sign of the Earl of Halifax.

While the storm was brewing between the colonies and the mother country, it was in a back room of the tavern that the adherents of the crown met to discuss matters. The landlord himself was an amateur loyalist, and when the full cloud was on the eve of breaking he had an early intimation of the coming tornado. The Sons of Liberty had long watched with sullen eyes the secret sessions of the Tories in Master Stavers's tavern, and one morning the patriots quietly began cutting down the post which supported the obnoxious emblem. Mr. Stavers, who seems not to have been belligerent himself, but the cause of belligerence in others, sent out his black slave with orders to stop proceedings. The negro, who was armed with an axe, struck but a single blow and disappeared. This blow fell upon the head of Mark Noble; it did not kill him, but left him an insane man till the day of his death, forty years afterward. A furious mob at once collected, and made an attack on the tavern, bursting in the doors and shattering every pane of glass in the windows. It was only through the intervention of Captain John Langdon, a warm and popular patriot, that the hotel was saved from destruction.

In the mean while Master Stavers had escaped through the stables in the rear. He fled to Stratham, where he was given refuge by his friend William Pottle, a most appropriately named gentleman, who had supplied the hotel with ale. The excitement blew over after a time, and Stavers was induced to return to Portsmouth. He was seized by the Committee of Safety, and lodged in Exeter jail, when his loyalty, which had really never been very high, went down below zero; he took the oath of allegiance, and shortly after his release reopened the hotel. The honest face of William Pitt appeared on the repentant sign, vice Earl of Halifax, ignominiously removed, and Stavers was himself again. In the state records is the following letter from poor Noble begging for the enlargement of John Stavers:--

PORTSMOUTH, February 3, 1777.
To the Committee of Safety of the Town of Exeter:

GENTLEMEN, -- As I am informed that Mr. Stavers is in confinement in gaol upon my account contrary to my desire, for when I was at Mr. Stavers a fast day I had no ill nor ment none against the Gentleman but by bad luck or misfortune I have received a bad Blow but it is so well that I hope to go out in a day or two. So by this gentlemen of the Committee I hope you will release the gentleman upon my account. I am yours to serve.

MARK NOBLE,

A friend to my country.

From that period until I know not what year the Stavers House prospered. It was at the sign of the William Pitt that the officers of French fleet boarded in 1782, and hither came the Marquis Lafayette, all the way from Providence, to visit them. John Hancock, Elbridge Gerry, Rutledge, and other signers of the Declaration sojourned here at various times. It was here General Knox--"that stalwart man, two officers in size and three in lungs "--was wont to order his dinner, and in a stentorian voice compliment Master Stavers on the excellence of his larder. One day -- it was at the time of the French Revolution -- Louis Philippe and his two brothers applied at the door of the William Pitt for lodgings; but the tavern was full, and the future king, with his companions, found comfortable quarters under the hospitable roof of Governor Langdon in Pleasant Street.

Continue OLD TOWN BY THE SEA

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