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Unraveling the 1694 Murder of Ursula Cutt

Ursual Cutt House 1900 in Portsmouth NH / Portsmouth Athenaeum

Historical fiction 

Two local authors further expanded the legend, Rux points out. Sarah Sayward Keating Wood of York, Maine is credited as the first gothic novelist in America. Madam Wood, who was related to the Cutt family,  published her account of  Ursula's murder in the Portsmouth Journal in the early 1800s. Wood placed the story in Kittery rather than Portsmouth.  Poor Ursula "fell by the tomahawk by an Indian to rise no more," Wood wrote. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne suspected that Wood's account contained more fiction than fact.

Helen French Cochrane of Derry, NH offered a highly dramatic and detailed version in 1872. Cochrane published her story in the weekly Youth's Companion magazine, adding an African servant and a host of colorful Portsmouth characters. The Indians had by this era become "copper-colored wretches."

"You can't calculate on the doings of these savages as if they were Christian... being devils incarnate, they will do all the mischief they can," Wood wrote in a melodramatic style. Begged to flee, the widow of President John Cutt stands her ground.

"Run away in the midst of haymaking for a mere idle rumor? That I will not, as sure as my name is Ursula Cutt," she declares.

In this imaginative telling intended for young readers, Ursula scolds her maid and her farm workers for being cowardly. Moments later she falls, shot through the heart. 

What about the cherubs?

Ursula Cutt's house, like her legend, was reshaped and enlarged over the centuries. Each new owner left a mark on the property. Sandra Rux spent months doggedly tracking the history of the house in an effort to discover when and why the two mysterious wooden figures showed up. 

Technically, Rux says, they are not cherubs, but are called "putti"  (pronounced "poo-tee"). These are secular carvings, not religious -- part cupid and part wingless angel -- and usually represented as chubby, semi-naked, male children. As garden statues they signify heaven on earth. They might also represent prosperity, peace, romance, even humor. Since the carvings were not among Ursula Cutt's few possessions, where did they come from?

Sandra Rux has a theory. First, she traced the ownership of the Ursula Cutt farm through its many owners with familiar local names like Wentworth, Warner, Rhymes, Pike, Langdon, and Bartlett. According to Ichabod Bartlett, the two putti were on the house when he bought the property in 1835. And, according to one early Portsmouth guidebook, "it is reasonable to believe that Madam Ursula herself had them placed there."  

No way, says Rux, because Ursula's modest original house was later enlarged by many intervening owners and tenant farmers.

 "The figures were definitely not there when Ursula was killed," she says, but they could still be almost as old. The "putti" style was popular at the beginning of the 18th century. But by the 1760s, prior to the American Revolution, "these guys were out of style," Rux says.

Here the scene shifts to downtown Portsmouth. In 1760 a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Warner married the daughter of Capt. Archibald Macp­head­ris. Their stately brick mansion (built by Macpheadris in 1716) still stands on Daniel Street near the new Memorial Bridge. The Macpheadris-Warner House museum is famous for its carved wooden interior and its ancient murals with painted images including Indians and cherubs.  

Captain Macpheadris was a man of "eccentric style" says Rux, who is also among the Warner House board of governors. At one point he even imported a live lion to the city.

"We can certainly imagine Macpheadris having these guys in his garden," Rux says of the two carved figures.

In 1765 Jonathan Warner purchased the Ursula Cutt Farm, along with other Portsmouth farms stretching to the Newington town line. Warner owned about 700 acres of farmland in all. At the same time, he and his wife Mary renovated the Warner House.  Perhaps, Rux suggests, they simply moved the old out-of-style cherub figures from the downtown Warner House and attached them above the door of the enlarged Cutt house, which they renamed Long Lane Farm.

 It's only a theory, but it all finally makes sense. Sandra Rux has even more myth-busting theories, so stay tuned.     

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local bookstores.

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